Christmas Traditions: December 25 – Winter Solstice

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back in November when we launched the anthology Tangled Lights and Silent Nights, we had a Facebook Party. For my hour, I shared a bunch of short posts about historical Christmas traditions. So for the next 12 days as we count down toward Christmas, I’d like to share one with you each day.  A few are repeats of really old posts I’ve done here, but most of you weren’t around for the originals, so they will be new to you. Hope you enjoy!


Did you know Jesus isn’t the only deity believed to be born on December 25? In fact, that date (or close to it) has been considered sacred for millennia.

The Winter Solstice (December 21-23 depending on the year) marks the longest night of the year.  In the Celtic world (and in some modern neo-paganism today), Yule marks the rebirth of the god who died at Samhain (October 31) on the Celtic calendar. This child of light (Lugh, Mabon or various other gods) is symbolized by the sun, which will continue to gain strength until the Summer Solstice. In some versions of Celtic mythology, the young god is kidnapped or stolen away in precarious circumstances, much like the Christian story of the flight into Egypt and the Arthurian tale of Arthur’s fostering by Sir Ector at Merlin’s command. Many sites associated with the Druids, such as Newgrange and Stonehenge, are aligned to the Winter Solstice sunrise or sunset.

Have you ever celebrated the Solstice?

I do every year. I use it as an extension of Christmas and meditate on both the cold and dormancy of the winter (and how we should use it as a fallow time as well) and on the divine child and the miracle of his conception and birth.

Why I Wouldn’t Survive a Celtic Winter

Recreated Celtic Village, Museum of Welsh Life. The open fire within the circular hut gives the thatched roof a "steaming" effect. Three round wattle-and-daub huts are surrounded by a ditch and wooden palisade. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Recreated Celtic Village, Museum of Welsh Life. The open fire within the circular hut gives the thatched roof a “steaming” effect. Three round wattle-and-daub huts are surrounded by a ditch and wooden palisade. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I would never survive a Celtic winter, or quite frankly, a winter in any other time period. I know this because of a series of recent events that temporarily suspended some of the modern conveniences I’ve realized I can’t live without.

Some of you may have heard that the Midwest has been experiencing unusually cold temperatures. That’s where this whole story starts. As I write this, we’re in our fourth round of sub-zero wind chill temperatures in as many weeks, which is not normal for us. In the first round, thanks to a frozen (but not burst, thank God) water pipe, I discovered that there was a hole in my wall where the previous owner left an old dryer vent completely open to the outside.

As I stuffed it with rags and waited for my dad to be able to remove it and patch the wall (I am not a handy person), I started wondering how anyone in the past survived such brutal cold with only a smoky fire and layers and layers of wool and fur for warmth. What must the Celtic roundhouses have been like if there was a hole in the thatch? How air tight were they anyway? Or what about the soldiers who had to stand guard on walls in gusty winds like the ones currently shaking my house? They must have been made of stronger stuff than I.

If the hole wasn’t enough, a few days later I fell asleep in the bathtub, only to wake up to wet hair, cooled water and no hot water to rinse off with. As I stood shaking in my cold bathroom, trying to suds myself up with lukewarm water, I gained a whole new appreciation for winter bathing. And I’m willing to bet my 69 degree bathroom was warmer than most of the rooms were the Celts cleaned themselves. In spite of my research, I had held on to a fantasy that boiling water to bathe in and drying hair by the fire would be enough. Perhaps some did bathe this way, but I now understand why winter was not the time for immersing oneself for a full bath.

And then there was the fast. I did a 10 day detox where I couldn’t have dairy, wheat, sugar, caffeine or alcohol. I was okay with most of it, but the lack of dairy about killed me. (I love cheese and milk.) That got me thinking that Celtic winters must have been very boring times to eat, since from the time of the slaughter in October through the beginning of February, when the ewes started to give birth, there would have been no milk or butter. (This is why the feast of Candlemas/Imbolc was agriculturally important.) Maybe there was some old or aging cheese. There would have been few fruits and vegetables – maybe some turnips or other root veggies, some wizened apples and whatever was preserved. On the other side, fresh meat would have become more and more rare as winter wore on, leaving preserved meat (ugh, jerky) and salt fish as the options. As long as grain stores held out, there would have been bread and maybe porridge in good supply, but that hardly qualifies as a tasty meal.

And then I had company last week. I slept on a sofa bed so my guest could sleep in my bed. I ended up having to put an extra cushion on top so that I could sleep. It made me wonder how people slept on the cold, hard ground, or on straw pallets for most of history. I really am the princess with the pea.

Couple all of this with long swaths of time stuck indoors with bored men aching for action that winter didn’t allow and I’m willing to bet a Celtic hall wasn’t that much fun. For most of the population, the animals not culled for the winter lived in the same rooms with the people. Even in noble household with separate buildings for animals, the hunting dogs (and perhaps a barnyard cat or two) would have vied for warmth in front of the fire with the humans. Long, dark nights, dreary days lit only by a central fire, rush light or tallow candles (a fortunate few would have had beeswax), smoke, unwashed bodies, drafts, poor nutrition, restlessness and soiled rushes do not paint a fun image of winter.

Because of my area of study, I place this in the Celtic world, but really, it was true for most of history. I know it’s completely different taking away a few conveniences from a modern girl than growing up without them, but I have a whole new respect for my ancestors now. How any of them survived to produce a fading little flower like me, I’ll never know. All I do know is they would be ashamed of what I consider hardship (#firstworldproblems).

Today, I’m counting my blessings a little closer and joining the people of old in wishing for spring to come quickly.

What about you? How would you have fared in a Celtic winter? How do you think they would have lived?