Originally Published December 2000.
Author: Ceilidh Lerwick
Celtic Christianity and Christmas
Author’s Note — Please keep in mind that what is published in this newsletter is correct to the best of my knowledge. I try very hard to be accurate and true and to specify when it is my opinion, and when it isn’t. However, if you should find something that is not correct, please feel free to contact me at [dead 14-year-old link removed].
It is very difficult to separate anything in the ancient world of the Norse. “The Norse?” you may ask “I thought we were talking about Celts?” and I must clarify here that I am using the ancient, very general term which meant Northern people: pretty much any one inhabiting Europe, North Western Asia, Scandinavia and any and all islands connected with said territories.
We get the “Idea” in our modern life that the ancients really kept to their own areas. Someone who was born in ancient Edinburgh would most likely die in ancient Edinburgh and never travel more than 10 miles outside his/her village. The truth is, that was really only true of farmers who were bound to their land to create food and peasants who had no money or no ambition to improve their situation. Even these people did have occasion to travel great distances. Of course, not everyone traveled and you were probably more likely at that time than the present, to find someone who had never left his village. But there was a great deal more traveling than the modern “Joe” is lead to believe.
I interject the above thoughts because it is greatly important to understanding most ancient peoples, including the Celts. For those of you that don’t know, the Celts, at one time, had as big of an “Empire” as Rome spanning pretty much the same territory as well (Turkey to Spain). I use “Empire” loosely because the Celts weren’t very good at organization. Between the Celts raiding, the Romans conquering and the Vikings doing a little of both (not to mention the countless intermarriages) it is often hard to separate one set of peoples and beliefs from another. In fact, at one point the Romans themselves got fed up with trying to figure out who was German and who was Celtic so they just said “Everyone north east of the Rhine is German and everyone south east of the Rhine is Celt”.
With only an oral tradition that was eventually suppressed and lost many of its stories and accurate information, it is also hard to know when anything really happened. So, there is, conflicting information on when the Celts actually began to accept Christianity and who brought the concept to them in the first place. But most scholars seem to agree that Christianity was a powerful influence to the Celts by the 5th Century AD, well into Roman rule.
Now, the Celts are famous for squabbling and the Romans didn’t like squabbles. Once they conquered an area they wanted life to be peaceful and they often made huge concessions to “smooth things over”. And one of the major changes or concessions the Romans made was to set the Christian High Holidays to the dates of already existing pagan festivals. This seemed to make it easier for someone to become a Christian (“it wasn’t much different than what you were already doing”), and to make it look more like what was already going on. That way the locals weren’t overly offended if there was an increasing number of Christians in the area.
It wasn’t just the Celts that the Romans were concerned about when they made these convenient holidays, but remember my opening paragraphs about the lines between different peoples being hazy. Take the Christmas Holiday for example (since it is that time of year). The Celts call it Alban Arthuan, the Scandinavians and Germans call it Yule, but it is pretty much the same festival celebrating the return of the Sun at the Winter Solstice. The actual date of the Christmas celebration seems to have fluctuated a bit for a few years until December 25th was officially adopted by Bishop Liberius of Rome in 354. The ancient, pre-Christian Roman God Mythra, who seems to have some amazing similarities to the Christ Child, was said to have been born on December 25th and that may have had something to do with the final decision.
Yule was celebrated by cutting mistletoe, any man and woman found under the mistletoe would have to kiss (among other things). Holy and Ivy were hung everywhere. In many areas, the Yule Tree was cut, placed inside people’s homes and decorated with colors and lights. The Yule log was placed in the fire to burn about as long as it was able (sometimes all winter). Sound familiar?
Of course, the Romans changed things a bit: the tree now represented The Christ, the only tree to overcome the “death” of winter and Christ being the only person to overcome the death of the flesh; the red of the holly berries representing the Blood of Christ, etc. But otherwise the original Christmases were pretty much the same old same old to the ancient pagans.
Amazingly, with all the fighting and grumbling the Celts did, there doesn’t seem to have been a huge resistance to Christianity. I think the sentiment was said best here, and I quote: “The pre-Christian nature mysticism became almost like the Old Testament of the Celts. The Irish poet Yeats wrote of the ‘great tapestry’ behind Irish history: ‘Nobody looking at its dim folds can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends.’
The gospel was seen as a fulfilling rather than destroying the old Celtic mythologies. An old 6th century bard claimed that the Christ had always been the Celts’ teacher, but they had not known him by name. Somewhat akin to Paul’s address to the Athenians, “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious, for as I was out walking I saw your many altars, and one of them had this description on it – ‘ To the Unknown God.’ You have been worshiping him without knowing who he is, and now I wish to tell you about him.” (Acts 17:16 – 34)” To read more of this essay see [dead 14-year-old link removed].
I know this is supposed to be an historical newsletter; however, much of Celtic history–Celtic life in general-is inseparable from spirituality and mysticism; and frankly, I don’t want this newsletter to turn into a dry doctoral thesis. As I have researched more about Celtic beliefs as well as other topics, I have found myself on an intriguing spiritual journey (I see the spiritualists smiling and the historians cringing). I feel the need to share what I have learned with others and you guys are sitting ducks. Starting this issue, I will be adding a spiritual note to each newsletter (as if you didn’t notice the title of this section). If you do not wish to read any uplifting gobbledygook, you are free to ignore this part. Also, I’ll try not to be so longwinded from now on. I also welcome uplifting comments, should you choose to make them; however, if you have any negative, confrontational or down right mean comments to make, please don’t.
Christmas can be a great time of wonder, friendship, joy and love if you just let it. I have heard the pros and cons, the complaints and positive feedback. “Christmas is just the corporate way to make money.” “Christ was not born on December 25th. This holiday was created by Satan to lead good Christians astray.” “Christmas isn’t about Christ any more, it’s about a fake guy who lives at the North Pole who gives greedy little kids presents.”
Does it really matter when we celebrate the birth of Christ? And for those of you who say we shouldn’t celebrate it at all, I have to ask you: what things bring you joy? Do you have joy in your life? The feeling of Joy is a celebration! And why should we not celebrate the birth of the man who came to save us all? Do we not celebrate when our own children are born? I am not speaking of balloons and cake. I am speaking of Joy, and love and thankfulness. Those things are at the root of all great celebrations. Do we not feel elation at wondrous times in our life? And is that not a celebration? Then why should we not celebrate the birth of The Christ Child?
And so it comes at the Winter Solstice instead of March or April or May. I do not care when people celebrate when I was born, as long as they are happy that I was. An if one chooses to feel joy for my birth in July, go right ahead. I will celebrate right along with you!
As for Santa, let me tell you. When my daughter was born, we thought, “We don’t want to do Santa. Maybe its wrong to let anyone else have a part in Christ’s holiday”. I’ve been wavering, and we’ve done a halfhearted Santa thing on Christmas morning. But this year I officially changed my mind. My son, almost 2, is completely in love with Santa. My daughter (almost 4) is excited for Santa to come on Christmas (by the way, she knows the story of St. Nicholas and that Mommy & Daddy pretend to be Santa.). I saw my children when they stood in line to see Santa at the Church Christmas party and that was the clincher. I saw not only my children, but everyone else’s children. And I saw the man who was Santa this year. And I saw sheer Joy. Only happiness on the faces of those children, and only happiness on the face of Santa. Immediately I recalled the saying “All good things come from God.” This was a good thing! This only brought joy and happiness!
Let’s talk commercialism. Granted, stores count on Christmas sales so, yes, they want you to buy their stuff. I’m a merchant. I want you to buy my stuff. And I will advertise the best way I know how to get you to see my stuff. And I will try to get things in stock that I think you will buy. But personally, I’m not a hard core salesman and I’m not out to trick or cajole you into buying from me.
That having been said, I will say this, although, many of you won’t believe it. The best thing about Christmas for me is giving the gifts. Christmas is about giving, not getting. I love finding just the right gift for someone and watching their eyes light up when they open the package. That usually means careful research to find out just what each person wants. I don’t care if I get nothing this year as long as I get to see their faces. And you know what, that means I have to buy gifts. Those same gifts the stores are trying to sell me. But someone has to sell it to me, you see. Otherwise I could not give it.
If you are buying gifts out of a sense of obligation, then I believe I understand your complaint. But Christmas isn’t about getting gifts or even about giving the biggest or most expensive gifts. It’s about giving of yourself to give Joy to other people. That is what the myth of Santa Claus is all about and that is definitely what the Birth of Christ was all about.
So I leave with you this message. Don’t get lost in the negative message about Christmas, or you’ll miss the really great part! Christmas is about love and Joy and Peace. It is about giving love and receiving love. God is Love.
[Originally Published Dec 27, 2000]