How Did The Celts Celebrate Winter Solstice?

Before Christianity dominated Irish culture and religion, the ancient Irish Celts were Pagans. The Pagan belief system revolved around a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, who had ties to different parts of the world and environments that ancient Irish people experienced daily.

Like much of Europe during ancient times, nature, the weather, and the seasons strongly influenced their religious holidays and traditions. For example, many cultures in the northern hemisphere had Winter Solstice celebrations within days of each other.

Celebrated around the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice is a celebration of the shortest day and longest night of the year.

Still today, many people invite winter solstice celebrations into their lives and homes.

how did the celts celebrate winter solstice

What Are The Celtic Winter Solstice Traditions?

The winter solstice is one of many Pagan solstice celebrations that were extremely common during the time of the ancient Celts. The winter solstice was a celebration of the shortest day and longest night of the year and usually fell on or around the 21st of December.

The appearance of this date in Celtic tradition leads many to believe that Paganism influenced the Christian holiday of Christmas and its Christian traditions.

The word solstice itself means ‘standing still sun’.

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What Is The Celtic Name For Winter Solstice?

There’s very little known for sure about our ancient Irish Celts. This lack of knowledge reaches as far as their traditional celebration names. For example, some believe the Celtic name for the Winter Solstice was ‘Yule’. However, this is a word more closely related to the Old Norse word jõl, which was their solstice festival.

The word Iul, which means wheel, is an Anglo-Saxon word for the solstice and has a similar pronunciation. So, although the name Yule is widely accepted as an alternative name for the winter solstice, it’s unlikely that the ancient Irish Celts used this name.

Especially considering their native language at the time was Old Irish, or known as Old Irish Gaelic or simply Celtic. Their written language at the time was even more primitive. This old Irish alphabet consisted of lines called ogham, and most surviving examples of this language are of names.

Modern Irish uses the word ‘grianstad’ for solstice. This word literally translates to ‘sun stop’ and may be the closest word we have to what our ancestors may have used.

Why Was The Winter Solstice So Important For The Ancient Celts?

The ancient Celts were solely at the mercy of the ever-changing systems. They didn’t have a supermarket on every corner as we do now. Their food needs were met by growing the food they needed and hoping each season brought them the perfect conditions for good food growth.

Because of this, our Irish ancestors worshipped nature, and the gods and goddesses they believed controlled their environment. As a result, the sun, the moon, the earth, and even the oak tree were sources of great religious tradition and festivities.

The winter has always been a ‘hungry season’. But, unfortunately, the weather has never been the best for growing much food thanks to the ever-cold growing climate and the lower levels of light during the day.

However, the winter solstice was the shining light that let the ancient Irish Celts know that the dark days were ending. It was the turning point in the year where the darkest hours began to brighten and the nights would grow shorter.

These days were the most exciting celebrations of the year and are why the solstice was so important to the Celts. It was a celebration of hope.

How Did Celtic Pagans Celebrate Winter Solstice?

The winter festivities were nothing like our modern Christmas celebrations. There was no Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or even Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

It may seem as though the ancient winter solstice festival was simple but to the ancient Irish Celts, it was a magnificent celebration of life, rebirth, and the coming year.

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A Big Feast Day

Winter was a hard season to survive in the ancient world of the neolithic Celts. Yet, even today the poorer communities around the world struggle to make it through the darker months of the year.

So it’s believed that the solstice was celebrated with a big feast. There could have been multiple reasons for this. However, it is strongly believed that as the winter grew harsher the grain stores would dramatically begin to reduce.

So, the ancient Celts would slaughter much of their livestock to save on the little grain they would have left. This mass slaughter would then fuel the feast of the solstice festivities.

The wine, ale, or whatever alcohol brew they had been fermenting over the year would most likely be ready at this time of year. So, the bottles would be broken out for a warming and celebratory drink.

Lighting Bonfires

Large bonfires were lit during the solstice evening during the traditional celebrations. Not only did they add to the atmosphere of the celebrations, but they could also have served an important purpose.

Winter was cold and there was even less heat at night. However, the ancient Celts would stay up all night to watch the winter solstice sunrise and the lit bonfires would have served as the perfect toe warmer as they waited for the darkness to lift and give way to the new day.

Celtic Myth Story Telling

Celtic folklore played a massive part in the festivities of the solstice. The ancient Celts were natural storytellers who shared their songs and stories with their communities. So, it is no surprise that storytelling was also a winter solstice tradition.

Irish Celts had a story surrounding the solstice period. It went like this.

During the winter solstice, there was a great battle between the Oak King (who ruled over the light part of the year) and the Holly King (who ruled over the dark months of the year).

This fight happened every winter, and every winter, the Oak King would reign victorious over the Holly King. Even if it was only a temporary victory, the success of the Oak King against the Holly King in battle would signify the return of the sun.

Watch The Sunrise

The sunrise of the solstice morning was one of the most important parts of the ancient Celts’ celebrations. How do we know this? Well, many of their neolithic monuments are still standing today.

Tombs, such as those in Newgrange, Co. Meath, the Drombeg Stone Circle, Co, Cork, and the Ballynoe Stone Circle, Co. Down, are monuments that were built to align with the solstice sunrise perfectly. The monuments provided our ancient ancestors with a magnificent sunrise experience every year.

Rituals Of The Druids

Long before Christian priests, bishops, and popes, the Pagans had their druid priests. Many of the Christmas traditions we enjoy now were began by the Pagan druids of our ancient Irish Celtic ancestors.

Sprigs of mistletoe and holly were cut by the druids, blessed and given as gifts to protect the people in their community. Ancient Celts also believed that the sun stood still for 12 twelves days during the month of the solstice.

This belief influenced the druids and their Yule log ritual, which we still celebrate to this day. The druidic priests would burn a large oak log over the twelve days that the sun stood still to usher in the power of the sun. The boring log represented life and would have been decorated with other natural items, such as holly, pinecones, and evergreens.

How Is The Winter Solstice Celebrated Today In Ireland?

Celebrating the winter solstice is a tradition that has slowly faded over thousands of years. You may even find many Irish people have very little knowledge of this part of Irish history. It’s just not as important to people as it once was.

However, there are still a few who celebrate the turning of the year and there are some wonderful ways you can mark this hopeful time of year in Ireland.

Visit Newgrange

One of the most popular activities around solstice time is visiting the Newgrange tomb in County Meath. This neolithic monument has been a huge part of solstice festivities for 1000s of years.

However, with the increasing popularity, not everyone gets to experience the rising sun as it illuminates the inside of the tomb. Only those lucky enough to win the ticket lottery, which can be entered at the Newgrange tourism office, get the chance to revel in the warm glowing sunset.

Newgrange isn’t the only neolithic monument that boasts a powerful solstice experience. Many less populated landmarks are just as incredible at this time of year, such as Drumbeg Stone Circle in Cork, Beltany Tops Stone Circle in Donegal, and Knockroe in Kilkenny.

If you have your heart set on experiencing Newgrange’s winter solstice but weren’t lucky enough to get a ticket, this next landmark is the perfect alternative. Less known than its super famous cousins, Slieve Gullion holds a beautiful secret. This hill nestled in the Armagh countryside is home to a 6,000-year-old passage tomb. This place perfectly aligns with the setting solstice sun.

However, there is a catch. The passage tomb of Slieve Gullion is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland. To reach it, you will need a strong set of calf muscles and the determination to complete a pretty impressive hike.

See The Northern Lights

You might not realize it, but the northern counties of Ireland can be the perfect place to see the northern lights without having to fork out on extra flights to places like Iceland.

During December, when the nights are at their darkest, there’s an even bigger chance to see these beautiful lights. You just have to ensure that you are in a less populated area and keep your fingers crossed for a clear night.

Enjoy Festivals

There aren’t many festivals that celebrate the winter solstice. You will find far more festivals celebrating the summer solstice, but the ones still around are a fantastic experience to participate in.

Firstly, there’s the City of Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration, which includes lots of free events you can enjoy and even a parade where the public is encouraged to take part.

There’s also the winter solstice experience. This event takes place in and around Newgrange. Paganism and our ancient Celtic beliefs heavily influence it. So, this event could be the one if you are looking for a more authentic solstice experience.

Celebrate Christmas

Although not technically anything to do with the solstice, the festive season we enjoy these days shares many traditions and similarities with the solstice season the ancient Irish Celts enjoyed.

From the hanging of holly and mistletoe to gift-giving, and spending time with loved ones over a big feast. Much of our modern-day Christmas began with the Celts’ winter celebrations.

What Is The Celtic Winter Solstice Symbol?

There are many different symbols associated with the Winter Solstice but the most popular is the symbol you can find carved on the underground cairn in Newgrange. Called the Newgrange Tri-Spiral, this famous Irish megalithic symbol has retaken its place as the Celtic Winter Solstice symbol after being buried for 1000s of years.

This symbol can be found on the entrance stone to the Newgrange passage tomb and within the chamber itself.

This Celtic symbol may not even be of Celtic origin, with many historians believing that the first carving of this symbol dates back as far as 2,500 years before the Celts arrived in Ireland.

Nonetheless, this symbol has become a well-recognized Celtic symbol and can be found on all manner of items, such as jewelry, pottery and even posters.

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How To Say Happy Winter In Irish

Firstly, in Ireland, we speak English and our native Celtic language of Irish. The term Gaelic actually only refers to Scottish Gaelic. It’s confusing but no one in Ireland called Irish Gaelic. 

So, are you ready to learn some Irish terms to help you sail through the winter solstice festive season?

The Winter Solstice ——–> Grianstad an gheimhridh 

Happy Winter ——–> Gheimhridh sona

Merry Christmas ——–> Nollaig Shona

Natasha Peters

I am a British-born copywriter who moved to Ireland over a decade ago and have been captivated by Irish culture, landscape and folklore. I enjoy sharing my passion for Ireland through my writing as a freelancer.

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