Long before the Christians walked the Isle of Eire, there were those who celebrated the passing of the seasons: Winter, spring, summer, fall
While the Solstices were not as important to the ancient Irish as the major fire festivals; Lughnasadh (August 1); Beltane (May Day, May 1); Imbolc (February 1- Bridgit); and Samhain (November 1, Halloween), they were none the less celebrated. Of the Solstices and Equinoxes, the Winter Solstice was the most important, since it marked the rebirth of the sun after the shortest day. Many cultures celebrated this time to commemorate the birth of various gods. The Winter Solstice falls between two major fire festivals Samhain (sow-an) or Halloween and Imbolc.
Samhain passes and Peith, the next to last month of the year, is devoted to necessary repair of house, outbuildings and fences. Roofs are newly rethatched. Cattle are herded closer in to the palisade of the tuatha for easier care and protection during the harsh winter coming. Animals are butchered, the flesh salted or dried to provide the winters meat. Harvested grains, dried fruit, vegetables are tightly stored.
As the Peith gives way to Ruis (the final month of the year) outside chores are finished, attention is shifted to the interior, especially the houses. The family is brought tightly together, except for those members who have wandered for fame and fortune. All is cleaned and refurbished; furnishings, cooking utensils, even the hearth and chimney are scoured and repaired as needed. Then as Nollaíg draws near, the cooking begins and the final decorating is begun.
Yule is that winter's eve when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. Starting the next morning at sunrise, the sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day. Known as Solstice Night, or the longest night of the year, the sun's "rebirth" was celebrated with much joy. On this night, our ancestors celebrated the rebirth of the Oak King, the Sun King, the Giver of Life that warmed the frozen Earth. From this day forward, the days would become longer.
Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were "wassailed" with toasts of spiced cider. Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun. The boughs were symbolic of immortality (evergreens were sacred to the Celts because they did not "die" thereby representing the eternal aspect of the Divine). The wheat stalks portrayed the harvest, and the flour was accomplishment of triumph, light, and life. Holly and ivy not only decorated the outside, but also the inside of homes, in hopes Nature Sprites would come and join the celebration.
In ancient times, the Druids held a special ceremony five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice, in which they cut the boughs of the Mistletoe from the sacred Oak tree with a golden sickle. It was important that branches did not touch the ground and become contaminated. Then the priests divided up the boughs into sprigs and distributed them among the people who believed the Mistletoe protected them from storms and evil spirits.
The Mistletoe is a sacred plant in the religion of the Druids. It was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, giving fertility to humans and animals, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting, and keep a truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all comers
Oíche Nollaíg, the day (literally night) before, preparations come to an end. Now all is near ready. Groaning tables are laden with the feast which will last for days. Puncheons of Mead and Ale are tapped. Bright decorations add their cheery note. The beacon fire is lit at sunset to call the scattered ones and light the way of that last missing family member. Now the celebration of survival of one year and the anticipation of the next begins. Feasting, accompanied by music, dancing and storytelling last into the night.
In those ancient times, festivals generally were celebrated over a five-day period. During such time, days were likely more devoted to out-of-door activities including physical activities including racing, and games of skill and strength. Night was more conducive to the less robust, but equally enjoyed music, singing, dancing and story-telling. Whatever the time, the mounds of food and puncheons were always inviting.
The Druids began the tradition of the yule log. It was either harvested from one's own lands or given as a gift. Once it was dragged into the home, it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set afire with a piece from the last year's log, which had been kept in a special spot. The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out. It was thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year. Ash is the traditional wood of the Yule log.
Decorating the Yule tree was also originally a Pagan custom; brightly colored decorations would be hung on the tree, usually an evergreen, to symbolize the various stellar objects,the sun, moon, and stars, which were of importance. These decorations also represented the souls of those who had died in the previous year. The modern practice of giving gifts evolved from the Pagan tradition of hanging gifts on the Yule tree as offerings to the various Pagan Gods and Goddesses.