Traditionally, the Celts did not celebrate the winter or summer solstices. Their religion focused on the central days of each season, which were Imbolc on 1st February in winter, Beltane on 1st May in spring, Lughnasa on 1st August in summer, and Samhain on 1st November in autumn. Earlier cultures had centred their celebrations on the solstices, as evidenced by pre-Celtic standing stones and monuments built around the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstices. Influenced by these cultures, the Celts gradually adopted feasts around Midsummer and Midwinter in addition to their sacred four days. With the advent of Christianity, the winter solstice rose in importance as it marked the season of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christian church adapted many of the pre-existing winter solstice festivals as a way of making it easier for their converts to accept, and to unite elements of the old faith with the new.
Celtic countries created their own winter solstice festivals in tandem with that of the Christian Christmas. In Scotland and Ireland, the winter soltice festival is called “Nollaig”, allegedly from the Latin “natalis” meaning “birth”, or “Nollaig Shona” meaning “Little Christmas”. This festival is a midwinter celebration that sometimes takes place at Christmas or at times on New Year’s Day. Some regions celebrated the entire week between Christmas and New Year as Nollaig. Scottish traditions at Nollaig include keeping the household fires burning all night long on Christmas Eve to ward off evil spirits, bringing in a Yule log cut from a birch or rowan tree to burn on Christmas Eve night, and placing a lighted candle in the window to guide travellers to warmth and safety. A Nollaig tradition would be for children to go from house to house reciting nonsense rhymes about Celtic heroic figures and be rewarded by the inhabitants with food and drink – a bit like trick or treating! This would last until Hogmanay (as New Year’s Eve is known in Scotland) or New Year’s Day.
However you celebrate at this time of year, Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ùr (“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” in Scottish Gaelic). See you in 2022!