In ancient Britain the Druids used to
celebrate the winter solstice by keeping the Festival of Nolagh. They
observed this season in their great ringed temples at Stonehenge and
Avebury. Many of our Christmas customs such as the Yule log, and the use
of mistletoe and holly originated there. One tree that was especially
sacred to the Druids was the mighty oak. The Druids believed that whenever
an oak was struck by lightning, it was really one of the gods coming down
to earth. And so during their winter festivals, they decorated oak trees
with apples and burning candles as a way of offering thanks to the gods
who gave them sunlight and food.
Another important symbol for the Druids
was the Yule log. in a special rite, they blessed, then lit the Yule log
by using magic crystals and sunlight. It was kept burning for the entire
Festival of Nolagh and afterwards a brand from the old log was saved to
rekindle the fire for the new one the following year.
During the winter solstice, they killed a
boar and offered its head to the goddess Freya, as a gift. The custom of
the boar’s head procession continued into Medieval times and even
survives today at some English universities. Wren hunting after Christmas,
which still takes place in some parts of Ireland and Wales, began with the
Druids, who hunted them for use in telling the future. The song of the
wren was used in prophecy and its feathers were used in magic
Among plants that were sacred to the
Druids were mistletoe and holly. Mistletoe it seff is a parasitic plant
which is found high in the branches of certain oak trees. To harvest it,
the Arch Druid had to reach up and remove it with a golden sickle, careful
to make sure that it didn’t touch the ground and lose its magic
properties. They believed that the plant could cure illness, produce
fertility and help to make peace with one’s enemies. A kiss beneath the
mistletoe symbolized the end of grievances.
The holly plant was believed to have
special magical powers to ward off witches and other evil spirits. The
druids usually wore a sprig of holly on their robes for protection. We see
this same image today with Santa Claus wearing a sprig of holly in his
The mid-winter festival of Nolagh
continued until the end of the sixth century A.D. At that time St.
Augustine arrived in England and began converting the people to
Christianity. Rather than stamping out the many pagan customs, the Church
simply took many of them over, adapting them and applying new meanings.
They were ultimately successful in regrouping the customs of the Nolagh
Festival around the Mass of Christ, which in England was called “Christes
Masses”, the mass or church festival of Christmas.
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