Being Pagan in Ireland is a little different, I think, than being Pagan anywhere else.
We’re an odd lot, and we value individual strength, as long as it doesn’t upset the apple cart of family/community tradition, or give the neighbours anything bad to talk about.
I’m a… well, I don’t actually have a label that fits what I am or what I do, and that’s fairly reflective of Irish Paganism generally.
I’m an Irish heritage professional, a journalist, copywriter, a guide, an author – all things I’ve done or still do for my ‘day job’.
Personally, the term Draoi is the closest accurate description I’ve got, a ‘user of magic’.
Traditionally I might have been called a Bean Feasa (wise woman), but it seems a little arrogant to take that on for oneself. Before that, perhaps a Druid, though modern Druidry is very different to what that word means to me.
I am spiritual, but not religious, and I have a solid working relationship with the Gods, Guides and Guardians of old Ireland, and our sacred places.
How does all that translate into today’s Irish Christmas?
Most folk here go to mass on the eve or day, even if it’s only their token attendance of the year.
Besides the fact of the Catholic Church in Ireland essentially stopping anybody from leaving their organisation (is it just me, or is that a little cult-like? Illegal, even?) – Irish people are still stuck in ‘the done thing’, so babies are baptised, kids make communion and confirmation, and most people still get married in the church.
Many of us know that Winter Solstice is a much older tradition than our modern Christmas.
There’s the world famous Newgrange alignment, and the new but old City of Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration, with much more going on around the country, publicly and formalised just in the last few years.
Before that, you’d have to know someone who knows someone to get a personal invite to a genuine celebration rooted in Irish Spirituality.
So, raising kids in Ireland, interacting with non-Pagan friends and family, working, and all that jazz, you kinda have to do the Christmas thing, to some extent at least. But Winter Solstice is still a big deal, and getting more so.
How do we Irish Pagans handle that?
We have a party.
Every year, on the Saturday before Christmas. We invite everybody we know. We start late afternoon, and carries on til the wee small hours.
This is the time of year we acknowledge the deepest and longest darkness, and make a point of balancing it with the lights of food and fire and feasting, family and friends.
And every year, I take a personal vigil through the longest night, to greet the sun the following morning. It’s a mark of respect, a point of sacrifice, and a time for quiet reflection on the balance of dark and light in my life, in my spirit. Time to adjust as necessary.
Do I think the sun won’t rise unless I am there to greet it? No, not as such… but I guess it doesn’t hurt to be sure, right?
You’re welcome ;o)
Have a Cool Yule folks, a Peaceful and Blessed Winter Solstice, and a Happy Christmas – wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you believe in.
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The Longest Night.
A woman sits by her fire, wrapped in a blanket to keep out the chill, watching the flames in the quiet of a room.
Her house is silent around her, family sleeping as she waits. Lights burn through the darkest hours.
When the deep blackness begins to lessen, she makes her way outside, searching the horizon.
A shaft of light appears, a bright lance across the land – winter is broken… Summer will return.
She smiles, then returns inside, sticks on the kettle and hops in the shower, before driving herself to work.
What? Did you think we were looking at a scene from long ago? Perhaps, but come the 21st of December, this ancient ritual will be repeated in houses all over Ireland. Meán Geimhridh, Midwinter, brings a vigil through the darkness, waiting for the new-born sun.
Irish people have been marking the return of the sun for at least 5,000 years. We have built vast and complex monuments around it, and not just Newgrange. You don’t even have to be a politician or lucky in the Winter Solstice lottery to see these wonders of a by-gone age.
Knockroe Passage tomb in Co. Kilkenny, which has been called ‘the Newgrange of the Southeast’, is a fine example, which contains extensive megalithic art, and not one, but two, chambers with astrological alignments; showing light through the chambers at both sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice. Or take a look at Drombeg Circle in Co. Cork, a beautiful ring of standing stones which frames a flat topped rock, aligning to the horizon where the sun sets on the Longest Night.
Many traditions, now associated with Christmas and the holiday season, have their origins in the pre-Christian past. We are lucky now to have such a beautiful blend of customs, fitted exactly to the Irish psyche and community spirit.
In bringing the evergreen tree inside, we remind ourselves of life within the seeming death of winter, of sustenance and growth that continues through the darkest times. Plants such as holly and ivy compliment this theme, and not forgetting mistletoe, which was especially sacred to our Druidic ancestors as a fertility symbol. Be careful who you kiss under the mistletoe at this year’s parties!
Decorating the tree with candles, and reflective items such as mirrors and silver coins, in the past stood for an amplification of the natural energies of the living greenery; bringing more light and life to the darkness, throwing it around the room. Today we use dodgy flickering fairy lights, glitter and tinsel, but the principle is the same. And safer, for the inevitable puppy or toddler tree attacks.
Green is the colour of life, and health, but so too is red – the bright blood of life that flows through our veins, keeping our hearts beating and our senses alive. Before a certain drinks company decided it’d look great on the jolly fat guy with the beard, the colour red was valued as a decoration and a reminder of life throughout our homes for the Winter Solstice season.
Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, was continued until recent times on Stephen’s Day, with troupes of kids (known as wrenboys) going round the village or town with a fake bird on a decorated stick, singing or dancing and asking ‘a penny for the wren’. A little further back, we see a more grizzly form of this, in the hunting and capture of a live bird, which was then used to decorate the pole and held pride of place as a centrepiece for the dance that followed.
In a time of sickness and death for the weak, this may be an echo of an older sacrifice to the Gods of Winter; take one life and spare the others through the darkness until the coming of Spring. Or with the ‘winter-wren’ being a symbol of the old year, maybe the people simply wanted to make sure that it was well and truly done with.
The singing and dancing part of that tradition is pleasant, at least, and brings us to another Winter Solstice favourite, the feasting and the parties. This is one that most of us keep up, to one degree or another, and having a good party to look forward to can get us through the darkest, coldest mornings.
Winter is the time we naturally draw in on ourselves, it can be the loneliest, harshest time of year. It’s not just the cold that brings us down, it’s the lack of light, and company. In days gone by there was a serious food scarcity through the dark winter days too – but a bright feast, filled with family and friends, was the perfect reminder that the time of dark death still held strong seeds of light and life.
So, enjoy your parties!