AND THE ADVENT CANDLE
By Mary Mullins (Galway, Ireland)
Samhain was an important fire festival celebrated on the eve of the
Celtic New Year (November 1st.) and throughout the day of their New Year.
The solstices and equinoxes were of vital importance to the ancients and
the movement of the sun throughout the year marked the seasons for them.
The importance of the sun, both for living Celts and their dead, was
manifested in such buildings as Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. A structure
of architectural brilliance, Newgrange is the oldest surviving building
in the world and was built as a burial mound circa 3250 BC. (according
to radiocarbon dating.)
What marks it out as special above all others is the way the roofing
stones are set to allow the midsummer’s day sun enter the burial chamber
in the early morning of June 21st. As a pencil thin light stretching to
a full shaft of light, it envelops the whole inner chamber, the heart of
the tomb, for just five minutes or so and then disappears again as the
thin beam of its birth, not to return for another 365 days.
The period known as Samhain coincided with the time of bringing in the
cattle and selection of those for breeding or those for sacrifice. Our
Roman calendar starts the year on January 1st, which is right in the heart
of winter, so it may not seem so strange to hear of the Celtic New Year
as November 1st. A time of seeing the beginning of the "dark season". Days
drawing in, becoming darker, shorter and colder. The ground has yielded
up its fruit and lies in its own dark womb preparing for new life, its
new growth cycle.
All fires were extinguished on Samhain night and relit, with some ceremony
from a sacred flame, by the Druids or "priestly" celebrants. Tradition
had it that the souls of the dead returned to their former homes on this
night and warmed themselves at their own hearths or the fires on the land.
Also roaming the earth were malevolent spirits, which had to be appeased
or expelled. On Samhain night the gates of the "otherworld" were said to
open allowing communion with the ancestors and the elders.
The elders, or those who went before, have always been revered by the
Celts. And they are honoured and remembered in Celtic lands to this day.
It is tradition here in Ireland to set aside the month of November to remember
our dead. Lists of the names of the dead are placed on the altar and included
in Masses and prayers throughout the whole month. Candles are lit in their
memory and prayer requests made for the happy release of their souls from
purgatory to heaven. The pagan feasts of Samhain (Halloween) and Beltane
(May Eve) were seen as beyond the normal and into the realms of the supernatural,
and this pagan element is still "celebrated" as Halloween.
In many parts of the Celtic world, culture and tradition they are so
strong in their belief of the "otherworld" that certain parts of the land
lie undisturbed. Hawthorn bushes and "fairy rings" or "forts" are perfect
examples of superstition or piseogach, whereby farmers will plough around
such mounds but will not remove or disturb them.
The people who brought Christianity to Celtic lands recognised the importance
of special feast days to the Celts and "Christianised" them with feast
days such as All Saints on November 1st and Christmastide in the middle
of the winter season.
Celine McAteer from Newry in County Down tells us the story
of the advent wreath, which appears on our church altars on the first Sunday
of Advent. It dates back to the celebrations of the winter solstice by
the ancient Celts, to that time of year when the sun is at the southernmost
point in the heavens and the ancients longed for its return.
They used their cart wheels as light holders by placing candles amongst
evergreen branches wrapped around the circle of the wheel. The circle of
the wheel symbolised life and its continuity, the candle flame – light
and its life force, and the greenery – nature and its life-giving properties.
The celebrations of the Celtic peoples culminated in "the nativity of the sun" after December 21st – the shortest day and the turning point of the
As Christians, we use the same custom to anticipate the feast
of the coming of "light and life - the Nativity of the Saviour." The wreath
has five candles in it and evergreen as its circular base. The first of
the three purple candles is lit on the first Sunday in Advent and each
of the other two is lit for weeks two and three of Advent. The Sunday before
Christmas the pink one is lit and on Christmas Eve at the vigil Mass the
white one is lit. The purple candles remind us that in our preparation
for Christmas we should do so in a spirit of penance. The pink candle signifies
joy and the white candle, a more recent addition, signifies the birth of
As with the cart wheel, the round ring of the advent wreath represents
eternity – time without end. It also shows us that as time is without end,
so is time for us with God. The evergreen stands for eternal life
- life without end.
Celtic prayers have their roots in nature, the seasons, the elements
and the beauty of the world around us, as shared by a lovely Old Irish
Blessing by an unknown author.
A Celtic Blessing
May the blessing of light be on you, light
without and light within.
Read more of Mary's
Reflections on her website.
May the blessed sunlight shine upon you and
warm your heart till it glows,
Like a great peat fire, so that the stranger
and warm himself at it, as well as the friend.
And may the light shine out of the eyes of
like a candle set in the windows of a house,
Bidding the wanderer to come in out of the
And may the blessing of the rain be on you
- the soft sweet rain.
May it fall upon your spirit so that all the
little flowers may spring up,
And shed their sweetness on the air.
And may the blessing of the great rains be
that they beat upon your spirit and wash it
fair and clean,
and leave there many a shining pool, and sometimes
And may the blessing of the earth be on you
- the great round earth;
May you ever have a kindly greeting for people
you pass as you are going along the roads.
And now may the Lord bless you, and bless