Celtic Women International


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 year.

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 the Saviour.

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.
May the blessed sunlight shine upon you and warm your heart till it glows,
Like a great peat fire, so that the stranger may come
and warm himself at it, as well as the friend.
And may the light shine out of the eyes of you,
like a candle set in the windows of a house,
Bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.
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 on you,
that they beat upon your spirit and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there many a shining pool, and sometimes a star.
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 you kindly.

Read more of Mary's Reflections on her website.
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Last modified: November 12, 2004