The Holly Bears a Berry: On the Celtic Spirit at Christmas




     Midwinter night.

     Clear, high air. Stillness and distant sounds echoing around our valley like tin. 

     Crescent moon shines and a chill catches the gaps in my winter clothes, tapping at me like the spindly finger of Jack Frost himself.

     I pass the warm glow from houses in our street. Everyone is hunkered down, tucked in, quiet and waiting.  It is now, when the angelic voices from the choirs rise from the radio, and when nights are long and the hills are quiet, it is now that I cannot imagine Midwinter without Christ.

     Christ who we are waiting for; Christ the bringer of light, salvation and good; pure good.

     The house-lights on the hills twinkle as I reflect on this, walking home from a meal with friends. All that I feel on this evening of companionship and good cheer is potent fayre for tuning in to the Celtic spirit this Christmas, and for helping me reflect on what the Celtic Christian tradition has brought to us.  What rites—ancient or otherwise—has it adopted and developed, and what most of all does the tradition hold dear in our human experience of this holy season?

     My first awareness of this season was as a child, watching a popular children’s show on the BBC. The Children of Green Knowe is a fantasy tale, rooted in real tradition – both pagan and Christian.  Based on a series of novels by Lucy M. Boston, it captures very vividly the strong sense of the divine all around us as the nights reach their longest in the year at Midwinter Solstice on 21st or 22nd December.

     We join a little boy, Tolly as he explores a magical garden at Christmastime. The Green Man and the spirits of his ancestors are very real for him out there in the garden, but it is a living statue of Saint Christopher who saves him from a watery fate in the floods of Cambridgeshire. 

     The winter that I watched this, I was nine years old. The show’s theme, “The First Nowell”, lodged in my mind, creating a forever-feeling and image: that tune mingled with the lights of the Christmas tree and the waft of cold air as our large oak door opened to each member of the family arriving home.  Now, as a grown woman with a family of my own, my Christmas party piece is to play “The First Nowell” on violin as we sit down to our Christmas Eve meal.

     Over the years, I have realised that legend and traditional tales are important to me as an expression of the human experience of a season or place. Hence, born of the craggy mountains of Wales are the dramatic dragon legends of Britain.  From the desolate and imposing Dartmoor, comes more tales of the devil incarnate than any other place. In my native Gloucestershire, the dense canopy of the Forest of Dean is the backdrop to a lifesaving manservant who appears with water if disorientated hunters stand on top of an ancient barrow in a forest clearing. 

     So, Winter—what tales does winter bring?  A legend about waiting…waiting, and receiving…joy and promise in the desolate cold. Some threads of historical research and theology date Christ’s birth to around May time, and many academics, archaeologists, and early historians agree that the Christian festival of Christmas was mindfully added to the midwinter celebrations of the pagan Western cultures, and in Britain, to the beliefs of the early Celts.  Christ brings a gift at the turning of the year—the gift of eternal life and a light for the path of the year to come.

    St Nicholas, that celebrated other bringer of gifts, was a Christ-centred 4th Century Bishop of the city now known as Demre in Turkey.  A great humanitarian, he was a patron saint of children and sailors, working tirelessly to help others.  From the 12th Century onwards, gifts for the poor were given on his feast day of December 6th, and this tradition of alms continued until the strong, iconic figure of St Nicholas was adapted in American press and magazines to become the more familiar Santa Claus. As with many legends, it is not so much the detail which speaks of the world it is played out in, but the theme it brings to the season.  In winter, children now look to the frozen skies for warmth, love, and cheer from the jolly old “elf” (as he was once depicted in American folklore).

     To me, Christmas in Britain (my cultural awareness does not extend to the rich seams of Irish lore in its entirety) has been ‘fermented’ in centuries of folklore, tradition and custom, either designed to celebrate the barefaced nakedness of winter, or to drive it away from us. Both the pagan and early Christian Celts were nothing if they were not elemental beings…taking glory in the atmosphere of the season, as well as living a vivid life in which they swam in its challenges and beauties.  They hunted and they grew, they foraged, they were smithies and miners, and Iron Age ‘Celts’ were warriors and bards, as yet unreceiving of the peaceful instruction of the Word of God. 

      Archaeological deposits at Iron Age settlements in Britain have revealed artefacts in springs and at liminal places. These items have been interpreted as offerings—impractical or unused axes, figures, or metal works—added to an auspicious place seemingly to appease its very spirit. The British Iron Age people are latterly referred to as ‘Celts’, as they shared some cultural similarities with the population groupings of the ‘Keltoi’ – the Greek name for the populations of much of northern Europe from 800 AD. 

     The Celts lived and breathed and worked with nature out of necessity, and their ways and memories were passed on in a largely oral tradition, right down to the recognised archetypes and stories of the modern Celtic lands today – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Kernow (Cornwall) and Brittany. The Christian festival as interpreted by Celtic culture would see the coming of Christ through this lens of spacial, elemental and even universal awareness.  The Celtic view allows Christianity to arrive not just as an abstract story, but as a tale reflected in a million beautiful truths all around us in nature.  The Wheel of the Year already carries with it the good message of Christ and the Resurrection, and indeed the Druidic festival of Alban Arthan celebrates exactly this turning. The ancient Holly and Yew, already keepers of passage into otherworldly realms, become the blood and bone of the one true Christ, hardy and resistant to the winter’s worst:

The holly bears a blossom

As white as lily flower

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To be our sweet saviour

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir.

The holly bears a berry

As red as any blood

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To do poor sinners good O

the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir.


(Words of this version attributed to Cecil Sharp.)

    These traditions and meditations on nature may relive once again, whilst bringing understanding and groundedness to the season, a time when we punish ourselves with expectations of perfect hospitality and contrived happiness in the home. Maybe the more Celtic philosophy of ‘messy’ hospitality could be adopted instead, or shared experience could be focussed on sharing oral traditions, on the hearth, on song, and on communal prayer as we enter Advent and Christmas with thought and feeling.  If you are lucky enough to have an intimate congregation at your church, then you may well already feel that your time together drives out the sense of longing we are left with through consumerism and secularism. 

    Yet I, and others I know, still harbour some potent longings to embrace nature at this time of year.  We long to run with the deer through the frosty night, or to gather with friends and stamp out the darkness with the beat of a drum. Maybe these are the expressions of the season and the coming Christ which we have supressed in the ways we have interpreted Christianity in the more recent past.  Maybe now—in this time of great need for passion and faith—is the time to welcome these longings home.

    There are huge, gaping holes in society today. We are isolated and detached from nature.  We glance at it from our comfortable homes, or as we dash to the car.  We drive for miles to engage in activities which may or may not work as a means of bringing us a sense of belonging.  I have caught myself in the past thinking, “Maybe I will feel like I belong more if I join a choir/ join a running group/ learn an instrument…” While these are all noble pastimes in and of themselves, what I really seek is true interconnectedness with our neighbours, born of a sense that they are experiencing exactly what we are as they nourish and carve out a living from the land. 

     I do have a tradition which I embrace each year with a like-minded friend. No matter what else we have going on the weekend before Christmas, we head out to choose a yule log from the ancient woodland behind our village.  The woods are literally hundreds of years old, if not thousands – their story well documented by a local historian, and evidence of their use as a crop go back to the Romano-British period.  

    The folklorist, Steve Roud, cites an account from 1886 in which a man recalls his boyhood Christmases when his father would burn a small part of last year’s yule log. The log would welcome continued good fortune and health for the house and the family.

     On walking into the realm of the woods where so many have gone before, my friend and I talk the talk of two people who are doing their best to remain connected to God, expectant of Christ at Advent, and mindful in the way we run our lives. Yet we stride out fiercely into the ancient forest, purposeful and excited to be embracing nature and all her Divine expression.   At Midwinter, when we open our hearts to Jesus, allow Him into our lives through love and the simple act of marking the year’s turn, it is a Celtic spirit which I nourish and the Celtic verses which I explore.  I invite you to yield to their soft, ancient calling, and to the hospitality of their message of the Divine in All Things. 

God to enfold me, God to surround me, God in my speaking, God in my thinking.

God in my sleeping, God in my waking, God in my watching, God in my hoping.

God in my life, God in my lips, God in my soul, God in my heart.

God in my sufficing, God in my slumber, God in mine ever-living soul, God in mine eternity.

(Ancient Celtic oral traditions – Carmina gadelica)

By Elizabeth Roper