YULE, BELTANE, & HALLOWEEN FESTIVALS:
Survivals of Ancient Sun and Fire Worship,
HISTORY and prehistoric investigations have shown quite clearly that prehistoric man worshipped the Sun, the giver and vivifier of all life, as the supreme God. To the sun they offered sacrifices, and at stated periods celebrated festivals in his honour; and at these festivals bread and wine and meat were partaken of, with observances very similar in many respects to the practices of the Jews during their religious feasts. But although the sun was the supreme deity, other objects were also worshipped as subordinate deities. These objects, however, were generally in some manner representative of sun attributes ; for example, the Moon was worshipped as the spouse of the Sun, Venus as his page. The Pleiades and other constellations, and single stars were also deified; the rainbow and the lightning were sun servants, the elements, the sun's offspring. Many animals and trees were reverenced as representatives of sun attributes. Above all, fire was worshipped as the truest symbol of the sun upon earth, and all offerings and sacrifices in honour of the sun were presented through fire; thus sun and fire worship became identified.
In Britain sun-worship appears to have been purer in prehistoric than it afterwards was in historic times, purer also than the sun-cult of historic Egypt, Greece, or Rome; that is, there appears to have been in British sun worship less of polytheism than prevailed in Egypt, Greece, or Rome. But during the historic period, the numerous invasions and the colonizations of different portions of this country by the Romans and other nations, who brought with them their special religious beliefs and formula of worship, caused the increase of polytheism by the commingling of the foreign and native elements of belief, and later on, these were mixed with Christianity, and in these mixings all the elements became modified, so that now it is very difficult to separate with certainty the aboriginal, invasional, and Christian elements.
From many indications it seems more than probable that the sun-cult in prehistoric Britain was very similar, even in many minor points, to the solar worship of the ancient Peruvians. At the same time, there is not the slightest probability that these two widely separated sun-cults ever had a common point of historical connection, nor, in order to explain their similarities, is such an historical explanation necessary. Quite sufficient is the explanation that both possessed in common a human nature, emotional and intellectual, moving on the same plane of childlike intelligence, and that both from this common standpoint had regard to the same striking and regularly recurring scenes of natural phenomena. Prescott thus describes the worship of these ancient Peruvians:—"The Sun was their primary God; to it was built a vast temple in the capital, more radiant with gold than that of Solomon's; and every city had a
temple dedicated to the sun, and blasphemy against the sun was punished with death. The principal festivals of the year were at the equinoxes and solstices. That at midsummer was the grandest. It was preceded by a three days' fast; then every one who had time and money visited the city. Great fires were kindled from the sun's rays or by friction, from which sacred fires people kindled their hearth; "all household fires having previously been extinguished. Poor countries and districts, where the arts were in a backward condition, instead of having temples like the Peruvians, dedicated mountains and stone circles to the great luminary.
It is the all but universal opinion that in this country, centuries before the Christian era, the religion of the people was Druidism; but this is merely the name of a system, and is equivalent to our saying that the present religion of our country is Presbyterianism, a statement which conveys no idea of the nature of our religious worship. The Druids were a priestly order who governed the country, and directed the worship of the people, the principal objects of worship being, as we have already said, the sun and fire. "The Druids," says the late Rev. James Rust," formed an ecclesiastico-political association, and professed to explain the deep mysteries respecting God and man, and were the sacerdotal rulers, and called in consequence Druids or mystery-keepers. They were not allowed to commit anything to writing respecting their mysteries, and no one was allowed to enter their order till after a prolonged probation, terminating in swearing most solemnly to keep their mysteries secret for ever; and by this means they obtained great power and influence over all classes of the people."
Concerning the name Druid, the writer in the Encyclopedia Metropolitana says, "The name Druid is derived from deru, an oak." The Druids were an order of priests; they were divided into three classes, resembling the Persian magi. The first class were the Druids proper; they were the highest nobility, to whom was entrusted all religious rites and education. The second class were the bards; they were principally employed in public instruction, which was given in verse. The third class was called Euvates; whose office it was to deliver the responses of the oracles, and to attend the people who consulted them. The knowledge of astronomy and computation of time possessed by the Druids was of a high order, and, no doubt, was the form of worship imported from Chaldea.
It is known that the Phoenicians had colonized Britain at least 1000 years B.C., and doubtless they would bring
with them their form of worship, their gods being the sun, the moon, and fire. We may here find a very early
source for the institution of sun-worship in these islands, if we can believe that such a very partial colonization as
was effected by the Phoenicians could work a religious similarity throughout the entire island. I think it probable that sun-worship existed before the Phoenicians came to the island, but they may have elevated its practice. Following the writer in the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, we are told that in addition to their worship of the sun, the Druids "held sacred the spirits of their ancestors, paid great honour to mountains, lakes, and groves. Groves of oak were their temples, and their places of worship were open to heaven, such as stone circles. They had also a ceremony of baptism.
dipping in the sacred lake, as an initiatory rite, and had also a sacrament of bread and wine. They paid great reverence to the egg of the serpent, the seed of the oak, and above all, the mistletoe that grew upon the oak; and they offered in sacrifice to the sun and fire, men and animals."
Many of the localities where their worship was observed in this country can still be identified through the names which these places still bear. One or two are here given, because they refer to sun-worship:—
Grenach (in Perthshire), means Field of the Sun.
Greenan (a stream in Perthshire), means River of the Sun.
Balgreen (a town in Perthshire and other counties), means Town of the Sun.
Grian chnox (Greenock), means Knoll of the Sun.
Granton, means Suns' Fire.
Premising, therefore, that sun-worship and Druidical customs form the original base of all our old national festivals, we will now direct attention to the great festival of
The term Yule was the name given to the festival of the winter solstice by our northern invaders, and means the Festival of the Sun. One of the names by which the Scandinavians designated the Sun was Julvatter, meaning
Yulefather or Sunfather. In Saxon the festival was called Gehul, meaning Sun-feast. In Danish it is Juul; in Swedish Oel. Chambers supposes that the name is from a root word meaning wheel. We have no trace of the name by which the Druids knew this feast. The
Rev. Mr. Smiddy in his book on Druidism in Ireland, says, "Their great feast was that called in the Irish tongue Nuadhulig, meaning new all heal, or new mistletoe. When the day came the priests assembled outside the town, and the people gathered shouting all heal. Then began a solemn procession into the
forests in search of the mistletoe growing on the favourite oak. When found, the priests ascended the tree, and cut down the divine plant with a golden knife, which was secured below upon a linen cloth of spotless white; two white bulls were then conducted to the spot for the occasion, and there sacrificed to the sun god. The plant was then brought home with shouts of joy, mingled with prayers and hymns, and then followed a general religious feast, and afterwards scenes of boisterous merriment, to which all were admitted." From other accounts of this sun feast at the winter solstice in this country, we are given to understand that besides white bulls there were also human victims offered in sacrifice. The mistletoe gathered was divided among the people, who hung the sprays over their doorways as a protection from evil influences, and as a propitiation to the sylvan deities, and to form sheltering places for those fairy beings during the frosts. The day after the sacrifices was kept as a day of rejoicing, neighbours visited
each other with gifts, and with expressions of good will.
From all I have been able to gather respecting this great sun feast at the winter solstice as it was celebrated in this country in prehistoric times, I am of opinion that the sacrifices were offered to the sun on the shortest day, to propitiate his return, and that that day was a day of great solemnity, but that the day following when the
mistletoe was distributed and hung up, was a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving on this account, that the sacrifices had proved acceptable and efficacious, the sun having returned again to begin his course for another year, and this day was the first day of the year.
I am aware that the Romans appointed the first of January as the first day of the year as early as B.C. 600, and
dedicated it to the goddess Strana. This, however, could not affect the inhabitants of Britain, at least not until the Roman invasion, and this influence did not reach our northern counties. There can be little doubt, I think, that the great festival of the Romans, the Saturnalia, held in honour of Saturn, the father of the gods, and which lasting seven days, including the winter solstice, was introduced into this country, and in course of time became identified with the Druidical festival of the natives.
Other elements conspired to modify the ancient druidical festival. After the Romans withdrew their armies from the island at the commencement of the fifth century, other invaders took their place. Saxons, Jutes, Angles, and Normans occupied large tracts of the country; but as these were mostly all sun-worshippers, their festivals and ceremonies would, for the most part, coincide with the native usages, and whatever peculiarities they might bring with them in the matter of formulas, would take root in the localities where they were settled, and eventually the indigenous and introduced formulas would coalesce. Another element which materially influenced and, vice versa, was materially influenced by Pagan formulae, was Christianity. Introduced into Rome at a very early period, it was for a long time opposed as subversive of the established religion of the empire. Now, during
the festival of the Saturnalia, the Romans decorated their houses, both inside and out, with evergreens, the Christian
converts refraining from this were easily discovered and set upon by the people, were brought before the judges and condemned, in many cases, to death, for their infidelity to the national gods. But as a result of this severity the Christians learned to be politic, and during the Saturnalia, hung evergreens round their houses, while they kept festival within doors in commemoration of the birth of Christ. This Christian festival, with its heathen attachments, soon spread throughout the Roman empire, and thus became introduced into Britain also. It appears however, that the day on which this feast was kept differed in different localities, until towards the middle of the fourth century Julius I., Bishop of Rome, appointed the 25th December as the festival day for the whole Church, an edict which was universally obeyed. As was to be expected, many of the ceremonies and superstitious beliefs emanating from the Saturnalia were merged in the customs of the Christian feast, and do still survive in modified forms till the present day. In many of our Christmas customs we can thus perceive the influence of the self preservation policy of the early Roman Christians, and in the survival of many other pagan customs in this and other of our festivals, we can trace the influence of another policy, the worldly-wise policy of the Roman Church.
At the close of the sixth century, Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine, or Austin, to this country as a missionary, and by his preaching, many thousands of the people were converted to Christianity. This Pope's instructions to Augustine concerning his treatment of heathen festivals,
were that "the heathen temples were not to be destroyed, but turned into Christian churches; that the oxen killed in sacrifice should still be killed with rejoicing, but their bodies given to the poor, and that the refreshment booths round the heathen temples should be allowed to remain as places of jollity and amusement for the people on Christian festivals, for it is impossible to cut abruptly from hard and rough minds all their old habits and customs. He who wishes to reach the highest place must rise by steps, and not by jumps.''
From the enunciation of this policy, we can readily understand how the festive observances connected with heathen worship remained in the Christian observance.
I have stated what is supposed to have been the Druidical manner of keeping this festival of the winter solstice, but I have not seen any account of how the festival was observed in this country when Augustine arrived as missionary. I have no information concerning the manner in which the oxen were sacrificed, nor the character of the refreshment booths round the temples. We know that there were booths in connection with heathen temples where women were kept, but whether this practice was indigenous in Britain, or was imported into this country by the Romans, or whether Pope Gregory may have written without any special knowledge of the customs here, but merely from his knowledge of heathen customs in general, we do not know. Nothing is said in these instructions about changing the day of keeping the festival from the solstice to the 25th of December. It is probable that no change of date was made at this time, at all events we may, from the following circumstance, infer that the change, if made, did not reach the northern
portion of the island. Haco, King of Norway, in the tenth century fixed the 25th December as the day for keeping the feast of Yule. King Haco's fixing on this particular date would be a resultant from the Romish edict, for the Norwegians were at this time Christians, although their Christianity was a conglomerate of heathen superstition and church dogma.
According to Jamieson, the eve of Yule was termed by the Northmen Hoggunott, meaning Slaughter night, probably because then the cattle for the coming feast were killed. During the feast, one of the leading toasts was called minnie, meaning the cup of remembrance, and Dr. Jamieson thinks that the popular cry which has come down to our times as Hogmany, trol-lol-lay, was originally Hogminne, thor loe loe, meaning the feast of Thor. After the Reformation, the Scotch transferred Hogmanay to the last day of December, as a preparation day for the New Year. The practice of children going from door to door in little bands, singing the following rhyme, was in vogue at the beginning of this century in country places in the West of Scotland:—
"Rise up, gudewife, and shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars.
We're girls and boys come out to-day.
For to get our Hogmanay,
Give us of your white bread, and not of your gray.
Or else we'll knock at your door a' day."
This rhyme has a stronger reference to Yule or Christmas than to the New Year, and is doubtless a reUc of pre
At the Reformation, the Scottish Church, probably
following the dictum of Calvin, who condemned Yule as a pagan festival, forbade the people to observe it because
of its heathen origin; but probably the more potent rea son was that it was a Romish feast, for no objection was made against keeping the New Year or hansell Monday, on which occasion practices similar to those of Yule were observed, and I believe it was the non-condemnation of these later festivals which enabled the Scottish Church to abolish Yule. In fact, it would appear that the Yule practices were simply transferred from a few days earlier to a few days later, and thereby retained their original connection with the close of the year. Prior to the Church interference there is no evidence that the first of January was observed by the people as a general feast, but even
with this safety valve of a popular and yearly festival, the Church encountered great difficulty in abolishing Yule. A few instances of the opposition of the people will suffice.
The Glasgow Kirk Session, on the 26th December, 1583, had five persons before them who were ordered to make public repentance, because they kept the superstitious day called Yule. The baxters were required to give the names of those for whom they had baked Yule bread, so that they might be dealt with by the Church. Ten years after this, in 1593, an Act was again passed by the Glasgow Session against the keeping of Yule, and therein it was ordained that the keepers of this feast were to be debarred from the privileges of the Church, and also punished by the magistrates.
Notwithstanding these measures, the people still inclined to observe Yule, for fifty-six years after, in 1649, the General Assembly appointed a commission to make
report of the public practices, among others, "The druidical customs observed at the fires of Beltane, Midsummer, Halloween, and Yule." In the same year appears the following minute in the session-book of the Parish of Slains.—(See Rust's Druidism Exhumed.)
26th Nov., 1649.—"The said day, the minister and elders being convened in session, and after invocation of the name of God, intimate that Yule be not kept, but that they yoke their oxen and horse, and employ their servants in their service that day as well as on other work days."
Dr. Jamieson quotes the opinion of an English clergyman in reference to such proceedings of the Scotch Church:—" The ministers of Scotland, in contempt of the holy-day observed by England, cause their wives and servants to spin in open sight of the people upon Yule day, and their affectionate auditors constrain their servants to yoke their plough on Yule day, in contempt of Christ's nativity. Which our Lord has not left unpunished, for their oxen ran wud, and brak their necks and lamed some ploughmen, which is notoriously known in some parts of Scotland." By going back to the time of the Reformation, and finding what then were the practices of the people in the celebration of the Yule festival, and then by comparing these with the practices in vogue at the commencement of this century during the New Year festivities, we shall be led to conclude that the principal change effected by the Church was only respecting the time of the feasts, and we can thus perceive that the veto was not directed against the practices per se, but only against the conjunction of these practices, Pagan in their origin, with a feast commemorative of the birth of
Christ. As they could not hold Christmas without retaining the Yule practices along with it, they resolved to abolish both.
Let us then pursue this retrospect and comparison. About the time of the Reformation the day preceding Yule was a day of general preparation. Houses were cleaned out and borrowed articles were returned to their owners. Work of all kind was stopped, and a general appearance of completion of work was established; yarn was reeled off, no lint was allowed to remain on the rock of the wheel, and all work implements were laid aside.
In the evening cakes were baked, one for each person, and duly marked, and great care was taken that none should break in the firing, as such an accident was a bad omen for the person whose cake met with the mishap. These cakes were eaten at the Yule breakfast. A large piece of wood was placed upon the fire in such time that it would be kindled before twelve p.m., and extreme care was taken that the fire should not go out, for not only was it unlucky,
but no one would oblige a neighbour, with a kindling on Yule.
On Yule eve those possessing cattle went to the byre and stable and repeated an Ave Marie, and a Paternoster, to
protect their cattle from an evil eye.
On Yule morning, attention was paid to the first person who entered the house, as it was important to know whether such a person were lucky or otherwise. It was an unfriendly act to enter a house on Yule day without bringing a present of some kind. Nothing was permitted to be taken out of the house on that day; this prohibition of course, did not extend to such things as were
taken for presents. Servants or members of the family who had gone out in the morning, when they returned to the house brought in with them something, although it might only be some trivial article, say for instance, garden stuff. This was done that they might bring, or, at least, not cause bad luck to the household. Masters or parents gave gifts to their servants and children, and owners of cattle gave their beasts, with their own hand their first food on Yule morning.
After mass in church, a table was spread in the house with meat and drink, and all who entered were invited to partake.
On this day neighbours and relations visited each other, bearing with them meat and drink warmed with condiments, and as they drank they expressed mutual wishes for each other's welfare. If not a Christian day, it was
at least a day of good will to men. In the evening, the great family feast was held.
In the more northern parts, where the Scandinavian national element was principally settled, a boar's head was the correct dish at this feast, and, by the better class, was always provided; but the common people were content with venison, beef, and poultry, beginning their feast with a dish of plum porridge. A large candle, prepared for the occasion, was lighted at the commencement, and it was intended to keep in light till twelve p.m., and if it went out before it was regarded as a bad omen for the next year; and what of it was left unconsumed at twelve o'clock was carefully laid past, to be used at the dead wake of the heads of the family.
Now, let us compare with this the practices current at Hogmanay (31st December), and New Year's Day, about the commencement of this century. In doing so, I will
pass over without notice many superstitious observances which, though curious and interesting, belong rather
to the general fund of superstitious belief than to the special festival at New Year, and confine myself to those which were peculiar to the time. In my grandfather's house, between sixty and seventy years ago, on the 31st December (Hogmanay), all household work was stopped, rock emptied, yarn reeled and hanked, and wheel and reel put into an outhouse. The house itself was whitewashed and cleaned. A block of wood or large piece of coal was put on the fire about ten p.m., so that it would be burning briskly before the household retired to bed. The last thing done by those who possessed a cow or horse was to visit the byre or stable, and I have been told that it was the practice with some, twenty years before my recollection, to say the Lord's Prayer during this visit. After rising on New Year's Day, the first care of those who possessed cattle was to visit the byre or stable, and with their own hands give the animals a feed. Bums followed this habit, and refers to it in one of his poems:—
"A gude New Year I wish thee, Maggy, Hae,
there's a rip to thy auld baggie."
The following was the practice in my father's house in Partick, between fifty and sixty years ago, on New Year's day:—On Hogmanay evening, children were all washed before going to bed. An oat bannock was baked for each child: it was nipped round the edge, had a hole in the centre, and was flavoured with carvey (carroway) seed.
Great care was taken that none of these bannocks should break in the firing, as such an occurrence was regarded
l6o FOLK LORE.
as a very unlucky omen for the child whose bannock
was thus damaged. It denoted illness or death during
the year. Parents sat up till about half-past eleven, when the fire was covered, and every particle of ash
swept up and carried out of the house. All retired to
bed before twelve o'clock, as it was unlucky not to be in bed as the New Year came in. A watchful eye was kept on the fire lest it should go out, for such an
event was regarded as very unlucky, and they would neither give nor receive a light from any one on New
Year's day. Neither fire, ashes, nor anything belonging
to the house was taken out of it on that day. In the
morning we children got our bannocks to breakfast. They were small, and it was unlucky to leave any portion of them, although this was frequently done. The firstfoot was an important episode. To visit empty-handed
on this day was tantamount to wishing a curse on the family. A plane-soled person was an unlucky first-foot
a pious sanctimonious person was not good, and a hearty
ranting merry fellow was considered the best sort of first
foot. It was necessary for luck that what was poured out
of the first-foot's gift, be it whiskey or other drink, should
be drunk to the dregs by each recipient, and it was re
quisite that he should do the same by their's. It was
against rule for any portion to be left, but if there did happen to be an unconsumed remnant, it was cast out. With any subsequent visitor these particulars were not observed. I remember that one year our first-foot was a man who had fallen and broken his bottle, and cut and bleeding was assisted into our house. My mother made up her mind that this was a most unfortunate first-foot,
and that something serious would occur in the family
during that year. I believe had the whole family been cut off, she would not have been surprised. However, it was a prosperous year, and a bleeding first-foot was not afterwards considered bad. If anything extraordinary did occur throughout the year, it was remembered and referred to afterwards. One New Year's day something was stolen out of our house; that year father and mother were confined to bed for weeks
the cause and effect were quite clear. During the day neighbours visited each other with bottle and bun, every one overflowing with good wishes. In the evening the family, old and young, were gathered together, those who during the year were out at service,
the married with their families, and at this meal the best
the family could afford was produced. It was a happy
time, long looked forward to, and long remembered by