Celebration of Alban Arthan
Alban Arthan, or the Light of Arthur, marks the rebirth of the Sun at the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice marks the time of the Oak King, who will rule from now until the Summer Solstice, when the Holly King returns(1). In addition to its remembrance of the legendary King Arthur(2), this day is also associated with Ursa Major, the constellation known as the “Great Bear” (“Arthur” means “bear”). Many of the traditions associated with Christmas were actually borrowed from Pagan traditions at this time of year. The Christmas tree, the lighting of candles, the hanging of evergreens and mistletoe, and the Yule log are all pre-Christian traditions.
At this time of year, we celebrate by lighting candles to symbolize the rebirth of the Sun. Up until this point, the days have been getting shorter and shorter, but after the Solstice, the days begin to get longer again. It is a time of giving gifts to family and friends as a symbolic reminder of the gifts of the Sun to come as the plants begin to grow again and the animals return to the land.
The tradition of the Yule log, probably Germanic in origin, is an ancient Pagan tradition. As it comes down to us in its Christianized form, a family would go out into the forest and cut down the mightiest tree they could find, preferably an oak tree. According to Christian accounts, this tree had to provide a log that would burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Some scholars believe that this legend was grafted onto an older Pagan tradition of burning the log for the duration of the three-day celebration of Yule.
The fact that the oak tree was chosen, has special significance. Practically speaking, oak is a dense wood that burns for a long time, and would therefore be more likely to last for the duration of the celebration. The deeper, hidden meaning is that the Celtic people held the oak to be sacred above all other trees. The oak is the King of the Forest. One possible source of the word “Druid” is in the Gaelic word for oak, ‘drui’(3). So the burning of the Yule log of oak signified the return of the Oak King at the rebirth of the Sun.
Spiritual Significance of the Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice marks the end of the reign of the Holly King, who rules the darker part of the year, from Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice. At the Winter Solstice, the Oak King conquers the Holly King (1), and returns as a newborn babe to rule the lighter part of the year, from Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice, when the Holly King shall return again.
Yule represents rebirth. As the Earth lies sleeping during the winter months, growing things seem to be dormant. With the rebirth of the Sun, growth can begin anew in the spring of the year. The movement that begins with Yule is the emergence of Order out of Chaos. The light begins to conquer the darkness yet again. From a psychological perspective, the dark chaos of the unconscious mind gives way to the enlightenment and wisdom of the conscious mind. The creativity that lies within the darkness of your unconsciousness bears fruit and springs forth into conscious fruition.
As you celebrate the Winter Solstice, think of which gifts might lie dormant within you. If you could experience a spiritual rebirth in your own life, what would it be? How can you bring it to fruition? Just the evergreen trees are always present, even in the dead of winter, so the neart (divine life energy) is always present within you. The Sun’s life-giving energy returns at this time of year, allowing for a new cycle of growth and Order. Use this season to bring new order into your life by allowing the rebirth and renewal of the Divine within you.
Symbols of the Winter Solstice
Evergreens are hung at this time of year to represent the ever-present influence of the neart. Evergreens remind us that even in the dormancy of the colder months, the life force is ever-present.
Holly is also a symbol associated with the Winter Solstice. The Holly King surrenders his reign to the Oak King(1) at this time of year. The use of holly as a decoration at this season reminds us that the Holly King’s reign is nearly at an end.
Mistletoe is sacred to the Druids, and to Druids. According to Pliny, ancient Druids gathered it on the sixth day of the moon, using a golden sickle to harvest it. It was prized for its rarity, and was known as “All-Heal.” It was considered a powerful aphrodisiac, and to this day we kiss under the mistletoe at this time of year. It also symbolizes fertility and rebirth. Mistletoe commonly grew on oaks, and was seen as a gift from the Gods for this reason.
Yule logs were traditionally burned at this time of year. These logs were usually made of oak, and represented the return of the Oak King and the light he brings. Many modern Druids and Pagans celebrate Yule by baking a cake, usually chocolate, in the shape of a Yule log.
Gods and Goddesses of the Winter Solstice
In Scotland, the Cailleach is the Queen of Winter. She represents the Crone aspect of the Maiden/Mother/Crone triad. The Cailleach rules from Lughnasadh until Imbolc, and brings the winter with her icy breath.
The Holly King is associated with Cernunnos (The Horned God) or the Green Man. Together the Holly King and the Oak King make up Cernunnos. He is Lord of the Wild Hunt, and represents the physical embodiment of nature in human form. He represents the waning power of the Sun, and rules from Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice. The Holly King and the Oak King are constantly battling throughout the year, but the Holly King is defeated by the Oak King on the Winter Solstice(1).
The Oak King is reborn as the Divine Child (Mabon) on the Winter Solstice. He defeats his twin, the Holly King, and wins the favor of the Goddess, reigning once again until the next Summer Solstice, when the Holly King shall defeat him and take his crown.
Brighid (The Exalted One) is the Goddess of the Poets. She is a daughter of the Dagda (The Good God, Father of Celtic Gods and Goddesses), and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann (Children of Danu, also known as the “Faerie People”). She is the Matron Goddess of the Druids, and her presence at this season represents the rebirth of the divine light of wisdom and inspiration.
Colors of the Winter Solstice
White represents the purity of the Sun and the growth of daylight from this day forward until Alban Heruin (Summer Solstice). White is also the color associated with Brighid.
Red represents the Holly King. It also represents the color of the dawn as the days begin to grow in length again at the sunrise on the Winter Solstice.
Green represents the perpetual life found in the evergreens. Green also represents the promise of new growth in the coming season.
Traditions of the Winter Solstice
Many modern Druids and other Pagans celebrate the return of the Sun by lighting candles for the Winter Solstice. The Yule log tradition is also making a comeback worldwide with Pagans and Christians alike. Another popular tradition is the wassail bowl, which is a bowl of mulled wine or cider topped with bits of toast, to be shared with family and friends. In our Grove, we create a wassail bowl by having each member bring something to put into the bowl. One might bring the toast, another might bring the cider or wine, and others might bring fruits and spices to add to the bowl. Each member brings something unique to the wassail bowl, which is blended and shared with all. The wassail bowl, completed in this manner, is a great metaphor for the Grove itself, in which each individual contributes something to be shared by all.
Another tradition we have at the Mother Grove is the Sharing of Light. Each attendee is given an unlit candle at the beginning of the Winter Solstice celebration. At a predetermined point in the ritual, the Celebrant lights his or her own candle, then lights the candle of the next person. This person in turn lights the next person’s candle, and so on. The light spreading around the circle is a great metaphor for the return of the light of the Sun. Songs and chants work well during this portion of the ritual.
- There is no historical evidence that the ancient Druids celebrated the Holly King or the Oak King. This is a modern invention by Robert Graves, author of the White Goddess. However, since honoring the Holly King and the Oak King is a widespread practice among modern Celtic Pagans, the information is included here.
- Arthur would seem to exist only in legend, as an invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth and other British authors, unless you consider him to be Riothamus.
- Per Pliny the Elder, probably a misunderstanding of the etymology of the word.
|DATE||HIGH DAY||COMMON PAGAN NAME||MEANING|
|Winter Solstice||Alban Arthan||Yule||Rebirth|
|Vernal Equinox||Alban Eiler||Ostara||Youth|
|May 1||Beltane||Beltane||Young Adulthood|
|Summer Solstice||Alban Heruin||Litha or Midsummer||Adulthood|
|August 1||Lughnasadh||Lughnasadh or Lammas||Maturity|
|Autumnal Equinox||Alban Elved||Mabon||Old Age|