For the ancient Celts, June was the month where they honored the mighty oak tree. In June this towering tree reaches its zenith in beauty, and was a reminder for the Celts that doing two things at once in this life is necessary: we must plant deep roots while also reaching for the highest heights.
Their ancient priests, Druids, were colloquially known as “oak knowers,” believing that of all of the trees, the oak tree was the wisest. The Celtic word for oak was Duir (again, also where they got the word Druid), which meant “endure” and “truth.”
The oak tree, brightened by the Oak Moon, was both strong and enduring, like truth.
June is a month to deepen your roots and reach for those heights.
For the ancient Celts, June was a time of herb collecting. Used in medicine, dyes, cooking, cosmetics, and floor coverings (they would cover their floors with the herbs for a fragrant and hygienic carpeting), herbs were considered a healing gift.
At this time of year they’d incorporate herbs into most every dish, creating lilac teas and treating fish both steamed and pan fried with plenty of dill, parsley, and chives.
As they headed toward the Solstice and St.John the Baptist’s feast day, using all of the given daylight was paramount. Waste nothing, especially daylight, and do those things appropriate with the season.
For June this meant herb gathering, freshening things up, and preserving the harvest for cooking and healing in the year to come.
The Celts would, in mid-May, honor the warrior queen Maeve of Connacht. She was often depicted dressed in red with a pet bird perched on one shoulder, and a pet squirrel on the other.
She was known for having three criteria in the men she would consider for marriage: they couldn’t be stingy, they couldn’t be jealous, and they couldn’t have any fear.
She was half lore and half reality, like all interesting people, and her name came from the pre-Christian Celtic goddess, Sovereignty, who was said to be the one who would approve a royal’s right to rule. Should a royal be overthrown, it was because Sovereignty had deemed them unworthy (stingy, jealous, or afraid).
Today the ancient Celts would celebrate the festival of Beltaine, welcoming May as a month where the increasingly hot sun (the “tene” part of the word above) would warm the greenery enough to produce harvest. The “bel” portion of the word is a mystery, as it could stand for an ancient Celtic sun-god, Belanos, or could just be a form of the ancient word for “brilliant”
At dusk, having let their own hearth fires die out (which they only let happen once a year), the whole clan would ascend a nearby hill to get as close to the setting sun as possible. They’d set up huge poles and dance around them with flowers in their hair. They’d drink, and feast, and sing. They’d create flower garlands to adorn their doors or trees near their houses.
They’d create huge fires which they believed would help warm the sun, and they’d jump over the fires as a way of emboldening themselves for summer work, and if you were planning to be married soon, you’d do it three times for good measure. The elderly would circle the flames reciting prayers, and mothers would carry newly born infants near the coals as a way to ensure they’d be protected in childhood.
Fire, for them, purified the air of disease, and they believed that a bit of the hair from the same dog could be the cure, as they hoped setting these fires now would protect the unborn harvest from lightening strikes or other natural fires in the hot days.
As the fires smoldered each family would take a coal home to start their new hearth fire, and the rest was scattered throughout the crops for good luck.
If you stayed up all night on May-day, those who observed the sun rise would swear it danced for joy three times upon the horizon before jumping up in summer glory.
For Spring, some Celtic wisdom on stewardship from a medieval Irish tale:
“A very old man went out one day on the land beside his house, and began planting fruit trees.
A young man walked by. “What are you doing?” the young man asked.
“Planting fruit trees,” the old man replied.
“But you will not see fruit in your lifetime,” the youth said.
“The fruit that I have enjoyed in my lifetime,” the old man answered, “has been from trees that people before me have planted. So to express my gratitude of them, I am planting trees to give fruit to those who come after me.”
For the Christian Celts, the Monday (and sometimes Tuesday and Wednesday) of Holy Week was dedicated to cleaning the house and the home (with Holy Thursday dedicated for cleaning the chapel).
After months of inside smoke from the hearth dusting everything with soot, and with the spots above and around the well-used candles getting dingy and oily, Spring cleaning served both practical and spiritual purposes. Spring was a time of renewal, and so it made sense to renew the home from the dinge of winter.
But, as importantly, Spring cleaning mirrored the inward housecleaning of the Lenten days. With Easter almost upon them. the last few corners of the soul were tended, swept, and exposed to the light for purification.
In Celtic tradition, the month of March is associated with the great ash tree. The ash tree is one of three trees that the pre-Christian Celts held sacred (ash, oak, and thorn), and according to tradition, Yggdrasil, the “world tree” was an ash tree from which all life was birthed.
Because ash trees are so tall, they were seen as the connection between the heavens and the earth, and therefore were understood to be powerful symbols of good in the world. In fact, it was rumored in ancient times that snakes were so afraid of the ash tree that they wouldn’t even slither over its shadow.
Snakes are an interesting evil symbol, too, until you remember that in the ancient world the snake was very scary: quiet and often venomous. It would attack you in your sleep, often looking for warmth in the bed of a person. Or it might strike you in the field, shaded by the grass.
Our modern zoological minds may wonder at this ancient symbol of evil, but our pre-modern ancestors just knew “stay away!” This, and its unusual form, is why it’s often a representation of evil in the ancient world. After all, snakes are not bad creatures, just misunderstood by humans who think they have to understand everything.
Celts would often carry ash leaves in their pockets to ward off evil, and would sometimes put ash leaves in their shoes to help with foot problems.
Beyond the magical and practical, though, the metaphorical can speak to our lives today. The ash tree can be a reminder for all of us to tap into our strengths in this month of March, trying to balance our lives a bit, bridging the heavens (ideals) and the earth (reality) of our being.