TUESDAY, 24 DECEMBER 2013The Omen Days: The Twelve Days of Christmas
Christmas Eve has come and now I can truly rest. Every year we try to have the Twelve Days of Christmas as a complete holiday, though a copy editor came near to spoiling that this afternoon by giving me work ‘to be handed in on 6th January.’ I’m afraid I just turned it round very quickly, completely unwilling to extenuate a piece of rewriting through my precious quiet time.
As we approach the next few quiet days from work, this is a good time to refresh how we can really prepare for the year ahead of us through the medium of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which in this household are well kept.
In the medieval liturgical calendar, the festival of Christmas Day stood alone by itself as a supreme holy day, and so the counting of the twelve days began from 26 December which is the 1st day of Christmas until the 6th January which is Twelfth Night, or the 12th day of Christmas. What has this got to do with anything?
Well, in Brittany and in Wales, the Twelve Days of Christmas, which mark the intercalary days of the year, are called ‘the Omen Days,’ and they have a special purpose. ‘Intercalary days’ are really the days left over from reckoning up the solar year and, in calendars throughout the world and at different times, they are special because they are considered to be ‘the days out of time.’ It is in this interval between the ordinary count of days that gods are born or conceived in many different mythologies, including the Irish one, where Oengus Og, Young Angus, is conceived, grown and born at Brúg na Boinne within this time, all in one day, by the magical workings of the Dagda.
Brúg na Boinne
Within these twelve days lies a wonderful secret that those dismissive of the Christian tradition might well miss, for each of the twelve days is assigned to a month of the coming year, with the first day of Christmas the 26th December as symbolic of January, the second day or 27th December representing February and so on, right through to 6th January which represents the December yet to come. It was the custom of many to go out on each day of the Christmas festival to observe the signs in nature and divine from them the state of the year to come. The omens experienced on each of the Omen Days indicate the nature of each month in the coming year.
The divining of oracles from nature has a long tradition in Celtic lore. The Scots Gaelic tradition of the frith or the augury from the signs of nature is well established. The listening to bird’s calling was a critical part of druidic lore, as was the movement and behaviour of other animals. Some of these auguries have come down to us, like the little white book of meanings in a tarot pack: some people used them, but others did not. The real skill is to read the signs in accordance with your understanding at the time, and as it relates to the question that provoked the augury in the first place. I’ve been teaching this skill for over 25 years and not yet found anyone who couldn’t do it, as long as they first asked a well-framed question.
In this case, you treat each day of Christmas as the opportunity for an augury for the month it represents in coming year. This might be experienced during a daily walk, or perceived in the nature of the day itself and how it falls out. Personally, I like to make a frame for each Omen Day, by asking to be shown an augury from nature and allowing the next thing I experience, see or hear to be the sign I am expecting. It helps to find the right place to do this on a walk, to close your eyes, to spin around on the spot and then be attentive.
Many of my students have been doing this for a while and last year I shared it with an online group of Lenormand Card readers, who are now using the Omen Days to divine for the year ahead, choosing one or more cards each day to discover the nature of the months of the year. There is no right way to do this, only by the unique interaction you have between the world that is seen and the world that is unseen, but just as real.
That the Twelve Days of Christmas have kept their assured place at the heart of Celtic divination is one of those wonderful instances of double-decker belief that are scattered throughout folk tradition worldwide. The Russians have a good word for this kind of thing, naming it dvoverie or ‘double-belonging,’ a word originally coined to cover those who had an earlier belief running alongside a later one. Wherever a newer tradition has come into a country, the older one doesn’t just die or go away, but becomes fused with the newer one, so that the traditional continuity can be enjoyed by us all.
Whatever your beliefs, the Omen Days continue to offer the opportunity to understand the year ahead so, forget the ‘year’s round up of news’ and the ‘look-back specials’ on the tv this Christmas and look ahead to a year full of promise!
I wish you and yours joy, health, love and peace!
Celtic Book of the Dead by Caitlín Matthews,
art by Danuta Meyer
Caitlín Matthews at 07:53