December Cold Moon: the Cailleach, owl and elder

The full moon in December, usually the last full moon of the year, is known as the Cold Moon, or Long Nights Moon, when the days are short and the hours of darkness long. This is the time when the first frosts have claimed any remaining leaves leaving trees tall and exposed against an inky skyline, when the fecund Earth has drawn down into it all the remaining nutrients from above, and bulbs and seeds lay dormant. It is the time of endings, before the time of new beginning, the time when the sun will begins its annual cycle of return at the Winter Solstice, bringing with it the promise of longer days.

Though the sun seldom reveals itself by day, the night skies can be spectacular. The great bear Ursa Major makes the climb up around the world pole in the east, and meteor showers radiate from Ursa Minor in the middle of the month. Orion the Hunter and his faithful dog (Sirius) chase Taurus the Bull towards the ecliptic in the South, and the Pleiades are visible as seven tiny enigmatic pin pricks of light.

The winter garden is ruled over by robin, wren, blackbird and thrush, vying for berries and grubs, while winter visitors like whooper swans and pink footed geese have arrived from the Arctic in search of milder weather. The hedgehog and snake have long since taken to their holes deep within the Earth, and frogs and toads over-winter by sitting at the bottom of ponds. At night the black and white badger and fire red fox prowl, and the occasional long eared hare might be seen leaping through fields by day.

With the Earth laid bare and nutrition withdrawn, this time is ruled by the Cailleach, the one-eyed blue faced hag of winter who is older than time itself. She carries the memory of the tectonic formation of the Earth, and is accredited with the formation of many glens, mountains and lochs. She strikes the land with her magic hammer, turning soil to solid rock, even causing crustal movement to form valleys and mountains. When she washes her brown cloak in the turbulent sea, the snow falls dusting all the mountains of Scotland an icy white. She is seen leaping from mountain top to mountain top with a trail of animals in her wake. The animals of winter such as wolf, fox and eagle all adore her, and she protects the deer of the forest from over hunting. She is at once the Creatrix of the land, and its fiercest guardian. When the delicate balance of the earths ecosystems is overturned, she is the first to seek vengeance, reminding humans of the dangers of taking more than is needed, of thoughtlessly plundering the Earth.

She is often associated with the owl, the ruler of the night winter skies. Like her, the owl is old beyond its years, all-seeing and all-knowing. UV vision make it a fearsome predator at night, especially in the depths of winter when all cover has been stripped away. The owl can look forward and backwards by twisting its head, seeing both past and future, like the Cailleach with her single piercing eye.

The Blackthorn is her preferred tree, as its berries ripen after the first frost. She is said to carry a staff made from its wood and when she strikes the ground, winter begins. Growing alongside Blackthorn, it is, however, Elder that rules December according to Celtic tree lore. Though the flowers and bark of Elder are therapeutic, it has a long association with death and disease. Legend calls it the Crucifixion tree and the fateful tree on which Judas Iscariot hung himself. In Harry Potter, it was the Elder wand that was one of the deathly hallows, which according to legend was fashioned by Death himself. Sometimes acquired through killing its previous master, the wand had a long and bloody history before coming into the possession of both Dumbledore and Harry Potter. It’s association with the thirteenth month of the tree calendar, R (ruis) 25th November to 22nd December could be one of reasons that the number thirteen is also considered unlucky, when darkness became dreaded and feared.

Yet this thirteenth month was once considered the most sacred time of the year, when the Earth lets die what it is no longer needed, a time of allowing the passing of the old to make way for the new. A time to get rid of anything surplus in order to face the cold winter ahead, which in turn would bring with it the cyclical return of the sun at the Solstice. When the balance between us and nature was understood, when our lives and that of the land were considered intimately entwined.

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