The year is progressing and we’re about to leave the Celtic and Druidic month of the Reed, and enter the month of the Elder on 25 November (although, the ancients and the oldest religions would celebrate the new day the evening before ie the evening of 24 November). And so, a new month draws nearer.
English name: Elder Tree
Welsh name: Ysgawen (pronounced ‘us-gaw-wen’)
Latin name: Sambucus Nigra
Month: 25 November– 22 December
This month of the Elder is the thirteenth month, and therefore the last month of the traditional Celtic calendar. It’s a time of endings and beginnings, a tree and therefore a month, of contrasts.
‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ Percy Bysshe Shelley
Etymology: There is a view, and a plausible one at that, that the word Elder comes from the Anglo-saxon word ‘aeld’, meaning fire, because the hollow stems of the tree were used as bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire, in ancient times.
Dendrology: A mature Elder tree grow to a height of around 15m, and can live for about 60 years. The tree is identified by its short trunk (bole), and grey-brown, corky, furrowed bark. it has relatively few branches.
Its leaves are pinnate, resembling feathers, and probably don’t smell too good. Individual trees flowers are creamy in colour, highly scented, and have five petals. After pollination by insects, each flower develops into a small, dark purple and a somewhat sour berry.
Tradition: The Elder has long been associated with symbolising life and death (and re-birth), judgement and protection. Elder leaves have even been found carved onto Celtic flints that were used in funeral sessions. And, Druids would (and still do) pronounce judgement(s) under this wonderful tree.
Traditionally, the Elder has been thought to attract the fae. Elder branches were hung over horse stables to keep evil away, and its leaves are thought to be good as an insect-repellent. And, any ancient house-builder would have told you that it’s best to build your house near an Elder tree as they are said to afford some protection against lightning strikes (but, maybe not too close to any tree, now, just in case).
It is also associated with creativity, regeneration, and transformation.
The Elder tree, then, is a versatile and most powerful tree, and maybe it’s from this that prompted J K Rowling to weave the Elder wand into her fictional and most entertaining Harry Potter stories.
For Harry Potter fans, of the Elder wand, ‘It is said to be the most powerful wand that has ever existed, able to perform feats of magic that would normally be considered impossible, such as mending another wand damaged beyond normal magical repair…’
Promptings: The Elder month is the month when it grows darker and colder than ever before, and energy is depleted; it’s therefore a good time to finish old projects and ‘tie up lose ends’ as we move towards the winter solstice (23 December).
But, it is a month of contrasts, and so as new energy is ushered in, new life begins, so there’s an encouragement to stat new projects, or at least plan them.
As you huddle around that hearth of home, or maybe light a symbolic candle and gaze into its flame, it’s a time to look back, yes, but it’s also a time to look forward with anticipation and hope.
‘Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.’ Edith Sitwell