Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how
enthusiastically we Pagans celebrate the 'Christmas' season. Even
though we prefer to use the word 'Yule', and our celebrations may peak
a few days BEFORE the 25th, we nonetheless follow many of the
traditional customs of the season: decorated trees, carolling,
presents, Yule logs, and mistletoe. We might even go so far as
putting up a 'Nativity set', though for us the three central
characters are likely to be interpreted as Mother Nature, Father Time,
and the Baby Sun-God. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone
who knows the true history of the holiday, of course.
In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always
been more Pagan than Christian, with it's associations of Nordic
divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism. That is why
both Martin Luther and John Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans
refused to acknowledge it, much less celebrate it (to them, no day of
the year could be more holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even
made ILLEGAL in Boston! The holiday was already too closely
associated with the birth of older Pagan gods and heroes. And many of
them (like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus,
Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even Arthur) possessed a narrative of birth,
death, and resurrection that was uncomfortably close to that of Jesus.
And to make matters worse, many of them pre-dated the Christian
Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle
of the year. It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated,
seed-time of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the
birthday of the new Sun King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you
choose to call him. On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes
the Great Mother and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect
poetic sense that on the longest night of the winter, 'the dark night
of our souls', there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire,
the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.
That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as
Christians. Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were rather late
in laying claim to it, and tried more than once to reject it. There
had been a tradition in the West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the
twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month.
Finally, in 320 C.E., the Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make it
December, in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the
Romans and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.
There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose was
historically accurate. Shepherds just don't 'tend their flocks by
night' in the high pastures in the dead of winter! But if one wishes
to use the New Testament as historical evidence, this reference may
point to sometime in the spring as the time of Jesus's birth. This is
because the lambing season occurs in the spring and that is the only
time when shepherds are likely to 'watch their flocks by night' -- to
make sure the lambing goes well. Knowing this, the Eastern half of
the Church continued to reject December 25, preferring a 'movable
date' fixed by their astrologers according to the moon.
Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one
knew when Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally
began to catch on. By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or
public business (except that of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed
to the delight of the holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor
Justinian. In 563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas
Day, and four years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve
days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. This
last point is perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader,
who is lucky to get a single day off work. Christmas, in the Middle
Ages, was not a SINGLE day, but rather a period of TWELVE days, from
December 25 to January 6. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in fact. It
is certainly lamentable that the modern world has abandoned this
approach, along with the popular Twelfth Night celebrations.
Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to many
countries no faster than Christianity itself, which means that
'Christmas' wasn't celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century;
in England, Switzerland, and Austria until the seventh; in Germany
until the eighth; and in the Slavic lands until the ninth and tenth.
Not that these countries lacked their own mid-winter celebrations of
Yuletide. Long before the world had heard of Jesus, Pagans had been
observing the season by bringing in the Yule log, wishing on it, and
lighting it from the remains of last year's log. Riddles were posed
and answered, magic and rituals were practiced, wild boars were
sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of liquor, corn
dollies were carried from house to house while carolling, fertility
rites were practiced (girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were
subject to a bit more than a kiss), and divinations were cast for the
coming Spring. Many of these Pagan customs, in an appropriately
watered-down form, have entered the mainstream of Christian
celebration, though most celebrants do not realize (or do not mention
it, if they do) their origins.
For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon 'Yula', meaning
'wheel' of the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter
Solstice, which may vary by a few days, though it usually occurs on or
around December 21st. It is a Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the
modern Pagan calendar, one of the four quarter-days of the year, but a
very important one.
Pagan customs are still enthusiastically followed.
Once, the Yule log had been the center of the celebration. It was
lighted on the eve of the solstice (it should light on the first try)
and must be kept burning for twelve hours, for good luck. It should
be made of ash. Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree
but, instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on it. In
Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented the
custom, and Catholics might grant St. Boniface the honor, but the
custom can demonstrably be traced back through the Roman Saturnalia
all the way to ancient Egypt. Needless to say, such a tree should be
cut down rather than purchased, and should be disposed of by burning,
the proper way to dispatch any sacred object.
Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe
were important plants of the season, all symbolizing fertility and
everlasting life. Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic
Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the
moon, and believed it to be an aphrodisiac. (Magically -- not
medicinally! It's highly toxic!) But aphrodisiacs must have been the
smallest part of the Yuletide menu in ancient times, as contemporary
reports indicate that the tables fairly creaked under the strain of
every type of good food. And drink! The most popular of which was
the 'wassail cup' deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon term 'waes
hael' (be whole or hale).
Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless: that animals will all
kneel down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the '100th psalm'
on Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas will bring good luck, that a
person born on Christmas Day can see the Little People, that a cricket
on the hearth brings good luck, that if one opens all the doors of the
house at midnight all the evil spirits will depart, that you will have
one lucky month for each Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree
must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck is sure to follow,
that 'if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we shall see', that
'hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the month of May',
that one can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the weather
for each of the twelve months of the coming year, and so on.
Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based upon
older Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim
their lost traditions. In doing so, we can share many common customs
with our Christian friends, albeit with a slightly different
interpretation. And thus we all share in the beauty of this most
magical of seasons, when the Mother Goddess once again gives birth to
the baby Sun-God and sets the wheel in motion again. To conclude with
a long-overdue paraphrase, 'Goddess bless us, every one!'
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