Putting Mabon Back in Christmas

Putting Mabon Back in Christmas December 20, 2013

This is part 4 of my ongoing rant about the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year (LughnasadMabonSamhain).  Yule is actually the station on the Wheel that I have the least problem with, which is a little ironic since it is the station that a lot of other Pagans seem to be the most ambivalent about, obviously because of its proximity (temporally and symbolically) to Christmas.

It’s no wonder Pagans are ambivalent about Yule, since many Christians are ambivalent about Christmas.  When I first became Neo-Pagan, I admit that I delighted in discovering the Pagan origins of Christian holidays.  But now I just find the whole discussion tedious.  A Quaker acquaintance recently informed me (not knowing I was Pagan) that many Christmas traditions are really pagan.  As examples, he gave the Christmas tree and the Yule log.  (What the heck is a Yule log anyway, and why should I care?)  His intent was obviously to discredit Christmas.  He explained that he does not observe Christmas, because “every day should be holy day”.   This just seems pedantic and uninspired to me now.

Whether the speaker is Neo-Pagan, Christian, or atheist, the assumption always seems to be that a religious tradition must be pure of other influences in order to be legitimate (a function of thinking that all religion is revelatory religion).  There is probably no such thing as a pure religious tradition in reality.  Ancient Judaism (or Yahwism) was paganranging from polytheistic to henotheistic and blantantly embracing idols.  Early (pre-Imperial) Christianity was really just a Jewish sect.  Imperial Christianity blended Christianity with so many pagan traditions, it’s impossible to say where one ends and the other begins.  And, since it grew out of a Christian context, early contemporary Paganism has been called “radically dissenting type of Christian sect” (Aidan Kelly quoted by margot Adler) and a “bastardized version of Christianity” (Linda Woodhead, quoted by Joanne Pearson).  Christianity and Paganism are like a mermaid; there’s no separating the fish (Christianity, of course) from the topless woman (Neo-Paganism, of course).

Even if it there were a pure religious tradition, I prefer those bastardized traditions that are a mix of many influences.  Christmas (like Hallow’een) is a sublime mix of Christian, pagan, and commercial traditions as Jason Mankey has recently detailed.  And I love it that way.  Whether you are Christian, Pagan, or atheist, I say, “Embrace it. And make it your own!”

There’s good precedent.  If anything is true about the history of religions, it’s that nothing is so sacrosanct that it can’t be borrowed, appropriated, stolen, revised, amended, and “reclaimed”.  I suspect that Gerald Gardner was a misogynist and maybe a bit of a perv.  But did that stop religious feminists in the 1970’s from appropriating Wicca and rendering it “wimmin’s religion”?  No!  Ancient pagans were patriarchal, tribal, and not always ecologically wise.  But did that prevent a bunch of hippies from making it into an earth-centered religion of a Great Goddess?  No!  And Jesus most likely intended only to reform Judaism, but did that stop Paul from turning the movement into a universal religion for all Gentiles?  No!  So whatever its origins, Christmas is fair game.  And we Pagans should own it.

Whenever I hear a Neo-Pagan say that the winter solstice is a “minor Sabbat”, I can’t help but roll my eyes.  What makes it “minor”?  The fact that Margaret Murray only listed the cross-quarters as witches’ sabbats?  Because Gerald Gardner only added the quarter days as an afterthought?  There are eight stations on the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year.  Why would one spoke of a wheel be minor and another major, especially in a tradition that emphasizes balance?  And if one is going to be minor, why the winter solstice of all days, the day the light begins to return, the day most of Western civilization is praising the birth of the Son/Sun?   Really?  Imbolc is “major”, but Yule is “minor”?  I don’t think so.  I suspect that this “minor” stuff is just a way of trying to keep Yule from becoming Christmas (which is anything but minor).

“The Holly King” by Raven WillowHawk

For me, the winter solstice marks the beginning of what John Beckett calls the “Twleve Days of Solstice” which encompasses Christmas Eve, Christmas, and the New Year.  Really, it’s all the same thing to me, one long celebration of light emerging from the darkness.  The longest night of the year is when the light is symbolically reborn and the days begin to lengthen again.  The darkness, in the form of the Holly King (Santa Clause?), still reigns, but it begins its decline, as the light begins its ascendancy.  The Goddess returns from the Underworld.  She travails and bears her Son, the Sun Child (i.e., Mabon).  The Goddess’ ascent from the tomb mirrors the coming forth of the Sun Child from the darkness of her womb.  This theme runs through the solstice, Christmas, and the New Year.

This year, we are having a Unitarian friend over for the winter solstice.  On Christmas Eve, we’ll attend a Unitarian vespers service and a Catholic midnight mass.  We’re foregoing gifts this year and adopting a family in need.  And for the New Year, I’m planning a Cosmic Calendar Countdown inspired by Jon Cleland Host’s “evolutionary parenting”.  We’re unabashedly eclectic.

So what to call this solstice season?  I like the name “Yule”.  It’s Anglo-Saxon, which corresponds with the other Anglo-Saxon names for the summer solstices and spring equinox.  It is also useful from an interfaith perspective, in that it is not completely foreign to Christians (“Yule-tide cheer”).  The only problem is that no one knows the origin of the word “yule”.  (I’ve seen etymologies to “wheel” and to “jolly” to “sacrifice”.)  I do have a problem with the name “Midwinter” though, which is the second most popular Neo-Pagan name for the date.  Here in the United States, late December is the beginning, not the middle, of winter.  The middle of winter actually comes in early February, halfway to the Spring Equinox.  There are plenty of other good names, though.  “Winter Nights” (already used by Heathens) and “Mother Night” (Modranicht), which comes from Bede, aptly characterize the seasonal theme.  Another possibility is “Sol Invicti” from the Roman festival, “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (Birth Day of the Unconquered Sun), which Christmas replaced.  I like to think of the night preceding the solstice as “Modranicht” and the day after as “Sol Invicti”.

The Krampus: This guy could put a little sinister in your season.

The only other bone I have to pick with the solstice season is its overemphasis on the light.  Light all the candles you want — the more the better — but remember that what makes those candles really shine is the darkness in the background.  This is after all the season of the Holly King, the dark twin of the Oak King who is born at the summer solstice and grows in power as the Sun’s strength weakens.  I think there should be a little of the feeling of the Wild Hunt left over from All Hallows.  And there’s plenty of dark material we could draw on.  Sorry Megyn Kelly, there is a black Santa.  No, I’m not talking about Billy Bob Thornton.  I’m talking about characters like Black Peter and the Krampus.  (Thanks to Jason Mankey for turning me on to these dark fellows.)  I wouldn’t mind a little sinister with my jolly.  That’s why I love the picture of the Holly King above.  (I don’t know if that look is protective … or hungry.)  I mean, can we really call ourselves Pagan if we’re not scaring some Christians a little bit?

Merry Christmastice to all, and to all a Good Modranicht!

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  • JasonMankey

    Excellent post!

    One note, if you count the start of Winter as Samhain and the start of Spring as Imbolc, then Yule is technically Midwinter and the word completely works.

    • I’m perpetually annoyed that people have bought into the astronomical way of determining seasons because apparently calendars, for some reason, only use that method. The idea that winter doesn’t start until near the end of December (or Summer at the end of June) seems really silly to me. I’m not even sure that most people know that there are many different ways of marking the turn of the seasons and none of them is the ‘official’ way, as far as I know.
      Personally, following old Finnish custom I celebrate midwinter and the return of the sun around January 14th, I even keep my Yule tree and decorations up until then.

      • It probably depends a lot on where you live.

        • I manage to keep three different ways of determining the seasons:

          Four seasons: I tend to prefer the meteorological way of marking the seasons (December 1, March 1, June 1, September 1).

          Two seasons: Winter starting at October 14, summer at April 14 per old Finnish folk custom.

          The third is just a subjective one based on what’s going on locally each year. So, last month we had a lot of unusually cold days (for the Southeast US in November), so it’s felt like winter here for a while already (even though it’s 70 degrees here today). Or, a couple of years ago when most of the country had such an absurdly mild winter, we here in the Southeast had highs in the 70s already in February, so Spring felt really early that year.

  • > Christianity and Paganism are like a mermaid; there’s no separating the fish (Christianity, of course) from the topless woman (Neo-Paganism, of course).


  • Love the mermaid metaphor. Wishing you a Blessed Solstice, Good Yule, Happy New Year, etc.

  • I try not to descend into name calling, but what kind of idiot argues that the Winter Solstice is a minor holiday??? You can make that case for the Summer Solstice, but there are mid Winter holidays in just about every place far enough north for there to be a a Winter. Have they never heard of Newgrange??? Arrrggghhhh!!!!!

    • I think Gardner and that crew designated the four solar holidays as lesser sabbats and the cross-quarters as greater. Not sure what was meant or intended.

      • Fair enough. I have heard some folks call the crossquarters “greater” and the quarters “lesser”, but the idea of the Winter Solstice as a “minor holiday” strikes me as ridiculous. I suppose they’re all what you make them…

        • It seems major to me. In fact, it seems like the most major holiday of the year. Paradoxically that means I can put less personal effort into it. My culture does the work for me! So this creates a weird dynamic indeed. Not exactly the ambivalence John describes above, but close. I do find I must work (or play) harder at every other holiday in the wheel.

      • Yes, that’s what I understand as well.

        • Come to think of it, it makes sense that Wiccans and practitioners of modern Witchcraft would emphasize the cross-quarters a bit more, whilst Druids and Eco-Pagans would tend to emphasize the “solar” holidays.

  • 12StepWitch

    I’ve actually always felt more excited about the “minor sabbats” because their roots are so firmly ensconced in what is happening right now in the natural world. The solstice and the equinox are incontrovertible facts, they are astronomical. How I interpret them or what I take them to mean may be up to me but it is happening for all of us, whether one finds it significant or not. The “major” Sabbats I feel so much more removed from. They are holidays belonging to another time and culture, and while I can enjoy and celebrate it and find meaning in it, the same sense of ownership is not there. Except for Samhain, which is somehow so modern it transcends that.

  • PegAloi

    Great post; but isn’t it the Oak King who “wins” at Yule? (The Holly King reigns from summer solstice to winter solstice)

    • There is, of course, no universal outline for the Wheel. Every version differs in the details of the story, and every version differs in which events are assigned to which point on the Wheel. In the version I follow, the Oak and Holly Kings are born at the solstices and battle and defeat each other at the equinoxes.

    • There is a wonderful outline of various versions of the Wheel here: http://www.byzant.com/mystical/calendar/MythCycles.aspx

  • I couldn’t agree more. This year in particular, now that I’m fully settled into my spiritual practice, Christmas has become a major part of my Midwinter celebrations again. I do use Midwinter over Yule, but obviously in my case it actually is Midwinter over here, and I definitely disagree with calling it Midwinter unless it feels like that in your area! I think this may be the most “major” holiday of the year for me, as others have mentioned in the comments. But as much as I welcome the returning light, and love watching the footage at Newgrange, I too feel that it is very much about the darkness of the year, too. Imbolg will be my festival of lights – but at Midwinter I sit in the dark and silence and stillness and really feel those long nights.