It’s a Friday night and my wife and I are preparing for our coven’s Yule Ritual. “I think we should put Dionysus on the altar tonight” I yell at her from the ritual room, and from the living room I get the affirmative. So I wander out to one of the Christmas Altars* and remove Big D from the home he’s currently sharing with a menorah and Father Christmas. The moment I set him down on the altar there’s a sudden tingle in our temple space, he wants to be here in this space with us.
I love Yule, and always have. I loved it as a child when I called it Christmas, and I love it now as an adult in all of its various form. From the moment the lights go up in November the house just fills up with an extra touch of magic. Winter Solstice with the coven has even more layers. It was three years ago, the Yule of 2012 when we started using “the C word” to describe our ritual group. On that night we went from being a circle to being a coven, and the bonds connecting us have only strengthened since then.
When ritual finally starts things begin to blur a little bit. I am super-excited, “Yule is great” and “Happy Birthday to us!” I shout as we set up our ritual space. As we call the quarters I’m practically dancing as we turn to the East, South, West, and North. As we pass around our welcoming cup I drink deeply, the cups contents are not a want they’ve suddenly and unexpectedly become a need. I then step up to the altar and call to Dionysus and at this point I can feel it, I can feel him, buzzing around inside of me.
My ritual invitation to the Wine God was a thing of beauty, completely made up on the spot and now completely forgotten. When I was done my wife and High Priestess looked at me and said “I’m not following that, you call the Goddess,” so we did. Not nearly as lovely as my earlier invocation but still probably not terrible, the Goddess of Yule comes sweeping in holding a new-born child, nurturing and with all the wisdom that only a Crone can achieve. We then begin the evening’s working and I can feel Dionysus moving through me in a way I haven’t felt in a couple of years. I feel witty, empowered, flirty, and a bunch of other things I probably shouldn’t write down. There are also things I just don’t remember (though the kisses to and from my High Priestess were especially sweet). It’s Yule, it’s Dionysus, I should have expected as much. (He does love a good party after all.)
Yule and Dionysus go hand in hand to me because it feels to me like he’s always been around this time of year. Sure, he’s not a part of the Santa Claus conglomeration, but his spirit seems deeply rooted in the festivities of Midwinter. Some of that is because he’s a good of wine and intoxication; spirits, wine, beer, and cider have always been a part of the Winter holidays. There was watered-wine at Saturnalia and probably some sort of schnapps at the office Christmas party down the street. If the gods are invoked and honored when we partake in their gifts then Dionysus is as strong today as ever.
I have always seen the face of Dionysus in the Lord of Misrule, a medieval custom most likely stretching back to pagan antiquity. Lords of Misrule were appointed to preside over the Christmas season, especially the gluttony and the drinking. The Lord of Misrule spread joy, cheer, and mischief; things I associate with Dionysus. In addition to all of that the Lord of Misrule upended the social order. Those who were given the office tended not to be the elites, but the peasants or lower-serving members of the church. In pagan antiquity they could even be slaves.
Dionysus has always been about disrupting the social order. His rites were celebrated simultaneously by men and women (rare in the ancient world), and women held high status in his cult. He, and many of his followers, were also completely comfortable dressed in drag. It’s easy to see Dionysus in the Lord of Misrule but also in the costumes and parades of Medieval Mummery. As a god of the theatre it’s easy to see Dionysus approving of garish costumes.
Dionysus became an integral part of Christmas in the Nineteenth Century when he shows up in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Argue with me all you want, but that’s most definitely Dionysus guest-starring as the Spirit of Christmas Present. Not only does he look like a reborn-Bacchus in the original illustrations, I find that he acts like him too. The chilling reveal of Ignorance and Want in that tale is very much appropriate to the character of Dionysus, the gods has a darker side, and has never been all about sunshine, rainbows, and wine.
During our ritual these were the images flashing in my mind’s eye. I pictured joyous revelers at Saturnalia, merry Lords (and Ladies) in the medieval period, and drunken office-parties. The face behind the images changed from time to time, but the spirit and energy were always the same; pulling the strings and blessing the festivities was Dionysus, even when his name was lost to the celebrants.
There are a whole host of deities that are honored in the early Winter. There are some who place Odin on the Yuletide throne, and others who honor the Crone. But for me this time of year has always revolved around Dionysus and it’s hard for me to imagine Yuletide without him.
*Christmas/Yule/Winter Solstice it’s all kind of the same to me. I know that bothers some people but it’s the reality I live in.