Well, I wrote this article nearly two decades ago but I think it still stands as a decent exploration of the customs of Christmas and Yuletide that many of us still embrace and enjoy. The trees, the lights, the feasting and merriment. Much of my research for these kinds of articles came from the books of historian Ronald Hutton, whose excellent work helped revitalize the more scholarly approaches to understanding the roots of net-paganism and modern pagan witchcraft, as he calls it.
I’ve added some illustrations that I hope you’ll enjoy. Whatever your path, however you celebrate these holidays, I wish you a beautiful time of it.
Try though we might, it is not easy to escape the influence of Christmas in this country. It is easy to become jaded and cynical about it, wondering why it is not the magical time we all experienced as children, wondering how it ever got so commercial. For modern pagans who may still observe the holiday because their families do, it is a confusing time of year; how to celebrate this as a seasonal festival when so many of our associations with this holiday have to do with gifts, food and merrymaking?
Even for those who celebrate this day as the birth of Christ, it must be difficult to stay focused on that significance, with the tinsel and shopping and office parties and the newest toys for kids clouding their vision. I for one find that cynicism abounds at this time of year, and that many adults dread the “holidays” because of family issues and stresses that seem to become more pronounced. The emphasis on having a picture-perfect “Martha Stewart” style celebration is a set-up for disappointment; and kids these days are so focused on getting presents that they hardly have time to enjoy the more sensual pleasures of the season (winter activities, traditional foods, music, decorations). Of course Christmas was not always this way; modern societies are far removed from our ancient connections to Nature; yet we still retain customs derived from the agricultural calendars of our ancestors. Perhaps there is something to be said for examining the modern traditions of Christmas in light of their ancient origins. It may be surprising to find that many of the customs still associated with Christmas today are, in fact, derived from ancient pagan traditions.
The seasonal observance of holidays such as Channukah and Kwaanza are tangentially influenced by the overwhelming emphasis on Christmas, and in the United States it has become common in recent years to give a more even representation of these holidays alongside the more popular one: Christmas. Yet the religious significance of the season seems remarkably absent much of the time. And of course the symbols of the season are very secular in nature: trees, mistletoe and holly, Santa Claus, reindeer…how do such symbols relate to the birth of Christ?
Christ’s Birthday? or Winter Solstice?
To begin, let us look at the actual reason this holiday exists: for Yule and Christmas are not so very different, underneath it all; both celebrate the arrival of the sun/son; or, if you like, the light of the world…
Ronald Hutton, in his excellent book The Stations of the Sun, has this to say about the story of the Nativity: It “makes sense on a mythological level–an archetypal representation of the birth of a hero at the junction of many worlds, (who is) engendered partly of humans and partly of the divine, born in a location that is neither indoors nor in the open air, belonging partly to humans and partly to animals, and adored by those on the margins of society.”
Most modern pagans acknowledge Yule as the rebirth of the light half of the year; some traditions perform the play of the Oak King and the Holly King, just as it is done at Midsummer, to mark the change of the seasons as one of them reigns over the other. It is also generally accepted that the date of Christmas is an arbitrary one; that it was chosen to coincide with the pagan solstice celebration, as a way of “converting” the “heathens” (or country folk, heath-dwellers) to the Christian way of life.
The first written record of the reason for this holiday’s occurrence on December 25th was in 354 AD, in Rome, when one scholar wrote: “It was customary for pagans to celebrate the birth of the sun…when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.”
However, the tradition of celebrating the solstice on this day is not much older, at least according to extant records: it was officially decreed in the year 274 by the emperor Aurelian. A century later, the archbishop of Constantinople observed that fixing the date of the “Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness” was necessary because “while the heathens were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance.” Saint Augustine encouraged Christians to honor “He who made the sun, not the sun itself.”
As an aside, the word “Yule” is believed to derive from a colloquial Scandinavian term meaning “wheel.” There is also some speculation it is dervied from the Old English word for “jolly.” But its exact etymology is still debated. The concept of the wheel makes more sense to me, since this date marks the definitive point in the Wheel of the Year, and for many cultures and calendars it is the start of the new year.
We know that the observance of the winter solstice was very significant in ancient times. Since this date represented the moment when the days would again become longer, when light would return to the land, the rural folk who faced lean times in winter had reason to be thankful. The use of candles as decorations and ritual objects, dating from ancient times, clearly indicates the importance of honoring the deities of light. The sun’s return meant spring was on its way,and with it, the birth of new animals to the flock, and the softening of the soil tilled by our ancestors who lived as animal herders and farmers. Their celebration of this date as a holy day, when they worshiped and honored the sun as a deity, was an affirmation of their survival of the cold months of winter. They subsisted on the dried meats of the animals they slaughtered at Samhain, and what little produce they could preserve from the final harvest.
Much of the folklore surrounding winter solstice rituals from various cultures has to do with very basic symbols of agriculture and animal husbandry; in other words, the dormancy of winter as a time of scarcity, and the return of the light as a harbinger of new growth. In Frazer’s The Golden Bough it is observed that Bethlehem means “House of Bread,”and that this indicates an association of the birth of Christ with ancient rituals honoring a god of grain and vegetation. The Christian mass includes as its central climax the sharing of bread which represent Christ’s body; such symbology dates from well before the dawn of Christianity. And the drinking of the fruit of the vine, in addition to honoring ancient harvest deities like Bacchus and Dionysus, was also believed to insure a bountiful grape harvest in the coming year.
In areas where other fruits were the important crop (like apples in England), many rituals developed around blessing the orchards at Yuletide. Called “saining,” these rites blessed fruit trees and livestock so that they might bring abundant food in the seasons ahead. Many of the “wassail” songs reflect this in their lyrics, such as “And here is to Cherry and to his right eye; May Yule bring our mistress a good mincemeat pie.” During these rites, Cherry, a common name for a roan-colored cow, might even have a cup of cider tossed in his face; the way his head turned in response was considered a way of divining the health of the herd in the months to come.
The Holly and the Ivy; Did Someone Say “Tree Worship?”
Another potent symbol of Yuletide is the use of evergreen plants to decorate indoors, including holly, ivy, and mistletoe. In the British Isles, it has been customary since time immemorial to decorate with flowers or greenery at all seasonal celebrations; the traditional “evergreen” plants were those that flourished in the winter months, and also included rosemary, gorse, bay, cypress, and yew. The tradition of kissing under a bough of greenery first became widespread in the late 18th century; but this was as likely to be made of holly or gorse as it was to be mistletoe. The ancient association of mistletoe with the Druids was mentioned in a Christmas short story by Washington Irving in 1819, around the time of the revival of interest in Druidism in England. But apparently its vibrancy during winter and its lovely white berries were the main reasons for its popularity as “the kissing bush.”
Many modern Witches still perform a ritual of the Oak King and Holly King at Midsummer and Midwinter. The Holly King rules the Waning year; the Oak King, the Waxing Year. The two battle each other for dominance at Litha and Yule, respectively. Just as this rite is a symbolic reenactment of the sacrifice of a young male of the tribe, to appease the gods who ruled the seasons; it is clear that Christ, like the Persian god Mithras (also born at Midwinter), is a symbol of rejuvenation and light. In cold climates, basic survival was based upon subsisting from one harvest to the next; honoring the return of the sun was believed to ensure a bountiful crop, and healthy livestock. In the British Isles (the birthplace of modern Witchcraft, and a region bursting with centuries of religious conflict and mystery) many other rites and customs still exist that reflect these “heathen” (heath-dweller, or country folk) ways of life.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry, or, How Not to Diet During the Holidays
One undeniable feature of the Christmas holidays centers around traditional foods, and the time-honored “tradition” of feasting (and, in our sedentary society, over-eating). Many of us who celebrated Christmas as children have vivid memories of special dishes (some we loved, some we hated! my own favorites were a rosemary-roasted chicken prepared by my grandfather, and my dad’s fried smelt; but I watched in horror as other family members ate calamari or Yorkshire pudding). The sheer plethora of traditional cookies and sweets of the season, from many cultures but especially prevalent in Germany, Italy and the UK, is testament to an elaborate history of foods created especially for the season of Yule.
Originally, feasting at this season had several purposes: one, to acknowledge the return of the season of growth with eating heartily during a season of scarcity was a way to give physical expression to the hope for abundance in the year to come. Second, in countries where winter meant a very bleak time of inactivity (as in the fishing and farming communities of rural Scotland), a feast was a way of alleviating boredom and depression. Third, the elaborate Yuletide activities of the nobility from the Middle Ages onward gradually developed into status-conscious events wherein households vied with each other for acts of generosity to their communities: for the poor, this meant eating well and receiving much-needed gifts of new clothing or shoes. During the Protestant Reformation, when Yuletide festivities were all but banned, there were still some stubborn monarchs and lords who persisted in their celebratory rites of feasting and of treating their household servants to a fine meal; to do less would be disastrous, as growing levels of poverty meant food shortages in winter.
As Christianity gradually usurped the pagan ways of worship, the custom of Advent, which is a month-long fast before Christmas, reflects these times when people had to survive eating very little. A “fast” meant no eggs, meat or cheese could be consumed, among the wealthy; the poor generally ate very little meat anyway, and so for Advent gave up other staples, such as cider. It then became a custom to feast on the 25th, and to mark this day with acts of hospitality and generosity. The rich were expected to open their doors and purses for all; this could well have been the precursor to the tradition of helping those less fortunate at the holidays, and giving gifts to those who serve others all year, such as mail-carriers, domestic help, etc. But there were instances when the nobility merely entertained their social equals, not their inferiors, on this day. One poem from this period says:
The concept of feasting during the Middle Ages was naturally different from what it became in later centuries, when advances in farming and hygiene allowed more people to be fed more efficiently. As the years wore on, feasting at Yuletide/Christmas became very elaborate, particularly among the nobility. One common table centerpiece for wealthy households was the boar’s head; it was first recorded as being requested for Yule by the bishop of Hereford in 1289. So notorious did this dish become, as it was something of a status symbol to be able to serve it, that there were even songs written in its honor, like “The Boar’s Head Carol”:
Many royal banquets at Christmas had memorable menus that included huge amounts of exotic foods. Richard II once held a feast for 10,000 people that served 200 oxen and 200 tubs of wine. Henry V held one unforgettable event where a dish called brawn (the flesh from the boar’s belly) was the main dish; there was also “dates with mottled cream, carp, prawns, turbot, perch, fresh sturgeons with whelks, roasted porpoise, eels and lampreys, leached meats garnished with hawthorn, and marzipan,” among other delicacies. The food was not the only spectacle, however; it was also customary to hire entertainment for these feasts; whether harpers, singers, story-tellers, or minstrels. While the feasts hosted by the wealthy were very opulent, it was also common for communities to organize their own, more humble, events, with church parishes pooling their resources to purchase food and drink, and to hire their own entertainment, or to put on their own productions (this tradition is still very much alive in the U. S. with the traditional “Christmas pageant”).
It is not hard to see how Christmas, over time, evolved into a holiday of excess, centered upon food, drink and fun; and, of course, gift giving. Though the orgy of shopping makes us numb to the true pleasure of gift giving, its origins at this season were based in very simple values of generosity and hospitality.
Gift giving seems to originate in another December holiday. The feast of Saturnalia (which honored the god Saturn) was long established by the Romans before they invaded Britain, and was celebrated from December 12-17. It was a time when masters waited on servants at mealtime, and gifts of light were given, particularly candles (this may have been in honor of a solar deity for the upcoming solstice). Other traditional gifts exchanged were coins, honey, figs and pastry. Honey and figs were believed to be aphrodisiacs, but also they were highly-prized for their nutritional value (honey is a natural preservative and is believed to restore youthfulness to the skin). The giving of coins predates the traditions in England of handing out coins to the less fortunate, or the opening of a lord’s purse to feed his household servants. These Roman customs surrounding the use of candles, and the exchange of gifts at midwinter, shows that many later Yuletide traditions may have originated in the older festival of Saturnalia. It may also be where the tradition of wassailing and caroling door to door, in expectation of gifts of money, arose, but many of these customs developed somewhat naturally over the years out of various practices by both the nobility and the peasant classes of England.
Wassailing, for example, is a well-loved custom that inspired many songs written especially for the occasion.
“Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our bowl it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.“
The term wassail in Old English means “your health.” The traditional bowl or cup full of mulled wine originates in the fourteenth century; the leader of a gathering would take up a bowl and cry out “Wassail!” and toast the others; the cup would then be passed on to the next person, with a kiss, until all in the room had drunk from it. Interestingly, some modern Wiccan covens observe this tradition when passing cakes and wine in circle. On another note related to modern Wiccan practice, Hutton also observes that a traditional dance developed that over time that was performed with the customary wassailing carols; and that this dance was performed with a ring of men and women holding hands! Sounds like many a Gardnerian ritual circle I have been to…this is one more example of an ancient folk custom of rural Britain being passed down to modern times and utilized in Witchcraft rites.