Reclaiming the Winter Solstice

I love this season, whatever you call it!  The tinsel, the lights, the gifts and the merriment – bring it all on!  But of all our pagan traditions and sabbats, it is the mid-winter solstice which most needs to be reclaimed!

So much that was sacred and mysterious has been lost to consumerism and greed.  Centuries of misinformation and propaganda have buried our ancient beliefs.  So lets do a little digging and see what we can discover of the True Meaning of Christmas!

The Jews have Hanukkah; pagans might call it Yule; Christians do Christmas; in fact most cultures in the northern hemisphere have some form of mid winter celebration.

Does it really have anything at all to do with a birth 2000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, or even one in similar circumstance in the Nile Valley, several thousand years before that?

The ancient Romans had many Gods, as did the Greeks and the Ancient Egyptian before them.  Their celebrations throughout December, which included the very popular Saturnalia and Brumalia, very often involved a great deal of feasting and drinking.

By the beginning of December, when the farmers would have finished their autumn planting, the ancient Romans would turn to Saturnus, the God of seed and sewing, and honour him with a festival.  The Saturnalia officially began on December 17 and lasted for 7 days.

Brumalia began as an ancient Greek festival honouring Dionysus and was generally held on December 25.  This practice was adopted into Roman culture and the God’s who was honoured was changed to Bacchus. The name Brumalia is derived from the Latin word bruma, meaning “shortest day.

By the third century CE, many spiritual mysteries were actively followed within the Roman Empire, that all celebrated the birth of their god-saviour around the time of the winter solstice.

Emperor Aurelian grouped a number of Pagan celebrations of the birth of such Gods as Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithras, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival known as “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” – the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” sometimes referred to as “The Nativity of the Sun”. The date of this ancient festival, of course, was December 25.

At the time, Mithraism and Christianity were fierce competitors but Aurelian declared Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, and from there it migrated to Britain.  It was not until the 4th century CE that Christianity was promoted to the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the ancient Norse people were celebrating Yule.  This began with 20th December, the Mother Night which was sacred to the Goddess Frigga.  The winter solstice on 21st was held sacred to Odin, Freya, Thor and Balder, among others.  The celebrations lasted right through to Dec 31 or 12th night!  This day was held as a day sacred to family.

By about 300 BCE in our own islands, the druids were almost certainly celebrating the midwinter solstice at Stonehenge.  But the henge itself is much older.  Deep in the Neolithic mists before recorded history, its building possibly commenced around 3000 BCE.  Although we have no way yet of knowing its true purpose, its astronomical significance for the solstices cannot possibly be ignored.  So it would appear that even during our Stone age, some spiritual or cultural event of importance was marked around the time of Christmas!

Although in Neo-paganism, Yule is considered a minor sabbat, to our ancestors the midwinter holiday was clearly of great significance and it is because of this importance that the early Christian church went to such lengths to absorb it into their own mythology.  I find it quite  interesting that many Christian clerics now readily accept that this blending of ancient pagan belief and modern Christian teaching began its journey simply as a marriage of convenience.

But why was the midwinter of such cultural significance and why have so many different  traditions placed such importance upon its celebration?

Lets look at some of the customs then that have been absorbed and integrated into what is generally known as Christmas.

What about that jolly old elf Santa Claus?

If he was indeed Saint Nicholas, who showed his great love for God by serving humanity, then why is the church so against his inclusion in the sacred celebration of Christmas and how did a young Turkish bishop end up as an elderly elf living in a magical domain at the North Pole?

Children in Italy believe in a female version of Santa Claus called La Befana, an old woman who flies on a broom and brings presents.  According to Italian legend, three wise men asked La Befana for directions to Bethlehem, to find a very special newborn child.  La Befana was asked to join them but declined three times.

It took an unusually bright light and a band of angels to convince La Befana that she must join the Wise Men, but she was too late.  She never found the Christ child and has been searching ever since.  On January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, La Befana goes out on her broom to drop off stockings filled with treats to all the sleeping children of Italy.  A broom? A similar figure exists in Russia and goes by the name of Babushka, or Grandmother.

Many of our visions of Santa travel by magical means, but despite the obvious pagan symbolism of these characters, they appear to have strong links to the Christian church.  Many are doomed to search endlessly, leaving gifts for good children, to make up for their sins of omission.

Could our modern day Father Christmas be traced back further than St Nicholas?  In the Bacchanalia the representative god was not the young Bacchus, but the aged, cheery and decidedly disreputable Silenus, the chief of the Satyrs and the god of drunkards.

In the Saturnalia it was Saturn, a dignified and venerable old gentleman-the god of Time. In the Germanic feasts it was Thor, a person of patriarchal aspect, and a warrior to boot.  All these seem far more likely candidates than the youthful bishop Nicholas.

But could we find his beginnings in our own ancient past?  We must look back to our roots, and discover the story of the ongoing battle for supremacy between the Oak King and the Holly King, for that is where we shall find our true Santa Claus.

Long before the advent of Christianity, our pagan ancestors looked to the cycles of nature to explain the mysteries of life, for their survival depended upon living with the seasons not outside of them.

The Great Goddess was honoured as having a triple nature of Maiden, Mother and Crone, which was manifested through the seasons of the earth.

The Horned God was personified in the form of the Oak and Holly Kings, who each reigned for half of the year.

The Oak King represented the waxing year of growing light from Yule to Litha; the waning year of darkness from Litha to Yule was the time of the Holly King.  Though dual aspects of one God, each had a distinct personality whose ongoing battle for supremacy was eternal.  They were  representations of light and darkness; creativity and regeneration; both had a purpose and therefore both were necessary and to be honoured.

At each midwinter solstice, the Oak King would triumph and rule until midsummer, when he was again defeated by the Holly King.  The Holly King would rise at midsummer and come into his full power between Samhain and Yule at which time he would, again, have to admit defeat.

The Holly is a powerful symbol of all that is enduring in nature, with its ability to survive through the darkness of winter.  Its bright berries help small creatures to survive throughout the harshest of weather and it has always been linked with protection.  If planted near a house it guarantees protection against malevolent spirits, negativity of all kinds and lightning.

By now we have possibly all heard that until 1930, when Coca Cola dressed their Santa to match their marketing colour of red, the most popular colour for Santa’s outfit was green.  He was also usually depicted as wearing a crown of holly, a well established pagan symbol despite attempts to link this symbol to the crown of thorns.

Santa is the embodiment of the Holly King, an elderly man symbolic of the waning year, dressed in winter clothes in the traditional colour of evergreen.  One might easily see his sack of gifts as the harvest and bounty preserved during his reign, which even as he sacrifices himself to the Oaken King, he leaves as a gift to keep his people alive until the coming of spring.

The idea of a sacrificial king who is reborn to bring light to the world is as old as humanity itself, and found in most pagan cultures.  From the Celtic to Nordic culture, shamanism to Native American, in times of hardship the king might be expected to make the ultimate sacrifice, to appease the Gods and ensure the return of the light.

This ritual sacrifice persisted quite harmlessly for centuries as part of the seasonal festivities, acted out first by participants in ancient druidic rituals, bardic tale and later performed by mummers and travelling players.  Today the practise is enjoying something of a renaissance as the battles are performed again at midsummer and midwinter by Morris dancers, who undertake the traditional roles.

Of course to our ancient forefathers, there was symbolism in everything and all things had meaning.  Certain creatures were held to be sacred to certain gods; the wren was clearly associated with the Holly King and the robin was held to be sacred to the Oak King.  We can only guess why this is so.  Perhaps because up until the solstice, the wren’s song was heard above all else but after the solstice, when the worst of the winter weather was to be experience, the brightness of the robin’s breast against the snow would remind our ancestors that the light of the sun was indeed returning, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The clear pagan origins of the traditional Holly and Oaken King battles offended the church and eventually the Holly and Oak king symbolic battles went underground.  But from this a particularly unpleasant blood sport arose, involving two of our favourite garden visitors, the Robin and the Wren.

The Wren Hunt, as it was called, usually took place on St Stephens’s Day (26 December).  Young men, or Wren Boys would arm themselves with heavy sticks called ‘libbetts’, which they would hurl at the unfortunate ‘King of the Birds’ the tiny wren.  The corpse was placed in a decorated ‘Wren House’ or ‘Wren Bush’, usually holly, and paraded from house to house.  Often the body was gradually plucked as the feathers were distributed, as charms against witches. The Wren Boys made great play of their ‘heavy’ burden, and often begged for money to ‘bury the bird’.  Although local pubs received most of the money, the Wren was indeed often buried in a corner of the churchyard at dusk.

There are other explanations for the origins of this rather nasty pastime.  Some claim that the Druids used the wren’s many song notes to divine the future, but they would have to catch the wren first.  After the druids disappeared, it is said that the people continued to hunt the wren, although they had by this time lost the art of prophecy.

The wren was later said to be the King of Birds, greater than all the other birds because he had been able to trick the eagle into giving him passage on a flight, which assured him of being the highest flying bird and rightfully king.  But at Christmas, the lord of Misrule turned all things upside down, so leading to the hunting and killing of the wren on the day after Christmas.  So it is said.

There are many other tales relating to why this delightfully creature should be so reviled, but none are quite so compelling as an obvious link with a pagan past that the orthodox church tried so hard to disavow.

The robin was no more popular than the unfortunate wren, for his presence was said by country folk be extremely unlucky and if the robin were to enter the house it was considered to be an omen of death.  With the advent of the Christmas card this belief was taken a step further and any card that portrayed our cheery redbreast was seen as an omen of ill fortune.

We all know that Prince Albert brought us our Christmas trees – don’t we?

Certainly Prince Albert may be credited with the popularity of decorated pine trees in Victorian England.  But the custom of decorating a tree for Yule has much older associations than that.

Although King Tutankhamen may never have seen a Christmas tree, he would have understood the tradition.  The Egyptians were among a long line of cultures that honoured the evergreen as symbolic of life over death.  During the winter solstice, their homes would have been decorated with green date palms in honour of this tradition.

The ancient Romans too decorated their homes with holly, laurel and other evergreens for their midwinter festivals.  Individual branches were hung with sweetmeats and given as gifts.

And even here, the Celtic Yule custom which was drawn from the Norse invaders and the Druids was to bring an evergreen tree into their home to represent the eternal aspect of the Goddess. The Celtic Druids would decorate their trees with symbols of what they wished would come into their lives in the coming year: coins for wealth and love charms for happiness are a few of the many decorations that would adorn their Yule Tree.

Why does the Christian church so abhor Mistletoe?

People will pay vastly over generous sums to buy the most dismal specimens of mistletoe simply to have a sprig in their home or more likely, office.  The church’s loathing of this particular custom is widely reported; in churches it was banned as suitable decoration until quite recently.  Why is this?

The ancient druids named their winter solstice celebration Alban Arthan, which meant the time when the mistletoe is cut.

The Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the Oak, using a golden sickle.  A cloth was held below the tree by other members of the order to catch the sprigs of mistletoe as they fell, because it would have dishonoured the mistletoe to allow it to touch the ground. He would then divide the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.

The Druids believed the berries of the mistletoe represented the sperm of the Gods, because of the white substance that may be pressed from its berries.  It was considered a powerful aphrodisiac – not to be consumed as it is highly toxic, but for magical work.  Clearly young women waiting hopefully beneath the mistletoe were asking for a little more than a brief kiss!

The Druids considered the mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of sorcery.

And it was not just the celts who revered the mistletoe; from the Greeks to the Norse, mistletoe was held sacred and honoured at the time of the winter solstice.  It even inspired its own riddle, no doubt chanted by the Lord of Misrule as part of some merry jest:

I lived my life between the worlds

Neither earth nor sky would call me child

The birds were my companions

The wind and rain my mentors

Daily I grew in power and strength

Till snatched out of time by the trickster

When was Christmas not Christmas?

Of all the festivals on the Christian calendar, Christmas was unique in the way that pagan and Christian traditions – mistletoe and midnight mass – became entwined.

For much of our history, this caused little concern, neither among the common folk nor the landed gentry, both of whom enjoyed a jolly good excuse for a little revelry.  It did, however, rather annoy both the Roman church and the puritans.

During the reign of Elizabeth I puritans had attacked the figure of the Lord of Misrule, a wholly pagan concept invented to make people look at things from a different point of view.  But later, in the 17th century, they came to detest both pagan elements and the Christian theme of Christmas.  They hated the pagans out of principle, but they also despised the Christ-Mas because they felt it was Popish and an abomination of Rome.  So the Puritans decided to do away with Christmas altogether!  The act of 1652 read:

No observation shall be had of the five-and-twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.

Not surprisingly there followed a war of pamphlets both for and against the celebration.  But the puritans had the upper hand and there were no Christmas festivities or masses of any kind for eight years.  The population continued to celebrate in secret behind closed doors.

In 1660, back came the monarchy and back came Christmas.  But in Scotland, things were taken a little more seriously.

For almost 400 years, Christmas was banned in Scotland.  At the height of the reformation in 1583, when anything smacking of idolatry was held in contempt, Christmas was wiped off the calendar.  There was nothing half-hearted about this gesture; this was a law that had bite and  transgressions were not treated leniently.  The stripping of Christmas day of all its festivities was taken very much to heart by the Presbyterians, newly freed from Catholicism and the ban continued.

Whether or not this law was actually upheld for all those centuries is unclear.  But it seems likely that the cultural influences that were taking place by the time of World War II finally led to a change of attitudes and the Scots began to celebrate Christmas along with the rest of Great Britain.  But it is true that in many Scottish households, New Year is still the mid-winter celebration of choice.

And so we come to the present.  Each generation has added its own interpretation of the midwinter celebration, as each prevailing religious group has overlaid it with their own symbols.

But of all the seasonal festivals, it is this one that the church has so tirelessly fought to bury, and ironically, it is this which has enabled our ancient tradition to survive;

Altered, renamed, repackaged but still a very Pagan Yuletide.

3 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Winter Solstice

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