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Friday, 16 May 2014

Winter Solstice Yulesbt

Winter Solstice Yulesbt

[A]bort, [P]ause, any to continue


by Mike Nichols

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 Savior.

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

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
' -- to make sure the lambing
goes well. Knowing this, the Eastern
half of the Church continued to reject
December 25, preferring a 'movable
' 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
), 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

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. This year (1988)
it occurs on December 21st at 9:28 am
CST. 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
', that 'hours of sun on Christmas
Day, so many frosts in the month of
', 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!'

The Eight days from December 25 to
Epiphany as a sacred, festive season.
This last point is perha