The winter solstice takes place when the Sun enters the Sign of Capricorn, and Saturn, the ruler of Capricorn, was also supposed to be the ruler of the far off Golden age of the past when the world was happy and fruitful. At this time of the year, the Romans decked their houses with boughs of evergreen trees and bushes. People gave each other presents, and all normal business was suspended and social distinctions were forgotten. Servants and slaves were given a feast by their masters who waited the tables.
The Pagan Saxons celebrated the feast of Yule with plenty of ale and blazing fires, of which our Yule log is the last relic. The Yule log is actually an indoor equivalent of the outdoor bonfire of Midwinter Eve. It is said that the Yule log must never be bought but should be received as a gift, found or taken from you own property. Often the log to be burned at midwinter was chosen early in the year and set aside. It is also said that the number of sparks struck off the burning log indicated the number of lambs and kids would be born in the coming year.
The type of wood used to make Yule logs varied from region to region. Oak logs were popular in the north of England, birch in Scotland and ash in Cornwall and Devon. Ash is the only wood that burns freely when green and the world-tree, Yggdrasil, in the Nordic tradition was an ash-tree. It is important that the Yule log be the biggest and greenest log available since the Christmas festivities will last only as long as the Yule log burns. Once the log is out and the ashes are cold they are often gathered for luck and protection or to
fertilize the land.
In some parts of the Scottish highlands, the head of the household finds a withered stump and carves it into the likeness of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich or Christmas Old Wife, a sinister being representing the evils of winter and death. She’s the goddess of winter, the hag of night, the old one who brings death. Burning her drives away the winter and protects the occupants of the household from death.
There is also an old custom of saving a piece of the Yule log, ‘for luck’ to kindle the next year’s blaze as evidenced in this poem by Herrick’s titled “Hesperides:”
Come bring with a noise
My merry, merry boys
The Christmas log to the firing
With the last year’s brand.
Light the new block,
And for good success in his spending
On your psalteries play:
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teendling.
Yule or Christmas Tree
Continuity of Life, Protection, Prosperity are all symbolic of the evergreen and associated with Green Goddesses & Gods; Hertha; Cybele, Attis, Dionysius (Pine); Woodland Spirits traditions: Roman, Celtic, Teutonic, Christian.
The tradition decorating with evergreen trees and boughs, however, originates from the ancient pagan cultures. Many cultures saw the evergreen, one of few plants to remain green even in winter, as a symbol of life even during the season of death. To decorate with the trees and branches of the evergreen was a way of celebrating this eternal life.
In her book, The Solstice Evergreen, Sheryl Ann Karas says that the earliest record of an evergreen being decorated comes from Riga in Latvia in 1519, when a group of local merchants carried an evergreen bedecked with flowers to the marketplace, where they danced around it and then burned it.
Modern Christmas trees were introduced to the court of Queen Victoria by her husband, Prince Albert, as a custom from his native Germany.
Angels on top of the tree
In some regions of Germany, people placed witches instead of angels at the tops of their Christmas trees, perhaps in recognition of the Crone, the old-woman face of the Goddess who presides over this part of the year.
The custom of placing a light at the top of the Christmas tree is another symbol of the rebirth of the sun. Catholics later changed this image to that of the angel heralding the Christ Child’s birth.
In ancient times it is said that Germanic tribes would sacrifice their prisoners to the god of victory (Wodan or Odin in Norse) by hanging them upside down from trees for nine days, as Wodan was hung from the Tree of Life in order to obtain the wisdom of the runes. After the wars ended, they replaced actual men with gingerbread men, as way of asking for help from Wodan in making it through the dark winter.
Another legend tells how St. Nicolas begged some grain from a ship passing through Myra during a famine. He kept some and baked the rest as bread, in his own image. St. Nicholas has his own special cookie: the Speculatius, a gingerbread figure of a bishop. The name means “image,” referring to the mirror image of St Nicholas which has been pressed into a wooden mold and then turned out on a sheet to bake in the oven (like other traditional Christmas cookies made in molds: springerle and cavalucci).
Holly King/Oak King
We celebrate the light overcoming the dark, as two are brothers, rivals or the flip sides of the same coin. The Oak King rules from midwinter until midsummer, and the Holly King rules from midsummer until midwinter. Every year at Yule, the Oak King cuts off the Holly King’s head and rules for six months until midsummer, when the Holly King kills the Oak King and the cycle begins again. You can see the vestiges of the myth in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Janet and Stewart Farrar devote a whole chapter to these two in their book The Witches’ God.
Another version of the Oak/Holly King theme is the ritual hunting and killing of a Wren. The Wren, little King of the Waning Year, is killed by the Robin Redbreast, King of the Waxing Year. The Robin finds the Wren hiding in an Ivy bush (or as in some parts of Ireland – a holly bush).
In the Christianized version of the story Saint George in shining armor, comes to do battle with the dark faced ‘Turkish Knight’. Saint George is the Sun, slaying the powers of darkness. However, the victor immediately proclaims that he has slain his brother. Dark and Light, winter and summer are complementary to each other. So on comes the mysterious ‘Doctor’ with his magical bottle who revives the slain man. There is much rejoicing and all ends well.
Candles, Lights and Torches
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 and it is felt that this may have been in honor of a solar deity for the upcoming solstice.
Pagans also lit candles at the stroke of midnight on the solstice, to symbolize the rebirth of the god, the mystery of a light being reborn in the midst of darkness.
The Christmas candle, a large candle of red or some other bright color decorated with holly or other evergreens, was at one time a popular custom throughout Great Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. One person, usually the eldest or the head of the household, is designated as the lightbringer. She lights the candle for the first time on Christmas Eve before the festive supper and during each of the remaining evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas. To extinguish the candle, she snuffs it with tongs rather than blowing it out, since that would blow the luck away. The candle sheds a blessing on the household and so is protected from accidental quenching.
Lamps burning all night at Midwinter, survive in Ireland and elsewhere, as the single candle burning in the window at Christmas Eve, lit by the youngest in the house – a symbol of mircocosmic welcome to the Marcosm.
Juno Lucina, Mother of Lights, was a goddess of childbirth whose festival was celebrated with torchlights and bonfires in Rome in early December. As midwife of the miraculous Sun Child born at Winter Solstice, it was said she brought children to light. Later converted to Christianity as St. Lucy, she found a home in Sweden, where Yuletide celebrations today still include the procession of the Lussibruden (Lucy Bride), led by a young girl wearing a crown of candles.
The Roman celebrated their festival of Saturnalia — a twelve-day festival that marked the ending of one year and the beginning of another.
The Norse also saw this as the traditional new year or beginning because it marked the time of the sun’s return. Twelve days after Christmas was the traditional day to celebrate the new year for those peoples.
Holly was hung in honor of the Holly King in pagan traditions and still is today in may pagan homes. It symbolizes the old Solar Year; Waning Sun; Protection, Good Luck and was particularly prized to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces because of its prickliness — to either ward off or snag and capture evil spirits before they could enter and harm a household.
Romans were quite fond of holly during their Solstice celebration, known as the Saturnalia. Gifts of holly were exchanged during this time, as holly was believed to ward off lightning and evil spirits. Holly was also seen as a symbol of the feminine aspect, the red berries signifying the blood of the female. Ivy was seen to represent the masculine, and the ancient custom of decorating the doorway with the two plants intertwined was a symbolic union of the two halves of divinity.
Once called Allheal this sacred plant symbolizes peace, prosperity, healing, wellness, fertility, rest, and protection. Celts believed this parasitic plant held the soul of the host tree.
It was at Alban Arthan (actually 5 days after the new moon following the winter solstice) that the Chief Druid cut the mistletoe from the sacred Oak with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. Celts believed this parasitic plant held the soul of the host tree. The priest then divided 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 folklore, and the magical powers of this plant, blossomed over the centuries A sprig placed in a baby’s cradle would protect the child from faeries. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect the entire herd.
Norse peoples also saw the plant as sacred. Warriors who met under the plant would not fight, but maintained a truce until the next day. Other European cultures viewed mistletoe as an aphrodisiac, explaining the custom of ‘kissing under the mistletoe’. Mistletoe was not just for kissing under, but also for conceiving under, as well. And its magickal power was felt to make it a wonderful fertility amulet.
The Norse god Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements–fire, water, air, and earth–that they would not harm her beloved Balder.
Leave it to Loki, a sly, evil spirit, to find the loophole. The loophole was mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood. To make the prank even nastier, he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder’s brother, who was blind. Guiding Holder’s hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder’s heart, and he fell dead. Frigga’s tears became the mistletoe’s white berries. In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant–making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
It is interesting to note that Mistletoe is usually banned from churches at Christmas, because of its Pagan association. However, Stukeley, an eighteenth-century writer, noted that on Christmas Eve, they carried Mistletoe to the High Altar in the church and proclaimed a universal liberty and pardon to all sorts of criminals and wrongdoers.
Christmas Breads and Ham
Feasting on boar, whether caught or raised, almost held the feeling of communion. In Sweden and Denmark, there’s a custom of baking a loaf of bread in the shape of a boar, called the… Yule Boar! It’s made from the last sheaf of grain (also called corn) harvested. It presides over the celebration, and is often kept until spring, when it is ground and added to the fodder for the plowing animals. Sometimes it is split, half is eaten at New Year’s, and the rest kept until spring when it gets the above treatment.
Caroling is thought to come from the traditions associated with wassailing. It also may be from traditions where Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun, the boughs were symbolic of immortality, the wheat stalks portrayed the harvest, and the flour was accomplishment of triumph, light, and life.
Wassailing and Apples
Apples were considered in ancient times to be the very important crop, not just for the food they provided but more importantly for the cider that was obtained by squeezing the juices from the apples.
In fact, 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.
The actual tradition of wassailing derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon term ‘waes hael’ (be whole or hale). 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.
On the eve of Twelfth Day in Normandy, lit torches were carried with wild abandon through the fields and orchards, waving them into the branches and knocked against the trees to drive off vermin and burn away lichens and moss; fertility was guaranteed!
Saule is the beloved Baltic Sun Goddess, about whom thousands of folksongs (the dainas) were sung. In some stories, Saule is a red apple setting in the west; in others, she sleeps in an apple tree. When she is sad, she sits in her apple garden weeping tears of amber, the sun-stone. At Winter Solstice, Kaleda, Saule is reborn as her daughter the morning-star.
Presents have been a common theme of Solstice and Yule celebrations for thousands of years. People gave gifts in a time when community survival was the driving impulse, rather than consumerism. You shared food and other creature comforts to ensure that your neighbors and loves ones–your tribe–would to survive the brutal months to come.
The Saturnalia in Rome was celebrated as the beginning of the New Year, and the revelers gave presents to symbolize the good luck, prosperity, and happiness that they wished for the recipient during the coming year.
Christian tradition ties the giving of gifts to the Magi, which visited the Christ child shortly after his birth, bringing gifts to the future Savior.
Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle Pere Noel
Santa Claus is many things: jolly Jupiter, a smiling Saturn, and the Old God on his way to rebirth. Norse and Germanic peoples have for centuries told stories of the Yule Elf, who brings presents on the Solstice to those who leave offerings of porridge. Odin, the Norse god, is also often identified with the character of Santa. One of his titles was Jolnir, “Lord of the Yule”, and the resemblance to the white-bearded Santa is quite striking. In the guise of St. Nicholas he is a pagan deity who was absorbed into the Christian tradition.
It is uncertain where the idea of reindeer towing a sleigh truly came from but there’s the Julbock or Julbukk, or Yule goat, from Sweden and Norway, who had his beginnings as carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge.
New Year’s Resolutions
The tradition of the New Year’s resolution is possibly a tradition based on that of the Norse peoples who swore a Yule oath. Their kindred did this on Twelfth Night (aka New Years Eve).