Reclaiming the Winter Solstice
by Melanie Fire Salamander
I’m know I’m not the only person, pagan or otherwise, who approaches the winter holiday season gingerly. To begin with, Americans generally consider Christmas a time to gather with their families. Even for those who get along with their relations, the togetherness (and the cleanup afterward) can be stressful.
Further, as a non-Christian, I find it somewhat alienating how Christmas permeates our culture. It’s hard for any non-Christian to ignore — witness the Jewish households with Christmas trees.
Specifically, as a pagan, I find Christmas the height of the borrowed holiday double-bind. The holidays of the winter solstice are the pagan holidays most thieved from and later overlaid by Christianity. Granted anything appropriated by Christians from pagans can be appropriated right back, but the holiday feels somewhat marred in the process.
I think this feeling arises partly because the forced marriage of pagan and Christian traditions I grew up with doesn’t entirely work. The symbolism of giving gifts seems flawed, unless you see the receivers as avatars of the infant Christ gifted by Magi(cians), which philosophy I haven’t seen promulgated. In Christmas gift-giving, the traditional pagan solstice gifts have lost their former meanings of luck and fertility and the propitiation of the dead. Because the symbolism no longer works, greed and guilt are often the main components that remain.
Thus, when I was a child trying to be Christian, I found Christmas the holiday that required the most hypocrisy. You knew if you were told to write an essay about the true meaning of Christmas you weren’t supposed to lust for presents, but rather to harp on peace on earth and the blessings of the Christ child. Peace on earth is a fine hope, but I only wrote about it as a child because I knew I was supposed to.
But I’ve always loved the Christmas traditions of my childhood. The Christmas tree spangled with tinsel and glowing with colored lights, Christmas feasts, the house warm and scented with baking, snow on the hills, a holly wreath with blood-red berries — because these symbols were Christianized, they remained to color my childhood, and they speak as deeply to me as anything Halloween does.
More than any other Sabbat, the winter solstice I think requires a conscious act of reclaiming. We have many solstice traditions to choose from, more than meet an initial glance. It’s a glorious time, a deep symbol, the return of the sun and the many myths that stem from it. I think the time and symbol are worth reclaiming. I think we owe it to ourselves to meditate, dig deep and choose and practice the solstice traditions that most speak to us.
The pagan roots of Christmas
The early Christians quite consciously chose the pagan sun holiday for the celebration of their Son-god’s birth. Christmas falls during the Roman Saturnalia and at the birth of the Mithraic sun god. According to A Witches Bible Compleat, by Janet and Stewart Farrar, the Archbishop of Constantinople wrote that church fathers fixed the Nativity during the pagan holidays because “while the heathen were busied with their profane rites, the Christian might perform their holy ones without disturbance.”
Other Christians accused those who kept Christmas at the solstice of performing sun worship. Armenians, who celebrate Christmas on January 6, elsewhere Epiphany, called Roman Christians idolaters, according to Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Similarly, under the Puritans in 1644, the English Parliament expressly forbade observing Christmas. Augustine admitted that putting Christmas at the winter solstice was a conscious identification of the Son with the sun but defended the symbolism.
The Christmas most Americans know as children mixes a celebration of the birth of Christ with traditions from the Roman Saturnalia, the Northern European Yule, and the Celtic solstice.
Saturnalia, the great leveler
Saturnalia, a string of related festivals beginning December 17 and lasting a week in its final incarnation, celebrated the Golden Age of the Roman god Saturn. Its roots lay in a solstice ceremony designed to protect winter-sown crops. One of its signal customs was a leveling of rank and age; during Saturnalia, courts passed down no punishments, schools closed, wars ceased, gambling was encouraged, and social distinctions were leveled or reversed. The slave was equal to the freeman, and the master served the servant. All took bawdy liberty in speech and action.
Christmas inherited this turnabout of power. Early Europeans’ Christmastime saw the reign of the Lord of Misrule, called in Scotland the Abbot of Unreason. The Lord of Misrule ran the revels from All Hallows until Twelfth Night, arranging parties and theatricals and inflicting penalties for any misdeeds he saw fit. A related custom survived in York till the eighteenth century, as Doreen Valiente writes in An ABC of Witchcraft; there the people carried mistletoe to the high church altar and proclaimed (in the words of a contemporary) “`a public and universal liberty, pardon and freedom to all sorts of inferior and even wicked people at the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of heaven.’”
Saturnalia may have given us our tradition of decking interiors with evergreen boughs, and may be the source of Christmas gift-giving. In the latter days of festival week, Romans exchanged gifts of wax fruit, candles and dolls. Funk and Wagnall’s identifies the fruit as symbolizing fertility, the candles as echoing the customary new fires of solstice, and the dolls as a remnant of human sacrifice. Reports from a Roman outpost reflect the sacrificial aspect of Saturnalia, Funk and Wagnall’snotes; inhabitants there elected a King Saturn and gave him great freedom, only to ritually murder him at feast’s end.
Yule: fertility and ghosts
At the winter solstice, Scandinavians worshipped Frey, god of fertility; further south, the Angli celebrated December 24 as New Year’s Eve, called modranecht (mother night), a vigil also connected with fertility rites. In general, the traditional Yule (from the Norse Iul, meaning wheel) was a feast devoted to fertility and the ancestors, which passed on to Christmas fecund and ghostly traditions.
The Christmas roast pig is kissing cousin to julgalti, the pig offered to Frey for fertility in the coming year, according to Funk and Wagnall’s. Hence the apple in its mouth. Similarly, Yule was a time to charm grain and fruit to grow thick. Traditional Scots kept the Corn Maiden from harvest till Yule and then distributed her to the cattle, according to the Farrars. The Germans scattered the ashes of the Yule log on the fields for fertility, or kept its last charred pieces to bind in the last sheaf of the coming harvest. The French retained a piece of Yule log through the year to protect the house against fire and lightning, to ensure bountiful crops and the easy birth of calves.
The solstice was also a weather predictor, according to Funk and Wagnall’s. In more recent tradition, a white Christmas is said to mean a prosperous New Year, while a green, cloudy or hot Christmas fills the churchyard.
Yule is a time for spirits. European tradition, transferred to the Christian holiday, held that each house should be clean and prepared for Christmas before the household went to church, so the spirits could inspect it. Spirits likewise stayed for Christmas dinner. In Sweden, householders set a special table for them.
European folk beliefs say that someone who sits under a pine tree on Christmas Eve can hear the sound of angels — but death will soon follow. Death also awaits one who hears farm animals converse in the barn that night. A person born on Christmas can see spirits. Dreams on the Northern modranecht were believed to foretell the coming year, according to Nigel Pennick in The Pagan Book of Days.
We tree kingsIn the British Isles, Celtic Yule traditions survive with amazing resilience. The fight of the Oak and Holly Kings, representatives of the waxing and waning year, is recalled in the still-current hunting of the wren — a custom also found in ancient Greece and Rome.
In the myth behind the practice, the robin redbreast, identified with the Oak King, caught and killed the wren, representative of the waning year and the Holly King. The robin traditionally trapped the wren in an ivy bush, in Ireland a holly bush, the Farrars write. The robin’s tree was the birch, the tree associated with the after-solstice period in the Celtic tree calendar.
In the wren hunt, according to Pennick, a group of droluns(Wren Boys) captured the wren, which during the rest of the year was sacrosanct. The droluns ensconced the bird in a lantern and trooped it around the village on a holly branch on its way to death. Alternatively, men with birch rods chased the wren and killed it. Wren Boys still tour County Clare in west Ireland on December 26, now a group of adult musicians who go door to door with a wren effigy on a holly branch. In County Mayo, Wren Boys are holly-bearing children, including girls, who knock on doors repeating a traditional verse that asks for money to bury the wren. In Scotland and the North of England, in a possibly related custom, masked and caroling children formerly celebrated Hogmany on New Year’s Eve, traveling the neighborhood soliciting oat cakes.
The wren’s rival, the robin of the waxing year, was linked to Robin Hood, according to Robert Graves in The White Goddess. Robin was a god of the witches; Graves writes that a London tract of 1693 named Robin Goodfellow an ithyphallic witch-god. In Cornwall, he notes, “robin” means phallus. Robin “Hood,” or “Hod,” was thought to exist in the hod, the log at the back of the fire, in other words the Yule log. Woodlice who ran from the burning Yule log were called “Robin Hood’s steeds,” and Robin was said to escape up the chimney as a robin. The Yule log is traditionally of oak, again connecting it with the Oak King; in some places it’s burnt bit by bit through the twelve days of Christmas, but elsewhere celebrants retain a chunk to light the next Yule log.
Another British Christmas custom recalling the kings’ fight was traditional mummery, in which the brilliantly armored St. George fought and defeated a dark Turkish knight. But, as Valiente notes, the victorious St. George immediately cried out he had killed his brother, showing that “darkness and light, winter and summer, are complementary.” A mysterious doctor revived the Turk, and all rejoiced.
Too often, as the Farrars write, this understanding of light and dark’s balance turns to a contest of good vs. evil. In Dewsbury, Yorkshire, for nearly seven centuries, church bells knelled “the Old Lad’s Passing” or “the Devil’s Knell” at Christmas Eve’s eleventh hour, warning the Devil that Christ was coming. Other connections link the Holly King and the Devil. The Farrars tie the Devil’s nickname, Old Nick, to Nik, a name for Woden, “very much a Holly King.” Santa Claus — St. Nicholas — is likewise a disguised Holly King. Not only do households put up holly garlands in his honor, in early tales he rode a horse, as Woden does, rather than driving reindeer.
More solstice tree traditions
Another Celtic Yuletide custom was wassailing, in which a group of people carried a bowl of wassail (cider) into an orchard. The celebrants chose one tree to represent the whole grove and dipped its branch tips in wassail, stuck bits of wassail-soaked cake among its twigs and sprinkled wassail on its roots, according to Pauline Campanelli in Wheel of the Year. Morris dancers might mime the abundant harvests they hoped the orchard would produce in the following year. Similarly, traditional British believed that Christmas sun shining through fruit trees foretold a big harvest, according to Funk and Wagnall’s.
It’s not surprising a culture that named its letters and months for trees had many tree customs. Only one day of the Celtic calendar lacks a ruling tree and ogham letter. The Celts called this day, December 23, the Secret of the Unhewn Stone.
Like apples, evergreens also connect with the solstice, as a symbol of eternal life. Christmas Eve mystery plays of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries combined evergreens and apples, the fruit tied to the trees’ branches. Seasonal celebrants decked interiors with holly, fir, pine, bayberry, rosemary, branches of the evergreen box shrub and also ivy and mistletoe.
Ivy is sacred both to Osiris, the Egyptian god of death and rebirth, and to the Greek wine-god Dionysos — both gods traditionally resurrected at this time of year. In the England of previous centuries, Campanelli writes, harvesters bound the last sheaf of grain with ivy and called it the Ivy Girl, a figure considered to combat the Holly Boy. This combat marks an older competition between Goddess and God, from before the Oak King’s entrance on the scene. Such a scenario also appears in the tradi- tional carol “The Holly and the Ivy.”
Mistletoe in contrast connects with the Oak King, found suspended as it is on the Celtic magick oak. The Druids collected mistletoe at the winter solstice, their ritual Alban Arthuan, as well as at the summer solstice; in winter, the mistletoe has white berries, representing the semen of the God and bringing fertility. Traditionally, a girl who stands under mistletoe tacked up indoors may be kissed by any boy who comes up.
Traditions of tree trimming and evergreen decoration may have combined to engender the Christmas tree. Campanelli writes that the first Christmas tree was decorated in Riga in Latvia, in 1510, when a local merchants’ guild carried an evergreen festooned with fake flowers to market and burned it there, a sort of combination Christmas tree and Yule log.
The Christmas tree has become popular only in the last 150 years, migrating to the United States from Germany. However, its German name, Tannenbaum, may reflect older roots; Campanelli relates the word to tinne or glastin, the sacred trees of the ancient Celts. More distantly, Funk and Wagnall’sconnects the Christmas tree to flower-decorated May trees and May poles. Campanelli draws in the cult of Cybele and Attis, in which ritualists dragged a fir tree into the temple and adorned with it violets, mourning the dead Attis, soon miraculously to rise. A fir cone tips Dionysos’s thrysus, and the pine is sacred to Pan and Sylvanus. Whatever their provenance and meaning, seasonal evergreens shouldn’t hang too long. Funk and Wagnall’s says you must throw them out of doors by Epiphany; Valiente gives you till Candlemas but says if you’ve not done it then, hobgoblins will haunt you.
The Yule’s for you
Given that the Christmas we know comes from the Celtic and Northern Yules and from Saturnalia, using parts of one, several or all of these rites in your rite is only appropriate. Create a Yule of the spirits, or a ritual for garden or personal fertility. Choose a Lord or Lady of Misrule, Holly and Oak Kings or an Ivy Girl and Holly Boy.
Or turn to other traditions. Ancient Athenians at the winter solstice held the Lenaea, the Feast of Wild Women. The nine Wild Women of the ritual reenacted the death and rebirth of Dionysos. Once probably a human sacrifice, the god’s representative by classical times had become a goat kid, which the Wild Women killed, then mourned. Then Dionysos was reborn in ritual, and the Wild Women rejoiced.
The winter solstice similarly commemorated the rebirth of Egyptian Osiris, who after a mummification beginning November 3 was buried on the solstice. Two days later, his sister and wife Isis gave birth to his son and second self, the sun-god Horus — the return of light to the world.
In this hemisphere, the Hopi and Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest hold solstice rituals over several days, including kachina dances, corn and meal rites and war society ceremonies. The Hopi also perform phallic rites and hawk dances. Their neighbors the Zuni relight their sacred fire for the solstice.
You can look for inspiration to nonpagan religions. Though Judaism is a monotheistic tradition, it has roots in an ancient pagan past. Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, most recently celebrates the dedication of a new altar in the Temple after the old had been destroyed, but the feast falls during a much more ancient Jewish solstice observance. The lighting of the lamps parallels the celebrations worldwide in which a lit fire hails the returning sun.
Work with any of these traditions, or find one of your own, perhaps connected with your heritage or travels. The solstice holiday comes woven of many strands; choose one that feels right, learn all you can about it and do what speaks to you, honoring the places and peoples your ritual comes from. Reclaim this Sabbat, and let the reborn sun fill your life with light.