The Pagan Origins of The Yuletide Season
Ever wonder why we choose to put a tree, of all things, in our living room at this time of year? Or, where Santa Claus came from? These, like many other Yule traditions, seem to have been with us all of our lives. Yule symbols and themes have long been a part of our pagan past which stretches far behind us, our parents, or even our great grandparents. These traditions and others were carried over to America by the immigrants and settlers of the New World. Christmas (also known as Yuleday) is a good example of a purely Pagan festival, adopted by the Christian religion for its own purposes. History shows us that long before the fourth century, when many Christians began to observe Christmas on the 25th of December, the Pagans celebrated the birth of the son of the Babylonian Queen of Heaven, and it may be fairly presumed that, in order to conciliate the heathen, and to swell the numbers of the nominal adherents of Christianity, the same festival was adopted by the Roman church; giving it only the name of Christ.
Yuletide (Norse) last from December 20th through December 31st. It begins on Mother night and ends twelve days later on Yule Night; hence the "Twelve Days of Christmas" tradition. the Norse word for Yule means "wheel"; to us, Yule represents the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Thus the Eve is known as Mother Night as she gives birth to the new Sun. In ancient Chaldee, Yule meant "infant" or "little child", hence again the image of a new born baby.
The concept of the Old Father Time and the Baby New Year have these same Pagan overtones as well. Each are different views of the old being replaced by the new, the ever recurring cycle of life.
In Rome, at the winter solstice, there was a great festival called the feast of Saturn, or Saturnalia. This was a period of great revelry, merriment, and drunkenness. Slave and master were equal for the entirety of the festival; in fact, one slave was chosen to the temporary master, wearing the royal purple and being called the Lord of Misrule. Even today, one of the major parts of Yule is the feast which accompanies it. All celebrants, no matter what their name for the season, feel its joy and festivity. For awhile, at least, we are friendly to everyone. All are equal.
Many of our Yule customs actually originated in ancient Babylon. Did you know that the Yule candles actually stem from the rites observed in those times?
They were lighted on the eve of the festival of the Babylonian God, in his honor. It was one of the distinguishing peculiarities of his worship to have lighted wax candles on his altars.
The first Christmas trees are often thought to have firs, although this tradition was also followed by the early Egyptians who used palm trees (symbols of victory). Its green presence in winter reminds us of rebirth, the continuation of life's cycle. Some early legends depict the tree as a symbol of the new born God, Baal-berith (Lord of the Tree). His appearance or rebirth at Yule shows his victory over death. In early Rome, the 25th day of December was observed as the birthday of the unconquered Sun, the day when the victorious god reappeared on Earth in the form of a tree.
Santa Claus is another immigrant whose image is almost universally recognized, but did you know his origins?
In the seventeenth century, Santa (known then as St Nicholas) came to America with the Dutch.
Actually the image we have as Santa comes from the poem "A Visit from St Nicholas", written in 1822 by New York clergyman Dr Clement C. Moore. Inspired by the earlier writings of Washington Irving, where the first mention of Santa's sleigh and reindeer would appear, the poem has amused us to this day with it's image of a bewiskered jolly fat man. In case you don't recognize the poem, It is also referred to as " The Night Before Christmas", and in case you didn't know, Dr Moore later wrote seventeen couplets to his know famous poem.
Actually, there may be some very distinct Pagan connections behind jolly ole Santa. Nik was a name for Woden, who rode a white horse though the sky. In early folklore, Santa also rode a white horse though the sky. Woden is very much a Holly King figure, as is Santa Claus. Some have said he is a confusion between Saturn, who is stern and solemn, and Bacchus, who is anything but. Thus we get the jolly fat man with rosy cheeks, who brings toys for the children, but only to the good ones.
Yule is the celebration of the return of the Sun. It is the time of the winter solstice, when the sun's rays must travel the farthest to touch the Earth in the Northern Hemisphere, and the nights are at their longest. After the moment of the solstice, the days begin to grow in strength again, and the tide in the struggle between light and dark begins to turn. To Wiccans and Pagans of most traditions, the Sun represents the male aspect of Deity, the God, and his death and rebirth on the Winter Solstice is viewed as the death of the old solar year and the birth of the new. This eternal struggle is symbolized in some traditions by the struggle between the Oak King (God of the Waxing Year or the Divine Child) and the Holly King (God of the Waning year or the Dark Lord); at Yule, the Oak King vanquishes the Holly King. At Litha, or summer solstice (when the days begin to grow shorter, the Holly King is victorious over the Oak King. The names by which the God was known have varied from culture to culture, thus to the Norse and Anglo-Saxons he was Balder, to the Celts, Bel, etc. Despite different names, his attributes generally remained the same making him easy to recognize.
Another tradition followed at Yule is wassailing. The most common use of the term "wassail" is in describing a festive drink, of which there are various recipes made from ale of cider to be found. It was also the custom to carry the brew about the neighborhood in a wooden bowl (Wassail bowl), leading a procession from door to door singing and spreading the feeling of benevolence and good cheer. The common spelling and meaning of the term is derived from a mongrelization of the Anglo-Saxon Waes(thu)hal which means "be thou healthy or hale" when used as a toast or greeting. From the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, it is shown to have stemmed from both the terms Kailo, meaning "whole or of good omen", and Wes (wesan or waes) meaning "to be". In old English Hal means "hale or whole". The Old English word Halig means "holy" and is derived from the same roots. Thus, it is most appropriate to celebrate our holiday of Yule with a refreshment whose very name validates the essential gifts of the season.
Another form of wassailing is seen in the British Isles. There, besides the drink being observed, the locals also "wassail" the trees. A hymn is usually sung to the tree wishing it good health and long life. A blessing is also bestowed upon it to be fruitful and then guns are fired or some other loud noise is made in order to drive off any woeful spirits. Toasts to the tree are then drunk from the wassail bowl. When all have finished their toasts, the remainder of the holy liquid is poured around the trunk while bread or cakes from he wassail celebrations are placed upon its branches.
Time has changed some of our traditions, and hidden others through the passage of time, yet they are there should you look. To express the holiday with wild abandon, great feasts and rejoicing has always been a Pagan tradition as well. It was noted in 230 AD, "how much more faithful are the heathens to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians".
So as the Wheel turns toward Imbolc, know that this is a time of the year to be joyful and express your feelings through kind actions and/or the exchange of gifts. Whether it be the rites of Saturnalia, Feasts, the Yule Sabbat, Hanukkah or Christmas that you honor, each of us are following the traditions and customs
of our Pagan past.
Peace and Light on this Solstice Day