A Bit of Background Detail
Get to September-October and the internet is full of pagan postings bemoaning the fact that they hate Christmas. How all the pagan meaning has been profaned and announcing the fact
that they will be holed up in solitary misery until all the commercially-decadent festivities are over - which sadly demonstrates a complete lack of awareness concerning our pagan ancestry and its customs. Let’s understand one thing before we go further: the Church did not invent the Mid-Winter Festival … it was there with all its rich tapestry of feasting and celebration long before Pope Julius I officially decreed in the 4th century AD, that the birth of Jesus would henceforth be celebrated on the 25th December.
There are several factors that may have influenced the choice. December 25th was the date the Romans marked as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birth of the Unconquered Sun), which was easily massaged to become the ‘Unconquered Son’ based on some obscure Old Testament verse [Malachi 4:2:] where Jesus was identified with the Sun. The date was exactly nine months following Annunciation, when the conception of Jesus was celebrated in the Christian calendar. Biblical scholars reckon it most likely Jesus was born late August or September, because ‘when John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb at the presence of Jesus in Mary’ it was during The Festival of Lights [Hanukkah] in December that is more likely closer to his conception than birth! It was also around the birth date of Mithras whose following rivaled that of early Christianity. Finally, the Romans had a series of pagan solstice festivals near the end of the year, so the calendar was realigned to appropriate these excuses for merry-making.
Nothing here for us to celebrate, our lonely pagans cry.
Au contraire, mes amies!
And that’s why I have just signed the contract for Having a Cool Yule: How-To Survive (and Enjoy) the Mid-Winter Festival with Moon Books.
The Winter Solstice, or Mid-Winter Festival as our ancestors would have called it, is the most magical and mystical time of the year and should be celebrated as such with all the pagan gusto we can summon. It is an ancient fire-festival that heralds the shortest day of the year; an astronomical turning of the tide to announce the rebirth of the Sun and the promise of warmth returning to the land. It was a time of long nights and short days. It was cold and dark and not a time to be out. It was, therefore, the perfect time to feast and create artificial light and warmth – and look forward with hope to the return of the sun.
In those days, the British winter was more severe than now but the Winter Solstice would have been a special moment during the year even in Neolithic times. This is confirmed by the layouts of those great late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these ancient monuments were carefully aligned with the Winter Solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the Winter Solstice sunset (Stonehenge); Stonehenge’s Great Trilithon was erected facing outwards from the middle of the monument, with its smooth flat face turned towards the midwinter Sun. The Winter Solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons.
The reasons for this are obvious - and demonstrate why the Mid-Winter Festival with all its trappings of feasting and plenty should remain one of the most important feasts in the pagan calendar – if only as a testament to those who didn’t make it through the long winter darkness. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter (January to April in the northern hemisphere), which were also known as ‘the famine months’. The Festival was the last opportunity for feasting, before deep winter began; when a large proportion of the cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, and it was the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and also ready for drinking at this time.
In medieval and Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve! At the beginning of the Twelfth Night festival, a cake that contained a bean was shared and the person who found the bean would rule the feast. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. This tradition dates back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Roman Saturnalia. Food and drink were an important part of the celebrations and all of the traditional recipes go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night and throughout the whole holiday, especially in Britain. Around the world, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake, are baked on Twelfth Night and eaten the following day.
We also must remember that within the early Church many of the traditions and customs practised on ‘holy’ days can be traced back to pre-Christian times when specific events were endowed with magical or spiritual attributes that were incorporated into festivals and celebrations. These customs were so firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the people, that when Christianity was finding a foothold in Britain, the Church of Rome integrated and sanctified them. The Church slowly drew the people in by allowing the old festivals to continue with a veneer of Christianity overlaid upon them, with Anglo-Saxon, Norman and early medieval churches being decorated with festive Mid-Winter greenery (which was later banned as being pagan).
We only have to scratch the thin veneer of Christmas to find an important pagan holiday with the majority of its ancient traditions preserved intact. The ubiquitous pagan ‘Wheel of the Year’ now assigns the Winter Solstice to the place of a minor sabbat, and yet as we’ve discovered, it was probably the most important festival of the year for our pagan ancestors after the Harvest festival. It doesn’t matter where we live in the New or Old World, it would be a pity to ignore these facts and not celebrate the season with mirth and merriment as our forebears did – but not let Christian hype and gross commercialism ruin the true magic of the Winter Solstice. After all … what is there to hate about ancient pagan traditions?