Earlier this week we celebrated the Winter Solstice, a day deeply rooted in ancient Pagan ritual. Today we celebrate Christmas, a holiday celebrated all over the world for both religious and cultural reasons. While many of us associate Christmas with Christianity, many of our traditions and customs stem from the Pagan practices of thousands of years ago. This widely celebrated holiday is commonly accepted as the birthdate of Jesus Christ, however the real reason we gather around a tree to exchange gifts on December 25th has a very different history.
This time of year is a cause for festivity in many cultures, as the days again begin to grow longer, and thus the sun returns to ease the daily lives of ancient peoples, bringing them warmth, light, and food. The Solstice, known as Yule in Pagan traditions, falls between the 17th and 25th of December every year. It is the shortest day and longest night. It is the night that the Goddess gives birth to the baby Sun God. This was vastly significant in the ancient world, as life was significantly harder in the dark and cold, and so people rejoiced in the return of the sun.
Persian Winter Festivals
Perhaps the very first winter festival in human history, Sada was celebrated in proto-Indo-European times, and is a great festival in honor of the strengthening fire and the sun amidst the darkness of winter. In ancient Persia, the celebration of the Winter Solstice was called Yalda, and was in honor of a Christ-like figure called Mithra. Mithra was an angelic being who symbolizes light and the sun. Yalda celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil, as well as the birth of Mithra. Mithraism was brought to Europe by Greek soldiers, and elements of the festival were adopted by Romans as their Saturnalia. These very early celebrations set the tradition of honoring the return of the sun at this time of year.
Saturnalia was a week long holiday celebrated by the ancient Romans in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Saturn was very important to the Romans in association with the planting season and time itself. The celebration typically began around December 17th and lasted until the Solstice. The Romans celebrated with wild festivities and parties. All business proceedings ceased for the week, and there was food and drink to be enjoyed everywhere. Boughs of greenery were hung and trees were even decorated with tin ornaments. It was common to exchange small gifts, such as clothing or food. Celebrators would roam the stream, naked, singing and merrymaking. An important tradition during Saturnalia was the reversal of the roles of master and slave; slaves were allowed to disobey their masters and masters may serve their slaves a feast. After the festivities were over, the roles always returned, but this allowed all people to rejoice in this joyous time of year.
Perhaps the day with the closest ties to modern day Christmas traditions is the Norse celebration of Yule. Again, the Winter Solstice is the center of this midwinter festival, as it signifies the beginning and end of all things; it is the darkest time of the year and yet light and hope are reentering the world. The Norse Vikings held a festival for 12 nights in December. They celebrated with rituals, sacrifices, and feasting. In Norse mythology, on December 20th, the god Ingvi Freyr rode over the earth on the back of his boar, bringing the return of love and light. The Wild Hunt was at its peak, as Odin, atop his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, and his band of spectral horsemen and dogs rode across the night-sky. Children would leave socks filled with hay outside to feed Sleipnir. Many of the traditions related to Yule have come the traditions that we will honor in today’s celebration of Christmas.
Traditions with Pagan Origins
The yule log was an important ritual in ancient Viking celebrations. Families would bring a large log into their home, decorate it with fir and holly, carve it with ruins, and burn it in their fireplace. They asked for protection for the gods, and a piece of the log was kept in the home all year for protection. The log was then used to start next year’s fire. Today, the yule log is commonly known as a chocolate dessert rolled in nuts. Many modern Pagans and Wiccans incorporate the yule log into their Yule rituals.
Decorating with Evergreen and Christmas Trees
Many cultures decorate their homes with winter greens during their winter celebrations. The ancient Egyptians did not have evergreens, but brought palm leaves into their home at the time of the Solstice. During Saturnalia, the Romans decorated their homes with green boughs, holly, and ivy. They also decorated trees and bushes with small tin ornaments. The Vikings decorated evergreen trees with carved ruins, statues of gods, food, and clothes to entice the spirits to return in the Spring. The Druids used evergreen and mistletoe in their winter rituals. The use of these plants is largely to do with the fact that they remain green all year round, and thus represent fertility, renewal, and hope.
During Saturnalia, revellers went naked through the streets, singing and celebrating, an early and debaucherous predecessor to caroling. The custom also dates back to ancient fertility rites, where villagers travel through fields and orchards singing, in order to scare off any spirits that may inhibit the growth of their crops. They also poured wine and cider on the ground to encourage fertility in their crops. This custom of wassailing continued to medieval times, when orchards would be visited by wassailers drinking cider and singing to the trees, in order to encourage a healthy harvest the following year. The modern idea of Christmas caroling did not actually become popular until the Victorian era.
There are very many different versions of Santa Claus and other gift-giving mythical beings, such as La Befana and Frau Holle. The Santa Claus that we know and love is likely a combination of St. Nicholas and the Norse god Odin. St. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop who was known to give gifts to the poor, and is usually portrayed as bearded and wearing clerical robes. The Norse god Odin also influenced Santa Claus. He is depicted as an old man with a long white beard, and children would leave their socks or boots out with food for Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, and he would leave gifts for them in exchange. This is how gift giving became associated with St. Nicholas. When Dutch settlers came to New Amsterdam, they brought with them their own St. Nicholas traditions. They would leave out their shoes to be filled with gifts. They called St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, which later became Santa Claus.
For Christians, the red berries of holly are representative of the blood of Jesus as he died on the cross, and the sharp leaves symbolize his crown of thorns. However, there are Pagan meanings that predate Christianity. Holly is associated the god of winter, the Holly King, immersed in his yearly battle with the Oak King. Holly was also believed to ward off evil spirits, and is an important plant in the dark winter when most other trees are bare.
There is a lot of debate as to how Christmas came to be known as a Christian holiday, and why it’s Pagan beginnings are not more common knowledge. The Bible does not mention Jesus being born in December, it actually states that he was born in the Spring. It is theorized that the Christian Church designated this date in order to steer focus away from Pagan traditions and facilitate the conversion to Christianity. Whatever the reason, most people, even Christians, are celebrating a historically Pagan holidays with traditions that are distinctly Pagan as well.
Whatever your beliefs, and whichever way you celebrate, Baby Coven wishes you and yours a very Merry Christmas. We hope you have a wonderfully magical day.