Like most Americans, I grew up with Christmas traditions including a decorated tree with presents underneath, stockings stuffed with goodies hung on the mantelpiece, wreaths hung on doors, a yule log, and of course, Santa Claus sneaking down the chimney on Christmas Eve. And, like most Americans, I never questioned where these traditions came from. My understanding was that Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of baby Jesus on December 25th. So why doesn’t Jesus bring us presents in the middle of the night? And how does Santa figure in the story of Jesus Christ?
I am always surprised to learn that many people who call themselves Christian are unaware of the fact that nowhere in the Bible (New Testament) is it stated that Jesus was born on December 25th. In fact, the time of year is not even mentioned at all. Seems kind of a chilly time of year to be wandering around at night on a donkey and giving birth in a stable, doesn’t it?
There is a simple answer to this mystery. The “Christmas traditions” I mentioned above have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity. They are much older and predate the birth of Jesus.
I suspect many Americans are unaware that Christianity is not the native religion of Europe. It was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine I, who claimed to have seen a flaming cross in the sky bearing the words “in this sign thou shalt conquer” before his battle against Emperor Maxentius for control of the Western Roman Empire in 312 A.D. Constantine was victorious, and the next year he signed the Edict of Milan, which ensured religious tolerance for Christians, who were granted legal rights such as organizing churches.
Constantine unified the Roman Empire in 324 A.D. from his seat of power in Christian Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey). There, a Christian ruling class emerged that promulgated Christianity. In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicea was held, the first meeting of Christian churches aimed at unifying contentious aspects of the Christian doctrine. This resulted in the concepts of the equality of the Father and Son, and that Jesus and God were equally divine and created of the same substance, which was documented in what has become known as the Nicene Creed.
As Christianity spread across what today we refer to as Europe, the native Europeans continued to practice their own pre-Christian (Pagan) traditions for several centuries, long after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Christians, in turn, had to incorporate many of these traditions into their own religion to ensure its continued relevance. As a result, nearly all the high festivals in Christianity (Advent, Christmas, Easter, etc.) are actually Pagan festivals, whose values and ideals are actually Pagan European in origin. Thus, the holiday we call Christmas is actually a much older Pagan festival called Yule.
The origin of the word Yule, has several suggested origins from the Old English word, geõla, the Old Norse word jõl, a pagan festival celebrated at the winter solstice, or the Anglo-Saxon word for the festival of the Winter Solstice, ‘Iul’ meaning ‘wheel’. In old almanacs Yule was represented by the symbol of a wheel, conveying the idea of the year turning like a wheel, The Great Wheel of the Zodiac, The Wheel of Life. The spokes of the wheel, were the old festivals of the year, the solstices and equinoxes.
The winter solstice, the rebirth of the Sun, is an important turning point, as it marks the shortest day, when the hours of daylight are at their least. It is also the start of the increase in the hours of daylight, until the Summer Solstice, when darkness becomes ascendant once more.
Yule is deeply rooted in the cycle of the year, it is the seed time of year, the longest night and the shortest day, where the Goddess once again becomes the Great Mother and gives birth to the new Sun King. In a poetic sense it is on this the longest night of the winter, ‘the dark night of our souls’, that there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.
Fire festivals, celebrating the rebirth of the Sun, held on the Winter’s Solstice can be found throughout the ancient world. The Roman festival of Saturnalia was held on the winter solstice, boughs of evergreen trees and bushes would decorate the house, gifts where exchanged and normal business was suspended. The Persian Mithraists held December 25th as sacred to the birth of their Sun God, Mithras, and celebrated it as a victory of light over darkness. In Sweden, December 13th was sacred to the Goddess Lucina, Shining One, and was a celebration of the return of the light. On Yule itself, around the 21st, bonfires were lit to honour Odin and Thor.
The festival was already closely associated with the birth of older Pagan gods like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus, Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even Arthur with a cycle of birth, death and resurrection that is also very close to that of Jesus. It can hardly be a coincidence that the Christians, also used this time of year for the birth of Christ, mystically linking him with the Sun.
That Yule is another fire festival, should come as no surprise, however unlike the more public outdoor festival of the summer solstice, Yule lends itself to a more private and domestic celebration. Yet like its midsummer counterpart, is strongly associated with fertility and the continuation of life. Here the Goddess is in her dark aspect, as ‘She Who Cuts the Thread’ or ‘Our Lady in Darkness’, calling back the Sun God. Yet, at the same time, she is in the process of giving birth to Son-Lover who will re-fertilize her and the earth, bringing back light and warmth to the world. (Source)
In Northern latitudes, the Sun spends the summer and autumn traveling south and then seems to disappear for three days at the Winter Solstice, which usually occurs around December 22nd. From an astrological perspective, the Sun resides for three days in the constellation known as the Southern Cross. Then, on December 25th, it starts to go north again and the days begin growing longer.
Remember, we are taught that Jesus was born on December 25th, dies on the cross, then returns three days later. At Yule, the Sun dies on the cross (Winter Solstice), then returns (is born) three days later on the 25th (Christmas, a.k.a the birth of the Son of God, a.k.a “The light of the world”). What have we really been celebrating all these years?
Nearly all the Christmas traditions we are familiar with come from ancient European Pagan traditions. Knowing what they mean and why they are important will give your Christmas celebrations a whole new significance.
Yule trees go way back in Pagan tradition, and generally were outdoor live trees that were decorated with hanging candles. The Yule tree lights and ornaments originally symbolized the sun, moon and stars as they looked on the Tree of Life. The Yule tree decorations also represented the souls of the departed who we remember at the end of the year. And then there is the modern day gift giving which originated from hanging sacred presents on the Yule tree as offerings to deities. (Source)
In some traditions of Odin’s Yule time ride, children could place their boots near the chimney filled with treats for Sleipnir and Odin would reward them for their kindness with food, candy or gifts. The tradition still continues in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. In other Germanic countries the practice has been replaced with hanging stockings. (Source)
It was traditional to make wreaths from evergreen—the Wheel of Life is everlasting and evergreen. These were hung on doors or laid horizontally and decorated with candles—later becoming the Christian Advent Wreath. (Source)
Yule logs played an important role in the celebrations of the winter solstice and later Christmas, a large oak log was ceremoniously brought into the house and kindled at dusk, using a brand from the previous year’s Yule Log. It was deemed essential that the log, once lit, should burn until it was deliberately extinguished. The length of time, varied from region to region, from 12 hours to several days and it was considered ill-omened if the fire burnt itself out. It was never allowed to burn away completely, as some would be needed for the following year. (Source)
We have to go back a bit find the pagan legend and myth associated with Santa. One of the first places to start is with the Germanic people and the Norse God Odin. The 13th Century Poetic Edda is a complication of stories and poems from Scandinavian history, some as early 985AD. In this work and from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda we learn about Odin riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, that can leap great distances. At Yule, Odin leads a great hunting party through the sky in celebration. This story gives rise to comparisons of Santa and his 8 reindeer flying through the sky. (Source)
Wassail, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon wes hál, meaning ‘be whole’, or ‘be of good health’, or Old Norse ves heill, and was a salutation used during Yule, when the wassail bowl was passed around with toasts and singing. Wassail carols would be sung as people would travel from house to house in the village bringing good wishes in return for a small gratuity. The Apple Tree Wassail, sung in hopes of a good crop of cider the following year, and others such as the Gower Wassail carol, still survive today.
Recipe for Yule Wassail
3 red apples
3 oz brown sugar
2 pints brown ale, apple cider, or hard cider
1/2 pint dry sherry or dry white wine
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger strips or lemon peel
Core and heat apples with brown sugar and some of the ale or cider in an oven for 30 minutes. Put in large pan and add rest of spices and lemon peel, simmer on stove top for 5 minutes. Add most of the alcohol at the last minute so it heats up but does not evaporate. Burgundy and brandy can be substituted for the ale and sherry. White sugar and halved oranges may also be added to taste. (Source)
The spirit of Yule
Above all, Yuletide is a celebration of the return of the light, the promise fulfilled of light birthing out of darkness. It is a time to share love and celebrate with our community of family and friends. (Source)