By Emma Kathan
The Winter Solstice has long been a time of celebration, and from the many pagan celebrations around the world honoring this season came to be what people now commonly celebrate as Christmas or Hanukkah. When Christian sovereigns extended their rule into pagan lands and converted the inhabitants to Christianity, they eased the transition to a new religion by allowing the people to keep most of their major holidays, but they were renamed, changed slightly, and sanctified as Christian holidays. For instance, there is no record in the Bible of the date or season of Jesus’ birth, and his birthday was not celebrated until the Fourth Century, in Rome and at the time of the Winter Solstice. Another interesting fact is that historically Christmas or the solstice time wasn’t seen as a time of giving gifts. Rather, the Winter Solstice called for feasting, drinking, and merriment with some cultures giving gifts on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the coming year. It wasn’t until the 1800s that gift giving started to become a Christmas tradition. So, to begin, let’s look at some of the pre-Christian origins of the holiday and see how ancient customs became incorporated into what are now celebrated as Christmas and Hanukkah.
Germanic and Northern European peoples observed Yule or Yuletide, a Winter Solstice festival connected with the worship of the Norse god Odin and the celebration of Odin’s Wild Hunt, where Odin and his goddess Frigg rode through swathes of winter light in the night sky to chase damned souls to the underworld. People feared that if they witnessed or in any way mocked the hunt, they too could be taken into the underworld.
Yule was typically celebrated for three days from the first night of the Winter Solstice, December 21 or 22, to December 24 or December 25. Starting in December, some peoples celebrated Yule for a whole month, often up to three. People slaughtered animals, cooking the meat to enjoy with wine and ale. But, purposely, they saved the blood. Blood was used ritually to decorate the people and the statues of their gods and goddesses. The solstice brought the darkest and longest night of the year. Celebrations were lit by firelight from masses of candles, bonfires, and the burning of a large log called the Yule Log, which was sprinkled with salt and oil so that when it burned down the ashes could be scattered around homes to ward off evil spirits. Other customs carried to the modern era included decorating homes with trees covered in candles, metal ornaments, and fruit, and caroling or wassailing, where wandering groups of singers were rewarded with warm mugs of cider or ale.
Also known as Mother’s Night, the festival of Modraniht was held on the night of December 24, what is now Christmas Eve. It was symbolized by the Winter Solstice, the night that the Goddess Freya gave birth to her son, the sun who would arise the next morning. As the Sun Goddess Freya rode through the skies pulling the sun in her chariot, which was pulled by reindeer. The night was similar to Samhain or Halloween in that it was a time when it was easier for the living to contact the spirits of the departed, and in so being, a night of giving love and respect to those who had already passed over.
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman Winter Solstice celebration for the God Saturn—known as the god of seeds and planting, and the Goddess Ops—known as the Earth Goddess and Goddess of Plenty. Saturnalia typically lasted from December 17 through December 25 and was a time of gathering the last harvest before winter and revering the Winter Solstice as a time of death and rebirth of the Sun. It was a time of feasting, celebration and gift giving. It was also known for role reversal with slaves being waited upon by their masters. Businesses and schools closed down, executions were cancelled, wars stalled, courts were not in session and all gambling was legal. There was a certain sense of lawlessness and the festivities could get very rowdy and violent. The god Saturn was given gifts, some in the form of human sacrifice; the sacrificed were Roman prisoners of war, but after great public outcry this was changed to burning human effigies with masks depicting people whom they’d like to sacrifice, (a little nicer).
Just as Yule, Modraniht and Saturnalia were the main precursors to Christmas and Hanukkah, there are also many interesting facts about some of the origins and elemental components of our holiday traditions.
Evergreen trees symbolized life and fertility as they were not deciduous and remained green and healthy throughout the long winters. People brought wreaths or branches or even the trees themselves into their homes, to symbolize life through the “dead of winter.” (Some theories suggest that the wreath symbolized the vulva while the tree symbolized the phallus. So, the tree is phallic and covered in balls, what could the tinsel represent? Hmmm . . .?)
Another symbol of fertility was mistletoe, a.k.a. dung-twig. Mistletoe grows on a variety of different trees and is produced by birds that, after eating the berries or fruits from trees, defecate or regurgitate on the branches of the trees. In fact the word mistletoe comes from “mistel” meaning dung and “tan” meaning twig in Old English. What happens is the dung or vomit is very thick and resembles semen; thus, it was seen as a symbol of fertility that seemingly came from nowhere (the sperm of some god ejaculating on a tree). This thick, sticky substance hardens on the branches and then becomes a parasitic plant which feeds off the host tree, eventually killing the tree. But it does produce pretty leaves and milky white berries. These bunches of mistletoe were often hung over doorways and people would kiss underneath them to promote fertility in the home.