The world is dark and cold. Sun shines for but a few hours each day. We huddle up inside our homes or maybe next to a fire. It is the depths of the darkest part of the year. With the harvest a distant memory our minds can only dream of summer’s heat and count the days until warm weather returns. That time seems impossibly distant as the days grow ever shorter. It seems as if the sun will never shine again.
And yet the night is darkest before the dawn. The wheel of the year continues to turn and so brings us to midwinter. Alternatively known as the Winter Solstice, Christmas, or Yule the day marks the bottoming out of the sun’s journey across the sky. From here on out the days will grow longer. The great cycle will begin to move incrementally towards summer.
For Pagans, Yule means an end to the dark half of the year and the beginning of hope. While the days will actually grow colder before they grow warmer, it is on this day that the light half of the year begins. That significance is represented in the tale of the Holly King and the Oak King. The former is lord of the winter months. He takes power at Litha and the world grows cold and dark. But then at Yule the Oak King is reborn of the Goddess and vanquishes the Holly King. From there the world grows light and warm until Litha when they will do battle again 1.
However the Winter Solstice is also a source of controversy. While Pagans celebrate it as Yule most of the rest of the world (at least in the West) celebrate Christmas. In fact many take the holiday a step further and insist it is theirs alone. Think the “war on Christmas”. As shall be seen below, such a view is not accurate. Just as Halloween has a diverse and somewhat indeterminate origin so too does the modern celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice.
It begins with the name. “Christmas” seems likely to have been derived from the words “Christ’s mass” and thus has an obvious Christian origin. However Yule is a bit more ambiguous. It is known to derive from a Scandinavian word for Christmas which was imported to England by the Danes in the eleventh century 2. In that time, the months surrounding the holiday were referred to as being before or after Yule. Unfortunately its ultimate origins are a mystery 3. Likewise scholars do not agree on whether or not the term Yule at one point referred to a pagan festival or not 4.
Nevertheless midwinter was a time of celebration in ages past. In cold climates this time of year would have been difficult for agricultural peoples. With the harvest gathered the only food available was the contents of one’s stores. So the point at which the sun began to rise higher in the sky may very well have been a cause for celebration. And indeed societies in Brazil, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Scandinavia all observed holidays at midwinter 5.
Exactly what sort of connection existed between ancient times and modern ones is not easy to establish. For example while midwinter was an important holiday in ancient Egypt there is no evidence those practices influenced the present. Likewise early literature attests to midwinter being celebrated with animal sacrifices and drinking in Nordic countries. Additionally they believed a ghostly procession across the sky known as the Wild Hunt, led by the god Odin occurred. It was thought midwinter was thus a time of heightened supernatural activity. Eventually the first Christian ruler of Norway, Hakon the Good was said to have placed the celebration of Jesus’ birth to coincide with the already existing festivities 6. Unfortunately the truth of those claims is not entirely certain. There is enough evidence – and enough complaints from the early Catholic Church – to assert the existence of some sort of celebrations around the end of December in Northern Europe. However the exact details are, as usual, unclear 7.
However the situation in regards to Ancient Rome is far different. Romans in fact celebrated December 25th as the birth of the Sun, something early Christians took note of. However the specific feast, that of the Sol Invictus or Unconquered Sun, was only proclaimed by the Emperor Aurelian in 274 CE and the extent of the December celebrations is not certain. Yet Romans had other festivals around midwinter, most notably Saturnalia and Kalendae, although the solstice itself was not specifically celebrated. Both involved exchanging gifts, although the former was more popular 8.
Likewise midwinter was also of some importance in ancient Britain and Ireland. The evidence here is not clear either. Most of the ancient stone monuments known are not directly tied to midwinter. There is little evidence from literature except for a reference to mistletoe being important to the Druids 9.
Ultimately Christmas absorbed some of the aforementioned holidays. In particular, it took over the Romans festivals Saturnalia and Kalendae and replaced them with a set of holidays spanning roughly twelve days. However some vestiges of the earlier celebrations remained partially due to the existence of the pre-Christian celebrations mentioned above 10. So while specific practices are uncertain Pagans do have a good case to make for the celebration of the Winter Solstice originally being ours.
However Christmas itself has changed overtime. In fact much of the modern celebration originated in the Victorian period in England, being popularized by Charles Dickens. These include Christmas trees (originally a German custom popularized by Prince Albert in 1841), greeting cards, and gift giving which moved from New Year’s to Christmas as the latter became more popular. Santa Claus, however, is a creation of the American poet Clement Clark Moore 11.
Therefore the ownership of Christmas is completely muddled. Pagan festivities around the Winter Solstice clearly predate, and may have influenced, Christian ones. Yet while Christians took over some of those celebrations they did not create the modern holiday either. And of course the modern Pagan Wheel of the Year is of recent origin, too 12. So as with all such things the most important part is what it means to you. Little good derives from arguing over the provenance of a holiday we all observe in our own way. In fact the celebrations of Yule and Christmas are not mutually exclusive. As noted above, modern Christmas is more about gift giving and family celebrations. While some folks emphasize the Christian elements one does not have to do so. It is entirely possible to celebrate Christmas in an completely secular fashion, focusing on gift giving and spending time with family, while leaving the religious festivities for Yule. Indeed many Pagans hold celebrations for the latter on a day other than December 25th.
Given the level of stress Christmas can create, it helps to counterbalance it with something else. The dark part of the year is an introspective time for many people. So a bit of reflection makes a lot of sense. Yule is on some level about looking at where we are and what we have before moving on. With the rebirth of the God on the Winter Solstice comes a new beginning and fresh opportunities.
And thus the wheel of the year moves on once more. From the depths of darkness we begin the climb out of winter. It will be a long journey, but hope has sprung forth. There is once again light on the horizon. So even though the worst of winter lies ahead we can take heart in the knowledge that spring will return in time.
River Loneruner is an active member of Hecate's Cauldron's Inner Circle and a second year student of the Temple Tradition.
1 Edain McCoy, Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways, 63.
2 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 6.
3 “Yule - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.”
4 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 6.
5 B.A. Robinson, “Winter Solstice: Beliefs about the Diversity of Celebrations. Origins. Ancient and Recent Celebrations from Ancient Brazil to Christian Countries.”
6 “Yule - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.”
7 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 6. Hutton also relates the story of Hakon the Good moving the feast of the Nativity to coincide with pagan festivities, but notes that we have no idea how accurate the sources are for that story.
8 Ibid., 1 – 2.
9 Ibid., 4 –5. The reference comes from Pliny’s Natural History although Hutton notes that the event he describes was not likely tied to the seasons.
10 Ibid., 2 –3.
11 Ibid., 113 – 117.
12 Ronald Hutton, “Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition,” 260 – 61.