Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice
The 25th of December is associated with the birth of Christ and the celebration of the nativity, but it is also an amalgamation of pagan festivals and traditions dating back before the birth of Christ.
To our ancestors the shortest day (21st December) marked the lowest ebb of the year, but it also marked the day when the sun was reborn, gradually growing in strength to the Midsummer Solstice. Many ancient standing stones, stone circles and other monuments are aligned with the winter sunrise on the 21st of December. The most famous being Newgrange in Ireland, where a finger of sunlight shines along the dark entrance through a narrow aperture above the monument’s entrance. Other sites are correspondingly aligned to the Midsummer sunrise, highlighting the importance placed on these two dates.
Yule was the traditional name for the celebrations around the 25th; the festival lasted for twelve days, which are now the twelve days of Christmas. The origin of the word Yule seems originate from the Anglo Saxon word for sun and light. Most likely regarding the rebirth of the sun from the shortest day. In many places fires or candles were kindled to burn through the twelve days that marked the festivities. Another fire tradition was that of the Yule log, lit from the remains of last years log at sunset on the 25th of December. The Yule log was often of Oak or Ash, and the burned remains of it were thought to guard a home against fire and lightning. The ashes were also sprinkled on the surrounding fields to ensure good luck for the coming years harvest. The largest remaining part of the log was kept safe to kindle next years fire. Fraser in his book ‘The Golden Bough’ suggests that Midwinter was a major fire festival in ancient times, and it is highly probable that the Yule Log was a remnant of that tradition.
Many of the symbols of Christmas echo its aspect of rebirth and hope in darkness. Holly was thought to be important because it retains its greenery right through the winter months, and as such is a symbol of summer life in the winter starkness. Holly was the male symbol of this greenery, and Ivy was the feminine, the two often placed together as a symbol of fecundity at the dark end of the year. There was also a belief that evergreen plants and trees were refuges for the woodland spirits through the winter months.
The Christmas tree may have also been a symbol of the above aspects, although Whistler in his ‘English Festivals’ suggests that the tree is a carry over from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when pine trees were decorated with images of Bacchus. The tradition of setting up a Christmas tree within the home is generally traced back to Prince Albert who started the practice in 1841. Mistletoe is another plant associated with Christmas; sacred to the druids, its importance can be traced back to Celtic times, although the original reason for their significance is now largely forgotten.
The 25th of December was also reputed to be the birthday of the Roman god Mithras and the Greek hero Dionysus. Mithras was known as the unconquered sun, hence his association with the solstice time. Early Christianity adopted the 25th as Christ’s birthday around the 3rd or 4th century AD, as the early scriptures do not record the day of Christ’s birth. This is generally accepted to have been a way of amalgamating Christmas with the older festival of the sun, which was still being observed by the Pagan community.
Today Christmas has many other associations and traditions dating back through the centuries, and stemming from different cultures and influences. It has always been a time for celebration and merry making at the dark end of the year.
Father Christmas or Santa Claus is based on St Nicholas who is the patron saint of children, canonised after resurrecting three boys after they had been murdered. He was associated with the giving of gifts to the poor and needy, and was widely famed for his generosity. Over the centuries his image became amalgamated with other archetypes to become Father Christmas.