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Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice

Tuesday, 25 December 2012 (All day)

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.

Ghost of Christmas: John LeechGhost of Christmas: John LeechYule 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.

Daniel Parkinson
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Mithras and Jesus

Yes, the 25th of December is now universally accepted as Mithras' bithday. Mithra was an Iranic deity associated with Sun worship whose cult became so widespread in the Roman Empire as to become a serious threat for Christianity, counting many emperors among its followers: Galerius, Licinus, Aurelianus... Haeliogabalus even went one step further by becoming a fully ordained priest in this religion.
Early Christianity had a single festivity, Easter, though local communities often celebrated their own festivities, up to the fourth century (see below). As for Jesus' birthday, we are informed by one of the Fathers of the Church, Clemens Alexandrinus, that in his days there was no universal consent over the matter: some believed it to be the 20th of may, others the 19th of April, others still the 17th of November.
Christmas as a festivity celebrating the birth of Jesus originated in Egypt sometime in the second century: it took over a previous festivity, most likely the birth of Osiris. Given Alexandria's important position in early Christianity assured that this festivity spread quite quickly. It was only with the Council of Arles (353) that the present Christmas date was fixed.
But even Mithraism wasn't alien at atking over previous traditions. Despite early Christianity's attempts at destroying everything related to its dangerous rival, recent historical research (mostly coming from Germany) has shown that Mithraism, much like Isis worship, assimilated over many earlier "mysteric" cults in a relatively short period of time, taking over much of their lithurgical and theological apparatus.

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 Yeah quite. But I'd add

 Yeah quite. But I'd add that the birth date of Dionysos was originally somewhere around Jan 6th as this was when the first wines were tasted, the first fermentation having been completed after the autumn grape harvest (the origin of the ‘water into wine’ myth). It seems this was also the original consensual date of the Christian nativity too (and still is in the Eastern Church). But as you say Dec 25th  the Roman Winter Solstice associated with the Solar deity, which merged with the Roman Mithras, came to be seen as the standard nativity in the Western Church. Here Jan 6th being preserved as Epiphany (associated in various traditions with the Magi discovery or the Baptism, a kind of revelation or second birth).    

As there’s no evidence for a historical Jesus (despite scholarly bias) I tend to follow the Jesus Myth, though a modified one incorporating various Jewish Rabbi magicians. I think the Nazarenes basically adopted the Hellenic Dionysos-Osiris the only way they could in Judaic terms as a man, combining the archetype with a hybrid of diverse Jewish figures from folklore and popular history. While non-Jewish Christians just saw through the myths and regarded the archetype as divine. 

I suspect its only later under the Sol Invictus / Mithraic Roman Cult, in the 3rd or 4th century AD, that had merged with early Christian sects, that the Solar aspects become central to Roman Christianity.
Of course in Britain Nordic Paganism is a far greater influencer with Christ becoming Balder and St Nicholas preserving Odin.  

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This could go on

Personally I do not feel like starting a debate of the origins of Christianity, as much as I find it an enthralling topic, because this is not the place and I feel I may unwillingly offend people.
Despite all the recent research in the matter we still have a very incomplete idea of how the so-called "Mysteric Cults" helped shape religion and philosophy starting from the so-called Hellenistic era and the enormous influence they (together with Greek phylosphy) had on early Christianity, starting from St Paul.
The 6th of January was an extremly important date in Eastern religions: Jesus, Dionysos, Osiris... even the mysterious god Aeon, which was perhaps an Hellenization of very ancient Egyptian cults, were all born on this day, pointing to an extremely ancient origin for this festivity.

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 Agreed. Though I suspect 'Christianity' is older the Paul and Hellenistic even then.

Personally I have no problems with whatever myths others or myself adopt as I think everything can only ever be myth, as the truth (if it exists) is ultimately unknowable. Religion only bothers me when it imposes itself as truth, but then I view historical and scientific knowledge in the same way. And that debate could be infinite! At the end of the day I just rely on 'mythic intuition'. 

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Re: Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice

There are a number of different folk traditions about Christmas related to the giving of presents (as well as the 3 wise men of the nativity). Saint Nick is the best known, as a gift giver and an origin of Father Christmas/Santa Clause. Children set out shoes on his feast day (December 6th) filled with carrots for his white horse so that gifts would be left in return as he rode over the rooftops. He had a companion elf called Ruprecht who carried a thin branch for use on naughty children. It is possible that the roots of this tradition started with belief in Odin who rode the skies at winter.
In Russia there was Kolyada an elf- maiden clothed in white who would ride from house to house on Christmas Eve in a sleigh laden with gifts, which she rewarded to children who sang carols for her.
In Denmark and Norway there were the Julnissen and Jultomten: elves that dwelled in the hidden nooks and crannies of the house all year round, emerging on Christmas Eve to leave presents while the occupants were asleep.
In Italy there was Befana, an old lady who rode around on a broomstick and gave children presents if they had behaved, and coal if they had been naughty at Christmas.
In Scandinavia food was left out for long dead ancestors, who were thought to return to their ancient homes on Christmas Eve.
There are many more.

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Re: Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice

Christmas is a very important celebration in many cultures, and not to mention it is the best holiday, with carols, gifts and snow and most important of all Christmas trees , and I really love those natural trees like when I was a kid, but I am using Artificial Christmas Trees , just playing my part in saving our planet :)

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Re: Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice

Grat Post !!
I rewrote the Night before Christmas poem to refocus on Odin and the old ways, and made it into a machinima film to share..
The Night Before Christmas Or Yuletide Or Such...

bright blessings
celestial elf ~

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Ian Topham
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Re: Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice

Hi Celestial Elf, I love your work :)

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Re: Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice

Not that I'm trying to spark a debate about truth of Christianity either, but you may find it interesting to hear of my view-

It doesn't matter, nowadays for all practical purposes, whether or not a Jesus ever existed in physical form! There are Christians even, who take the view the New Testament is more symbolic than literal.

The position someone like me takes, who is very into the practical side of things, is that by now the Jesus entity is so strong on the spiritual plane, being fed for thousands of years of devout believers' prayers etc, is that he will exist in the collective Deep Mind, and may well appear to respond to the attentions of people, just as invocations of the Pagan Gods will, when likewise we have little evidence to say any of them were "Real" on a temporal level.

I can enjoy the Gods and pantheon of any culture. Obviously I can't tell Chuchgoers of what I practise and of my cosmopolitan behaviour if I and the wife choose to go to, say a Carol Service in the local chapel, but sometimes we do! It's also, admittedly, to celebrate History too, and to feel the vibes of love and community there on a frosty Yuletide evening thick with spooky atmospheres, I can't deny. Yet my favourite carols are the Pagan -rooted ones, like the Holly and the Ivy.

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Re: Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice

i celebrate Winter Solstice as christianity was pushed down my throat as a child. i have come to the conclusion that as long as a person does not try to convert me or speak of persons of other beliefs in a "they are going to hell kind of way" i think anyone who is on a path that is headed up, has a piece of the divine. if we can stand the jinge bell sales and corporation christmas crap then even though really interesting and being a history lover all my life, really, time is all happening at the same time, so none of this stuff really matters. it matters that we love all, teach our children that the higher power, be it a goddess, god, a whole pantheon, or the universe, this is an abundant universe. there is enough love, food, money and happiness for everyone. one just needs to believe, know that our thoughts and actions have the power to change circumstances for the good.
                                                                                                                 happy solstice and sorry i couldnt stop writing, blusey




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