Yes, long before the birth of the Holy Child some two millennia ago, there were midwinter festivals and celebrations in much of the northern hemisphere! We may regard those prehistoric predecessors of ours as primitive and think of them as childlike or lacking in intelligence and discernment. Be that as it may, they lived close to nature and the vagaries of the world and its climate. They were also keen observers. Since their livelihood depended on managing their activities in accordance with the cycle of the seasons they paid close attention to the travels of the celestial bodies they could see.
They learned that the sun, the most visible and significant one, came and went over the course of a year and built monuments to track the motions.. To appease this critical giver of light and heat, they developed mythologies to personify this great light and worshipped the sun as a deity. Midwinter marked the point at which the sun stopped moving farther to the south and again began to return to heat and light the northern half of the world for the coming of spring—time to plant, nurture the young livestock and perhaps forge into the wilderness to hunt and gather.
The ancient ones developed elaborate rituals to mark the main turning points of the year’s cycle, of which the midwinter solstice was a key one. Customs grew up around this particular festival which have come down to us to this very day from ancestors among the Germanic, Latin and Celtic peoples of Europe.
As historian Will Durant said in his tome The Story of Civilization, "Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.” The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life in the theology and liturgy of the Church...the Greek mysteries passed down into the impressive mystery of the Mass. Other Pagan cultures contributed to the syncretistic result. From Egypt came the idea of a divine trinity...from Egypt the adoration of the Mother and Child...from Phrygia the worship of the Great Mother....The Mithraic ritual so closely resembled the eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass that Christian fathers charged the Devil with inventing these similarities to mislead frail minds. Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world"
In short, many prior religious worshiped the sun in one persona or another: Mithras, Sol, Lugh etc. I suspect the early Christian leaders decided it would be a lot easier to take over pagan festivals and gradually “Christianize” them than to try to stamp them out and create new ones on other dates. It’s a very short stretch from the usual solstice date of December 21 to the Christmas date of December 25! There is little scientific or historical basis to claim that December 25 was the actual date of Christ’s birth but I won’t go into that! But I will mention it was several hundred years before Christmas was made official by the church leaders of the time.
Here are a few samples of some of the customs and rituals that migrated into our modern observance:
--In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.
--In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. It wss in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining folks and probably expecting alms and treats! From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born. (“Here we come a wassailing…”)
--In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The mostly Germanic pagans of northern Europe celebrated their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year. Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means "wheel," the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun and also for the cycle of the seasons through the year. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Holly berries were thought to be a food of the gods. The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were carried as totems of good luck and often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids (Celtic) used trees as religious symbols, holding their sacred ceremonies in groves, often of evergreens and oaks, which frequently support mistletoe.
--Santa Claus and gift-giving had a variety of ancient and pagan roots as well. The Norse god, Odin was the gift-bringer, and rode the wintry night skies at midnight in a chariot drawn by his magical eight-legged steed, bringing presents to the good and punishing those who were bad. In other northern realms, such as Lapland, merchants wore red fur-trimmed cloaks to protect them from the cold. They crossed the snowy lands in sleighs, likewise delivering gifts. Those northern merchants supposedly had helpers: dwarves who lived underground and were most skilled at crafting toys! Since our newer Santa Claus has his beginning deep in the pagan mists of time, he was unable to pass the rowan and holly which the old Celts used to protect their homes from the fey. That's why Santa opted to enter homes through the chimney!
So whether you are Christian, pagan or some other religious persuasion, you can enjoy whatever of these venerable traditions appeal to you and celebrate this dark, cold season with merriment, cheer, fires and candles, good food and drink, exchange of presents with friends and family and decorating with evergreens, holly, mistletoe, and red and green in many things from apples to velvet bows. The roots of this season and its festivities go back deep into the darkest shadows of prehistory and have been honored and kept for thousands of years.
I actually celebrate both the Midwinter Solstice and Christmas or as I often call it, Yule. I don’t worship the sun but I am very sun-oriented or heliotropist and feel I draw my personal energy from the sun. I languish when the days are dark and winter is my least favorite season so naturally I greet the beginning of the solar path back my direction with joy!
And I’ve been a Christmas fan since childhood –it is just fun! I may not go all out as I did when I had kids at home or tried to make it special for my two kid brothers long ago but the day will not go unmarked, I can guarantee! “Peace on earth” is certainly a wonderful promise or dream and we must hold that hope in our hearts lest we totally succumb to the shadow and bleakness of our world’s “winter” of violence, prejudice and hatred. May the sun of love, peace and kinship for all come back this way again!.
In the spirit of the season, I will be Odin’s handmaiden and offer a gift for one reader who comments either here or on my own blog, www.deirdredares.blogspot.com/ where I will post a related piece to this one for the holiday week. You can have your choice of the PAX stories that I had released this year in the download format of your choice. The selections are A Different Drummer, Dark and Stormy and Last Train to Clarkdale. Drummer is a contemporary tale with a music background, Dark is a Gothic historical and Last Train is a contemporary tale with some railroad atmosphere. Take your choice! Check them out at www.amberquill.com/AmberAllure/bio_ODare.html
Meanwhile have a joyful holiday season however and whatever you celebrate and may the coming year treat you kindly! Go in peace and harmony. And as my pagan friends say, “Blessed be.”