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The story of Christmas begins long before Jesus was born
It’s early December, and we’ve reached the limbo of ‘is it too early to mention Christmas?’ (The answer is: no.)
But, soon enough, someone with a condescending smile will remind you of the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’ and what they mean by this is the ‘True Christian Meaning of Christmas’ (and also ‘stop buying gingerbread-spiced things, it makes capitalism weirdly directed over the Christmas period.’) Let’s not forget, though, that the story of Christmas begins long before Jesus was born.
For thousands of years, pagans have celebrated the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Falling on the 21st or 22nd December, the solstice is when daylight lasts just seven hours.
For pagans, Yule is the Sabbat that falls on the Winter Solstice and marks the day when the dark half of the year surrenders to the light half. At Samhain (Halloween), the Goddess follows the God into the Underworld, sending the earth into wintery darkness. But, when Yule comes, the Goddess returns pregnant and births the God of the Waxing Sun who defeats the God of the Waning. Yule mourns the old god and lord of winter, interpreted through the years as Santa Claus and Father Christmas.
Yule is also a time of celebration for pagans and Wicca across the world. The light is returning, and it’s a time to honour the gods associated with the sun and rebirth – Odin, Saturn/Kronos, and Pan. The first celebrations can be traced to Stonehenge and then further, all across the world. It wasn’t until 325 AD that Christmas was introduced over the spring equinox (March 25th) and another 25 years before it was moved to the winter solstice with the pagan sun gods. It was Pope Gregory in 1582 who created the Gregorian calendar and moved Christmas to December 25th.
Despite modern Christianisation of the winter solstice, many pagan traditions remain today.
The Christmas tree can be traced back to prehistoric times; pagans have decorated trees to celebrate the solstice across the world. In Rome during the solstice festival of Saturnalia, clippings of shrubs would be brought inside, hung with tin ornaments and masks of Bacchus (the Roman god of wine), and in Norse paganism, Odin is honoured by decorating trees with fruit and candles. Sacrificial victims were often buried under trees, and sacred groves were grown, this meant that when pagans worshipped the gods, they offered presents at the foot of the tree, a tradition that led to the laying of gifts under the Christmas tree.
Carolling arguably begins in Rome when bands of naked celebrators paraded the streets singing to celebrate the solstice. It can also be seen in Scandinavian paganism where, on the morning of the solstice, a girl would dress in a white gown and crown of candles, waking each member of the family with carols and gifts.
The tradition of mistletoe comes from the Norse tale of Baldur, son of Odin and Frigga. After a premonition of his death, his mother protected him against all the elements to secure his immortality but forgot about mistletoe. The mischievous god, Loki, then made an arrow tipped with mistletoe and killed Baldur. Heartbroken, his mother resurrected him and vowed that mistletoe would never again be used for harm – her tears became the white berries of the plant, and she promised that whoever walked under it would be kissed.
Our culture is enriched in pagan history and tradition. Remember that the next time someone frets about commercialisation losing the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’.