Episode 103 - Yule and the Pagan Origins of Christmas

Episode 103 - Yule and the Pagan Origins of Christmas


Yule is celebrated on the winter solstice, which is December 20-23 in the Northern hemisphere and June 20-23 in the Southern hemisphere, and it marks the longest night of the year and the shortest day. But it is usually observed as a full 12 day celebration, as based on the ancient Norse tradition that ended with the burning of the Yule Log. This year, it starts on December 21 (the solstice) and concludes on January 1. Yule itself is of Norse origin, so we don’t know exactly when it was celebrated by ancient peoples, but it is believed that it was in December and the winter months. This was when harvesting was over and the hunting season began, which is why stag imagery is so prominent.
Wiccan Traditions
This holiday is celebrated at the winter solstice as the rebirth of the great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. In the Wiccan belief system, the God is reborn at Yule, having died at Samhain. The weak quality of sunlight during these still-short days is symbolized by the God in his infancy, just born and needing sustenance before he can come back into his full power. The Goddess, who has been in her Crone aspect these past few months, is now once again in her Mother aspect, having just given birth to the God. She represents the Earth, remaining still and silent for awhile yet as she rests from her labor.
-The Oak King and The Holly King
History and Traditions
Many cultures observed the winter solstice. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia around December 17 through the 23rd, another winter holiday celebrating light and specifically the god Saturn. It was celebrated by a sacrifice at the temple of Saturn followed by a banquet, partying, gift-giving, and more. From this we get:
-Gift Giving
-Christmas Trees
-Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Yule Log
A holiday celebration that began in Norway, on the night of the winter solstice it was common to hoist a giant log onto the hearth to celebrate the return of the sun each year. The Norsemen believed that the sun was a giant wheel of fire which rolled away from the earth, and then began rolling back again on the winter solstice.
Krampus is a monster from central European folklore. He is depicted as half-demon, half-goat, and the name comes from the German word for claw, and Krampus is always shown with huge claws, horns, and long red tongue. He’s the companion of Saint Nicholas. Tradition states that they arrive together on the evening of December 5, which is known as Krampusnacht. Saint Nicholas is the one who rewards the nice children by leaving presents in their shoes and Krampus beats the naughty children with branches. In some stories, he also either eats the children or drags them to hell.
Yule Norse Goat
The straw goat is a popular figure in the Nordic region this time of year in the form of ornaments and holiday decor. There’s also a giant effigy in Gayle, Sweden.
Pagan Origins of Christmas Traditions
Why December 25?
In the Bible, there is no specific date given for the birth of Jesus. And we know he wasn’t born in the winter months at all because at the time of his birth, Mary and Joseph were traveling for the Roman census, and that did not take place in winter. So why December 25? Pagan traditions. It clearly lines up with the winter solstice and it’s traditions. When the early church was trying to convert people, it made the most sense to stick with or near the dates on which they were already celebrating. It’s incredibly hard to get people to give up the fun things they’ve loved for so long. There was also the celebration of Saturnalia in Rome, again lining up with solstice dates though not exactly the 25th. Another Roman sun god, Mithras (likely the persian god Mitra that was adopted and transformed by Roman soldiers), was popular with these soldiers and widely among Romans. He was one of the most popular deities that was celebrated at the time when Christianity was first trying to get converts, and specifically he was celebrated on his birthday - December 25.
Christmas Carols/Wassailing
The name Santa Claus comes from the informal Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas. But the image of a fat, bearded, jolly Santa mostly came from the 19th century by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast and the book Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore.
Odin, one of the major gods in Norse paganism, very much looks like this version of Santa. And the winter solstice was a time when Odin led a hunting party, known as the Wild Hunt, in the sky with his eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Children would leave their boots by the chimney filled with carrots and hay to feed Sleipnir and legend has it that whenever Odin flew by he would leave gifts by their boots. When Christianity gained footing, this practice of gift giving was later adopted for St. Nicholas. Children would leave their shoes on the windowsill or bedroom door for the Saint to reward them with nuts, fruits and sweets.
The red and white costume though may come from a Slavic deity known as Father Winter, because the colors match a hallucinogenic mushroom. During mid winter in Siberian villages, the local shaman would collect mushrooms (which happened to grow beneath pine trees) in a large sack for everyone in the community and deliver them to each house. Since the snow would be really high at this time in Siberia, he couldn’t reach the doors and instead would probably have to climb through the smoke hole of the hut and this may be the origin of the concept of Santa entering through the chimney.
The villagers would then put the mushrooms in a sock and hang them by the fireplace so they would dry out, which is where the idea of Christmas stockings originated.  Once dried, the family would eat the mushrooms on the winter solstice, which would induce an altered mindstate. These mushrooms are also regularly consumed by reindeer in Siberia and both of these traditions could be where the idea of ‘flying’ reindeer came from. Still today Siberian shamans wear red and white in a pattern reminiscent of the mushroom, which may be the inspiration for Santa’s suit.

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