Years ago I did an interview with Roland from Darkwell for Sonic Cathedral. Darkwell, at that time, were a relatively unknown Gothic metal band from Austria and they have hardly been that prolific since. To my surprise it turned out to be one of the most interesting interviews I had the fortune of performing back then, but one sentence out of many, especially at this time of year, stuck with me. As the discussion turned to religion and its associated mythology, Roland frustratingly posited, “why the hell do we have celebrations at Christmas with trees?” I half shrugged it off, only for the question to taunt me in the ensuing months. I realised that I, like millions of people, dragged a tree into the house once a year without actually knowing why.
It’s worth taking a second to reflect on how utterly idiotic that is. To uphold something every year and to sheepishly follow a custom, without having any idea why you’re doing it. But there you have tradition in a nutshell. The truth of the matter, already known to many readers of this periodical but not known to the internet in general, is that Christmas is yet another Christian festival which has ridden on the back of a pagan tradition, rolling it into its own history in an attempt to convert pagans to the Christian ways.
At its very basest level, Christmas is a revision of the pagan festival of Yule, a word which has multiple origins, being a mixture of the English “geol” meaning “magic” and the Norse “hjol” meaning “wheel”, relating to the Wheel of the Year. The word also relates to the Scandinavian gods Jol and Jule. The festival fell on the Winter Solstice, generally occurring on the 21st December each year, an extremely important event for the pagans since it represented the time in the Northern hemisphere when the Sun was at its lowest altitude on the horizon, giving the longest night of the year after which the daylight would gradually begin to increase and light would return to the land. Even though the 21st December typified the beginning of Winter, it was the return of the light that gave hope for those suffering in the cruel darkness that Spring was visible in the near future, and with it, the hope of new animals born to the flock and the softening of the soil. At this point of the year many of the rural farmers were subsisting off those animals slaughtered at Samhain and what produce still existed from the final harvest: the return of the Sun meant that soon the fields would be reading for tilling and planting and production could begin again.
It’s important to note that celebrating the “return of the Sun” is more of psychological than practical significance. At this point the earth is still far from ready for agriculture. Most of the folklore surrounding the Winter Solstice rituals come from those agricultural symbols representing Winter as a time of bleakness and scarcity but the Sun as a bringer of new light and growth. By far the most important point of the Yule festival was the burning of the ceremonial Yule log. This log was either taken from the householder’s land or received as a gift, it never should have been purchased. This massive log, once dragged into the house through the fields by oxen whilst the farmers drank ale and sang songs, was then placed in the fireplace, decorated with seasonal greenery, drizzled with cider and then set alight by a piece of the previous years’ log. The log would burn all night and then smoulder for the next 12 days, and was believed to bring beneficial magic to the home, protecting it from witchcraft as well as warming the house in the winter chill. The ashes from the log were then sprinkled in the nearby fields to aid the soil’s fertility.
The Christmas tree itself is a mixture of both pagan and later German traditions. In the Winter with all the countryside going into a period of slumber or death, the fir tree was seen to live on so it became a symbol of life. Firs were brought into people’s homes in the hope that some of its fortune would rub off on them. Decorating the tree was a much later practise and most possibly stemmed from Germany, coming from from the 16th century “Paradeisbaum”, trees being brought into homes to celebrate the Christian festival of Adam and Eve on the 24th December. This tradition was then brought to America by German immigrants, eventually being popularised en masse by the mid 19th century.
The most popular colours associated with Yule are those of red, white and green. These come from the Holly Tree, sprigs of which have long adorned homes for various reasons: spirits were thought to use the holly for shelter, with the evergreen nature of holly representing perennial fertility and hope at a bleak time of year, the red berries representing the sun or the sacred blood of the Goddess, whereas as Christianity gained dominance the berries came to symbolise the blood of Christ. Holly was seen to represent the male and the ivy the female: holly with its protective character and red berries which represented potency, and the ivy for the woman around him. But most importantly holly can be seen as representing the Holly King, one half of the identity of the Horned God, the other half being the Oak King. The Horned God is a massively important figurehead in paganism, representing the life of the forest and nature. The Horned God is a dual god comprising two aspects – the Oak King and the Holly King, which exhibit his role of god of life and god of death respectively, aspects which change evidently with the seasons and the sabbats. The Oak King represents the life of summer and the living forest and the Holly King is a representation of death and the sleep of the forest, especially in the darker months when the holly berries still burn bright in the dark of the woods. The Oak King lives from Yule to Midsummer, whereas the Holly King lives from Midsummer to Yule, and at each solstice the two are seen to do battle, slaying the other and attaining the forest’s throne.
The sexual associations for Yule don’t just stop with holly though. In addition to the fertility represented by the holly and the ivy, mistletoe was seen by the pagans to represent the semen of the sun god in its berries. Holly and mistletoe were therefore hung in the doorways of homes and all those who kissed underneath them were thought to absorb the spirits of the god and goddess. In Scandinavia the festival was named after the god of fertility, Jule, whereas in Canaan the Yule log was whittled into a phallic symbol, an Asherah pole, eponymous named after the Canaanite fertility goddess, its burning fire symbolising the power of male lust and a good omen for sexuality for the coming months.
One undeniably important feature of this time of the year is the value of food and drink. Originally indulgence in both happened for several reasons, first and most obviously to pay honour to the return of the seasons of growth, but also because eating heartily at this time of the year was a way to raise the spirits and to give hope for abundance in the year to come, as well as alleviating boredom and staving off depression in the Winter darkness. As the centuries progressed, feasting became more elaborate until the Middle Ages, where one of the most important centrepieces for wealthy households would be the boar’s head, which became so important as a status symbol that songs like The Boar’s Head Carol were written in its honour. As the wild boar became more and more scarce its presence on the dinner table became increasingly exclusive.
It’s easy to see how Yule turned into a festival of excess, but it has also turned from a revelling in food and company into one of shopping and commercialism. The practise of gift giving was particularly important at the Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated from the 12th to the 17th December. It was at this time of year that gifts were given by masters to their servants – mostly consisting of candles to represent light and the sun, as well as coins, honey and figs. Many of the Yule traditions originated from the orgy of indulgence that was Saturnalia, Saturn being the god of culture and harvest.
With Yule approaching and Christmas just a few days beyond, it’s a perfect time to reflect and give thanks for the true reasons for this festival, honouring the fruit of the land which has been gathered over the year, and also for respecting the end of the downturn in light and the return of the Sun [or the rebirth of the Oak King]. As the Christians rolled Yule into their own festival – substituting a return of the Sun for the return of the Son – the Light of the World slowly returns as the Wheel of the Year starts its upturn from its lowest point.
Written by Lysander