This Winter Solstice will be on 21st December 2021, 3:59pm.
This means at this time the Earths Axis will be tilted at 23.4 degrees away from the Sun.
Sunrise will be: 8:29am
Sunset will be: 3:39pm
This will be the shortest day of the year, from this point, days will get more daylight hours each day gradually. Many people watch the Sun rise on the morning of 22nd December.
'It's the most magical time of the year', some people say. Another Christian-turned-secular (kinda) holiday arrives in our calendar and discussions happen where many people within the pagan community talk about the pagan origins of Christmas.
Christmas feels pagan, in many ways. But sometimes misinformation gets spread around about what parts of Christmas are actually the pagan parts. Well, we’re going to explore that as well as talk about something that is undeniably pagan - Yule - and what it coincides with, the winter solstice.
ORIGINS & TRADITIONS
A long time ago, there were multiple cultural pagan societies living their lives in separate parts of the world. We have the Roman festivals such as Brumalia, a winter solstice festival honouring the God Saturn and Goddess Ceres. In later years it was held on the 24th November and lasted for around a month until Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was a festival or holiday in honour of the God Saturn. It was held on 17th December (on the Julian calendar) and over time it even expanded to multiple days of festivities right up until the 23rd December.
The festivities included gift-giving, partying, and gambling; societal norms were overturned and ignored, slaves and masters treated each other as equals, and even a ‘King of Saturnalia’ was elected who could order people around.
Yule, which is one of the most popular pagan festivals and well known today, was observed by the Germanic peoples such as the Norse. This festival went through heavy Christianisation which resulted in terms such as ‘Yuletide’ or ‘Christmastide’ in much later years, and these are still said today.
They had traditions such as:
The Yule log, which was a log burnt on a fire. There are many explanations for why or how this happened, or for how long (such as for twelve nights), but many of these traditions associated with the Yule log have too far a history and connection with Christianity that we may never really know how far back they go, and thus how pagan these traditions really are, but there's a good chance the pagans originally did do these things. It was a custom in the UK thanks to the Anglo-Saxons.
The Yule goat is suggested to represent Thor, who is said to have rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats. The Yule boar is said to have evolved from Germanic pagan customs of sacrificing a wild boar to the norse God Freyr; Yule singing, also known as wassailing, was popular among the Anglo-Saxons and was a custom where people went door to door singing and offering a drink from the ‘Wassail bowl’ in exchange for gifts. The Wassail bowl was filled with a hot beverage made from mulled cider and spices.
Now you are waiting for the big one. It's the biggest and main part of Christmas time, it sits in almost everyone's homes, it is decorated beautifully, and cats love to climb it. That’s right, I’m talking about the Christmas tree.
Some pagans love to claim that the Christmas tree has pagan origins. I mean, is it at all surprising to think that way? Pagans love trees and our ancestors worshipped trees and found them sacred. The Norse Yggdrasil (tree of life) is said to be an ash tree, and the Celtic peoples found oak trees sacred to them.
When I first heard about this concept of a Christmas tree being pagan I was inclined to agree, but then I sat back and thought, 'why would pagans, who find trees sacred, chop them down, just to bring them inside to decorate them? Wouldn’t Pagans want to keep the tree alive?' Plus, what an effort in the first place!
Well, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Yule tree’? It’s the idea that Christmas trees were inspired by them, and that Yule trees are an ancient pagan custom associated with Yule.
But I ask you to find a good source on such a thing. And I don’t mean a website called Planet Witch, or Moonsomber, or Golden Goddess (names have been changed) - they aren’t the best sources to get your information from. I have been on those websites, and look back now and realise how much misinformation is on them.
Now, our ancient ancestors probably decorated some magnificent pine trees or fir trees in their communities - outside of course - much like during other holidays like Bealtaine, with the Celtic peoples decorating May bushes with ribbons and the like. But did they bring them indoors? No, of course not. Yet, every year, people tell me they did.
So I am going to tell you now, a sad story (sad for us pagans anyway), about a Christian saint called Saint Boniface. He was an Anglo-Saxon who was born in England but his religion led him to Germany in the 700s CE.
Donar’s Oak was a sacred tree to the Germanic pagans in the 8th century. According to sources, pagans loved this tree, and Saint Boniface came along and chopped the tree down. The wood went to help build a church, but in its place grew an evergreen tree, and Saint Boniface told the pagans that the triangular shape reminds humanity of the Trinity and how it points to Heaven. This was probably an attempt to relate to the Pagans. He may have said something along the lines of: ‘Oh look, this tree is God given and you like trees, and so you can worship this tree as you worship God.’
So the evergreen tree was now a Christian symbol. Evergreens in general have always been important to pagans; they may have not cut down the whole tree, but branches from the evergreen were brought inside to decorate - holly and ivy as well - a tradition which continued into when the countries were Christian, as churches did the same thing.
Eventually over time, Christmas trees started popping up across Germany and in nearby countries in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the 18th century they had become a popular custom within the towns and cities. Even within Christianity, there was some disagreement about their use. In some places that were majority Roman Catholic, Christmas trees were regarded as a Protestant custom, and so it took much longer for Christmas trees to be accepted and used.
In the 19th century, Christmas trees were seen as a part of German culture and Christian pride, and they then spread throughout Europe within noble societies and royalty as far as Russia.
So, how did we get the Christmas tree?
Christmas trees were not a thing in Britain. We didn’t have them inside our houses until very recently. 'How?', you may ask. As previously said, the idea of decorating homes and churches with branches of evergreens was a thing, but the whole tree? Nope.
The German-born Queen Charlotte in 1800CE introduced the Christmas tree at a party. And by the time Queen Victoria was born and was a child, she was used to having a Christmas tree in her home.
By the time she then married Prince Albert, a German-born prince, the custom became widespread in Britain among the nobility and the higher class, eventually extending to, well, pretty much everyone in today's age. The Victorians really changed the definition of Christmas for Britain. Before this time, Christmas was about the Nativity and carolling and going to church. All very Christian.
I actually emailed Ronald Hutton, a professor and expert on paganism, about this. I asked him about Yule trees, as I had read from people online that Yule trees were ancient, and we had always brought in trees to decorate, and Christmas trees are pagan. Well this is what he said to me:
‘I cannot find any trace in Britain of rituals involving trees at midwinter (as opposed to decorating homes with holly and ivy and burning special logs until the Germanic Christmas Tree arrived towards the end of the eighteenth Century, spreading to the native population in the nineteenth century. In germany of course the custom was older, first appeared in Strasberg Cathedral in the opening of the Seventeeth Century. There MAY be some mileage in a pre-christian Yule tree there [germany], but I have never came across one in any scholarly source. Certainly there is no trace of such a thing in Britain, nor does it appear in in Europe in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Compendia of Continental Folklore such as those of Jacob Grimm or Sir James Frazer. I had never in fact heard of a ‘Yule Tree’ a separate entity from a christmas tree at all, until the internet began to work its dark magic…’
So, the next time you see someone say Christmas trees are pagan and inspired by the Yule tree, you can say that Christmas trees are thanks to a saint cutting down a sacred pagan oak tree, an evergreen growing in its place and the saint declaring it Christian, and then the Christians deciding to bring the trees indoors.
Santa Claus is a modern concept too, and you’ve probably heard of Kris Kringle, KRAMPUS, and Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas, another Christian saint, this time of Greek origin, was the patron saint of many things, but most importantly for this article, he was the patron saint of children. He was said to be a very generous man, supporting and financially helping the poor, and was known as a modest man not wanting to draw attention to his continued gift-giving to the community. So, of course, gift giving inspired Santa Claus.
Father Christmas was the personification of Christmas in Britain. He was originally part of English folklore from around the 15th century, and he was not associated with gift-giving until the Victorian period, and before this was associated with adult feasting and merry-making. When the concept of Santa Claus came to Britain in the 1850s, Santa became synonymous with Father Christmas, but eventually the idea of Father Christmas disappeared.
Santa Claus may have also been influenced by European Customs such as Sinter Klass, and even Odin from Norse paganism - especially since Yule inspired Christmas in northern Europe.
The idea that Odin inspired the stories of St Nicholas includes such examples as having a long white beard, wearing a long blue hooded cloak, giving gifts, and Odin has also been attributed as the ghostly figure who rode on the midwinter sky on a chariot during the Wild Hunt in Germanic folklore.
So who is Krampus? If you’ve ever been to Whitby this time of year, you’d know. But if not, let me tell you.
Krampus is a horned figure in Alpine folklore who during the Christmas season scares children who have been naughty. Assisting Saint Nicholas, Krampus visits children on the 5th December and while St Nicholas gives children items such as oranges and chocolate, Krampus gives the naughty children punishment - apparently with birch rods. Krampus is theorised to be pre-Christian tradition, but no one is really sure.
So, is Christmas pagan? No. Is it influenced by pagan traditions, definitely. There are many parts of pre-Christian culture that continued after Christianisation and were absorbed into Christianity, such as decorating homes with evergreens, holly, ivy, and carol singing. However, Christmas wasn’t how we celebrate it now, in all its glory, until the Victorian's, who were so inspired by our past that they created many of the traditions we have today.
ADDED NOTE: NOTE: I want to extend my explanation in my
research into the idea of a ‘Yule Tree’. After looking through general websites such as names I have already mentioned, I found my-self looking through books by Ronald Hutton a Historian on Paganism, and I searched the pages of his books such as ‘Stations Of The Sun’ as well as well Neil Price who wrote
‘Viking World’ a book filled with Norse research with Scholary sources and no where do they mention the ‘Yule Tree’. This all stems from the fact there is no mention of a ‘Yule Tree’ on the page on Yule on Wikipedia, not a single mention. And on further research, I only find it mentioned in three different books
‘The Christmas Tree’ by Daniel J Foley
‘Catholic Customs & Traditions’ by Greg Dues and
‘The Solstice Evergreen’ by Shrerl Karas.
I give you these three books if you wish to use them in future to do your own research on the ‘Yule Tree’. From this I then emailed Ronald Hutton himself, and I have provided his response. (added note: Ronald Hutton also states he is not an expert on Germanic Calendar) So if you would like to do further research, maybe that is somewhere to start, we would love to hear if you find any answers you come across.