The Holly King Presents Christmas’s Pagan Origins
Early Solstice Celebration
The original reason for the season is the Winter Solstice. Solstice is a word from the Latin that meaning “stands still”. For six days at this time, the sun appears to stand still on the horizon. This was a time of uncertainty and mystery as people wondered if indeed the sun would return. When it did year and year again, festivals grew up in just about every place and culture. Even today in our modern indoor society the Solstice continues to be a time of celebration across the world. The theme of light emerging from darkness is universal at this time of year.
In primitive societies the priests and shamans were most certainly the astronomers. Knowledge of the mathematical calculations needed to calculate the time of the Solstices would be seen as high magic in these cultures. From New Grange in Ireland to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, to the great solar temples of Egypt, peoples developed elaborate sacred sites to track the movement of the Sun across the sky and to note the times of the Solstices. Stonehenge is the most famous of the solar calculators and its construction is one of the great unsolved mysteries.
The celebration of Horus or Ra the Sun in ancient Egypt involved decorating with greenery especially palm branches with twelve fronds and directly linked the Sun God to the natural rhythms of the Sun in the sky.
The Solstice time in Babylon was Zagmuk. The Babylonians incorporated their Sun god Marduk who defeated the Monsters of Chaos during this dark and shadowy time. This holiday introduced the idea of the struggle between good and bad; continued today in the magical persona of a Santa Claus who uses the granting of presents or coal and switches to judge children.
The festival of Sacaea continued this theme. The Persians and later the Greeks celebrated the reversal of order that was stirred up by Kallikantzaroi, mischievous imps who roamed about during the twelve days of Sacaea. These imps had a darker side than the elves Santa associates with today.
In Rome the major festival for this time of year was Saturnalia, the birthday of the Roman God Saturn. This festival was celebrated from December 17-24. This holiday included pig sacrifice and gift exchange and was followed by the Kalends an early January celebration of the New Year where houses were decorated with greenery and lights. Both of which are usually still up on New Year’s Day in modern America.
The Norse, largely independently arrived at a similar holiday that bears the closest resemblance to the modern celebrations and unlike the Celts and many others, made this a major holiday. We can thank them for the word Yule that still is used interchangeably with Christmas by many contemporary persons. We can also thank them for the traditions of caroling, the Yule log and the first custom of bringing an entire evergreen into the house. It is fitting that this would be a major holiday for those who lived so far north that the winter nights literally swallowed the days in the time directly before Solstice.
Modern Solstice Celebrations
Christmas: The earliest record of a Christmas celebration was in Rome in 336 CE. Pope Liberus in 354 CE placed the holiday on December 25. The Armenian Church still celebrates on Jan 6. The holiday remains an almost universal celebration around the World. Many people participant in the cultural elements of Christmas to a much greater extent than the religious. Unfortunately Christmas has come to represent consumerism in our society with many stores and businesses dependent on large sales this time of year. Many Christians are trying to reestablish the religious aspects of the season by moving away from large scale elaborate gifting and returning to homemade and personal services gifting. Many see this as an environmental imperative as well as a religious one. There is also a movement towards joint celebrations with many other spiritual seasonal celebrations to allow us all to experience the diversity of spiritual experience as well as the Christian teachings of peace and good will towards all.
But even as Christmas seems to be everywhere it is important to remember that other solar festivals remain and new ones have been established.
Pagan Yule: The word Yule is from the Scandinavian word Jul meaning ‘wheel’. Many pagans honor the turning wheel at this time. Many Wiccans honor the theme from the Celts: they see Yule as the time of battle between the aging Holly King and the young Oak King. Others may use the Greek myth of Persephone and the Underworld to enact the theme of dark giving way to light. Still others see the waning God passing to the waxing Goddess.
For many Wiccans Yule is a lesser Sabot: with Beltane and Samhain being more significant. Common celebrations involve all night bon fires, Yule log rituals, and rituals celebrating the return of the light with large numbers of candles. Drumming, chanting and ecstatic dancing are often a part of these rituals as they tend to be in all Wiccan and Neo-Pagan rituals. Many Norse Pagans or the other hand see Yule as the major festival, a time for swearing oaths, toasting and boasting.
Solstice/ Midwinter Night: Celebrated by many neo-Pagans, New Agers, and even by some atheists we see new traditions are arising out of the old. They may borrow liberally from many older traditions and add to them with new traditions. It may be elaborate ritual or a simple bonfire to celebrate the returning sun. It may have religious or spiritual connotations or it may just be a cultural celebration. People are finding old and new ways to celebrate with friends and family.
Hanukkah (Chanukah) : This eight day festival of lights celebrates a victory by a small Jewish army, led by Judah Maccabee over the Assyrian Greeks in the second century BC. After regaining their right to worship in the temple they had only enough sacred oil to last a short time. Myth has it that the oil miraculously burned for eight days straight. The festival is celebrated by lighting the menorah candles each night until all are lit. Gifts are exchanged and seasonal food shared. Gelt, which is chocolate or real money, is often given. A dreidel or four-sided top is also a popular gift and game to be played. Latkes or potato pancakes are often served.
Kwanzaa. This modern holiday was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an American academic to celebrate the African roots of Afro-Americans. The word is from Swahili and translated to ‘first fruits’. Seven candles, one black and three each of red and green are lit each night for the seven principles of Kwanzaa. These principles are Unity, Self-determination, Collective work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. Other symbols are the colors of red (struggle) black (unity) and green (future) from flag created by Marcus Garvey at the beginning of the century, the unity cup, the candleholder for the candles, which is called the Kinara
Common Elements of Solstice Celebrations
Child of Wonder, Child of Light
A great many of the winter solstice festivals celebrate the birth of a wonder child. The child, especially a magical child represents hope and rebirth embodied.
The child is almost always a male and is often the result of a non-ordinary birth. The divine feminine is usually embodied in the birth and the Madonna/goddess image of fertility is often a part of the symbology.
Osiris, the Egyptian Sun god underwent death, dismemberment and resurrection yearly with the travels of the Sun and the rise and fall of the Nile River and thus the fertility of the area. In his guise as Horus he was the sun as well as the son. Pictured sitting on the lap of his mother Isis, his portrait is very reminiscent of the Christian Madonna with child images and is one of the earliest children of promise.
In ancient Greek myth the son god Attis was born in a cave around the time of Solstice and was the son of the Goddess Cybel or Isis. Attis grew to full strength with the sun and was yearly cut down to be reborn.
While Saturn was the sun god for whom Saturnalia, the great Roman solar festival was celebrated for, another god Mithras who was worshiped well (6th Century BC) before but then contemporarily (second century BC to fifth century CE) with Jesus. Mithras was also born in a cave of a virgin and later went through death and resurrection. Because Mithras was worshiped by Emperor Constantine before his conversation to Christianity he may be a more direct influence on the Christian story as well as the date since Mithras’ birthday was celebrated on December 25.
Even in North American among the Huron along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, a child of wonder named Deganawidah was born of a virgin. This child was sent by the Great Spirit as a messenger to bring peace to humankind. He traveled among the tribes and is credited with founding the Iroquois Confederacy. It is believed that he too will return to Earth at the time of greatest need. This is a clear parallel to the return of King Arthur and the Second Coming of Chris and would indicate that the story is an archetypal myth shared by humans all around the world.
Santa and other Father Winters
Is Santa a Shamanic concept? Many pictures of northern Shaman are very similar to woodland Santas — both ancient and modern. He appears in long fur robes, often with Bells and is often an older man. The Shaman works both in the spiritual realm and in the material sphere. The Shaman climbed the world tree to bring back gifts of spiritual knowledge as well as calling the herds to supply food and materials for the material lives of his people. Often he went up the smoke hole, the early chimney at night probably in trance, possibly with the herd of reindeer that supported his clan.
Like the Shaman, Santa embodies magic and mystery, the spirit of nature as well as universal human values of caring and generosity. The word Shaman is a Siberian word and this is the land of the reindeer. In his Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell describes a legendary Shaman who received his enlightenment in the nest of a winged reindeer in a tree, which was thought to reach the heavens.
There were also Goddesses who rode sleighs and delivered gifts. The Norse goddess Freya rode a chariot pulled by stags.
The life and legends of the Christian St. Nickolas continues the magic of the Shaman. As a young man St. Nickolas traveled to the holy land and on his way back was blown around in a storm and ended upon the coast of Lyca near Myra. He went to pray at the nearest church where the bishop was retiring. One member of the convocation (committee) to choose a new Bishop had had a vision that the new Bishop would be coming to the church and his name would be Nickolas. Arriving as he did the boy was made Bishop of Myra. After serving a prison term under the Romans, young St. Nickolas participated in the decision of Pope Liberus to make Dec 25 the official date of the birth of Christ and the celebration of Christmas. He was a generous man who gave much to the poor of Myca through out the year but especially around Christmas. He was also a Christian Shaman whose miracles that lead to his sainthood was bring back to life and form three boys who had been chopped up and boiled in a pot for stealing.
Modern Santas: Our modern image of Santa in a red suit can be traced to Thomas Nast, an amazing commercial artist of the 19th century. He developed Santa for President Lincoln as well as the Donkey and Elephant of the Democrats and Republicans. His illustration was used in New Yorker publication of Clement Moore’s famous poem, T’was the Night Before Christmas.
Coca Cola: Haddon Sunblom popularized most common image of the modern global culture in 1931.
Contemporary Santas: Even today the image of Santa grows and expands to fill hopes and dreams of all children. Modern Santas of all races and nationalities join woodland and other artist Santas to adorn homes and businesses. Woodland Santas stand on store shelves beside Santas who play golf, surf, and just about any activity you can imagine. Some even have electronic movement and sound.
Evergreens: The obvious symbol of eternal life, green when all else is barren and brown. Evergreens were probably held sacred very early in human prehistory. Again the palm fronds in Egypt and the greening during the Kalends are recorded examples.
The Christmas tree: In the sixth century it is said that the Christian St. Boniface cut down a sacred oak to spite local druids. As the tree fell, it crushed everything in its path except one cedar. He declared it a miracle and that the tree belonged to the Christ child. This is often cited as an example of cultural assimilation of Pagan religious symbology for political purposes.
Hanging of the greens: Decorating with evergreens was first noted in Egypt. It was also popular during the roman Saturnalia and Kalends. The Norse also brought in evergreens for decoration during the long snowy winters. Where Christmas is celebrated, the evergreens are often used to mark the start of the season, which is longer than any of the preceding cultures, now beginning shortly after Halloween and withering out sometime in middle January, marked mainly by clearance sales.
Holly: A symbol from the Celts, the male symbol of rebirth is again an evergreen, this time with red berries. A plant of protection, holly is the symbol of the god of the dark year.
Mistletoe: Mistletoe may have first been used in the Greek winter ceremonies. The Norse legend said it was blessed with luck and fertility by the goddess Frigga after Balder, her son, was shot by Loki, the dark and mischievous imp god, with an arrow of mistletoe. Her tears restored him to life and fell also on the mistletoe giving it magical properties. Mistletoe was also sacred to the Druids. As it dried, it became the golden bough, symbolic of both sun and moon, of the male and female mysteries.
Winged Goddesses, Angels and Elves: These range from representations of the Goddess Iris to the Catholic Holy Spirits. From the many spirits of the holy host to Santa’s magical elves these winged fairies bring another element of the mischievous imps to our Solstice season.
Madonna: The female remains firmly in the season, firmly eternal throughout the turning of the wheel, the force of nature herself. Her consort, son, partner going through continual birth and rebirth is the wonder child.
Yule log: This harks back to the importance of fire during the darkness of winter. A whole tree was burned during the Greek festival of Sacaea to scar away the Kallikantzuroi (mischievous imps) . The familiar Yule log was a Norse tradition adopted by the Christians. In early America there was a custom “freedom of the Yule, ” a week off for slaves and savants while the Yule log burned. “Firewood as wet as a Yule log” was a saying that this custom generated.
These are many of the ancient legends of the Solstice, which have been important in the development of our modern holiday celebration. As modern spiritual seekers we are borrowing from and saving the old ways while we create new ways. We take what is significant to us and add to it, creating personal, family and community traditions. There are kids, stories, and magick as the Sun and Son once again returns!