Solstice and Christmas Questions and answers

With huge thanks to Fiona for gathering all this for us.

  1. What date is the Winter Solstice?

Falls on 21st December, the shortest day of the year.

2. How long has it been part of human worship?

One of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. Celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. Due to the ancient people being hunters and spending most of their time outdoors, they had a great reverence for the sun, which they worshiped. Druids (Celtic Priests) celebrated the Winter Solstice in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. They would cut the mistletoe from the Oak Tree and give it as a blessing.

3. Where does the word Yule come from?

It is believed to originate from the world “houl” meaning wheel. The Norsemen of Northen Europe considered the sun a wheel that changed the seasons. Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale at Mid-Winter.  In addition, they would make sacrifices to the gods in order to have the forthcoming crops blessed. It was very important to the people as they were dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Food shortages were common during deep winter and this was the last celebration before it commenced.

4. What was the Roman winter festival called?

Saturnalian banquets were held as far back as around 217 B.C. This was an Ancient Roman festival which ran for seven days from the 17th December. 

Ordinary rules were turned upside down where men dressed as women and masters as servants.  Executions and wars were put on hold; schools, businesses and courts were closed; and grudges and quarrels were forgotten. A slave or criminal was chosen as a mock slave and permitted to act unrestrained for the 7 day festival, but was usually killed at the end.  However, due to public outcry, this was changed to burning human effigies with masks depicting people they would like to sacrifice. Masquerades often occurred and eventually it turned into a week of debauchery and crime – hence the modern term, saturnalia, meaning a time of unrestrained license and revelry – which could not be sustained.

5. What gifts were given on Saturnalai?

Gifts of imitation fruit (fertility symbol), dolls (human sacrifice symbol) and candles (symbol of the bonfires associated with pagan solstice celebrations) were traditionally given.

6. What Roman Feast was eventually celebrated on December 25th?

Sol Invictus “The Unconquered Sun” originally a Syrian Deity was adopted as the chief of the Roman Gods.  His birthday was celebrated on the 25th December and this became the pre-eminent festival replacing Saturnalia in the later Roman Empire. 

7. How is Adam caught up in this mythology?

Adam is is ascribed by the Talmud to be the originator of the above festival.  Adam believed that the days becoming shorter were a punishment for his sin and was afraid that the world was returning to chaos and emptiness before creation.  He celebrated the lengthening days as the natural cycle of the world.

8.What countries celebrate Yuletide?

The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian Scandinavian festival at the time of the Winter Solstice.  Fires were lit, symbolising heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun.  

9. Was the original Yule log made of chocolate sponge?

No… a Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honour of the Scandinavian god, Thor. A piece of the log was kept as a token of good luck and kindling for the next years log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries the log was burned until it became ashes which were collected and either strewn on the fields as fertiliser every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and/or as medicine. French peasants believed if the ashes were kept under the bed they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. It was usually celebrated for 3 days from 21st or 22nd December to 24th or 25th December.

10. Which Pope set the date for Christmas and when?

In an attempt to Christianise the Pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invictusx, Pope Julius I set 25th December as the date for Christmas. By 529, 25th December was a civil holiday. By 567, the 12 days from 25th December to the Epiphany were public holidays. 

11. How ‘Pagan’ is Christmas??

Christmas has always been a combination of Christian, Pagan and Folk traditions. In 389 AD, St Gregory Nazianzen warned against “feasting in excess, dancing and crowning the doors”.  The Church was finding it difficult to rid itself of the Pagan remnants of the midwinter festival.

When was Christmas banned for being just too pagan!?

  • Middle 17th century until early 18th century, Christian Puritans suppressed Christmas celebrations in Europe and America.
  • Due to the date of Christ’s birth not being in the Gospels, the Puritans thought Christmas was linked too strongly to the Pagan Roman Festival and were opposed to the celebration of it.
  • 1644 all Christmas activities were banned in England, including decorating houses with evergreens and eating mince pies.

12 What did a Medieval Christmas look like?

  • It lasted 12 days from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on 6th January.
  • Even up until 1800s Epiphany was as big as a celebration as Christmas Day.
  • By the late medieval period singing Christmas carols had become a tradition – started as pagan songs for celebrations such as midsummer and harvest, they were taken up by the Church.
  • Holly was given a Christian meaning by the Church as a symbol for Jesus’ crown of thorns.  According to one legend, the holly’s branches were woven into a painful crown and placed on Jesus’ head by Roman soldiers who then mocked him “Hail King of the Jews”.  Holly berries, which used to be white, were stained by Christ’s blood leaving them with a permanent crimson stain.  Another legend is regarding a little orphan boy who was living with shepherds when the angels came to announce Jesus’ birth.  The child wove a crown go holly for the newborn baby’s head.  When he presented it, he became ashamed and started to cry.  Miraculously, the baby Jesus reached out and touched the crown which began to sparkle and the orphan’s tears turned into beautiful scarlet berries.

What is the significance of the Crib and the Nativity Play?

  • The Christmas story has been an important part of the Christianisation of Christmas.
  • The Christmas story been maintained through the Crib.
  • Tradition of Crib making dated back to at least 400 AD when Pope Sixtus III had one built in Rome.
  • Many parts of Europe in the 18th Century crib making was an important craft form.
  • Crib making was not a craft form in England until much later indicating that British Christmases were less Christian than in other parts of Europe.
  • Tradition of Nativity plays began in churches when they were used to illustrate the Christmas story as told in the Bible.

Did the Victorians invent Christmas?

  • Christmas festivities returned in the Victorian Era (1837-1901), based on nostalgia for Christmases past.
  • ‘A Christmas Carol’ (Charles Dickens) inspired what Christmas should be, capturing the imagination of the British and Amercian middle classes.  This group had money to spend and made Christmas a special time for the family.
  • Revived tradition of carol singing
  • Borrowed card giving from St Velantine’s Day
  • Prince Albert popularised the Christmas Tree, by introducing it into the Royal Household in Britain in 1834.  He was given a tree as a gift by the Queen of Norway which was displayed in Trafalgar Square.

MODERN CELEBRATION OF CHRISTMAS

ADVENT

  • The preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus begins on Sunday nearest to 30th November
  • Advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’ meaning coming and it is traditionally a penitential season but no longer kept with strictness of Lent and Christians are no longer required to fast.
  • Advent wreathes made with fir branches and 4 candles are popular – especially in churches. Candle is lit every Sunday during Advent.

FATHER CHRISTMAS

  • The myth of Father Christmas important part of today’s Christmas and originates in Christian and European tradition.
  • The visual image of today was popularised by Amercian card-makers in the Victorian Era.
  • Father Christmas traditionally visits houses at midnight on Christmas Eve to deliver presents by coming down the chimney and children hang up ‘Christmas Stockings’ for Father Christmas to fill with small toys and presents (stocking fillers).
  • Kris Kringle was the Germanic Pagan God of Yule, morphed into the modern day Santa Claus. His sleigh, pulled by reindeer, left over from Scandinavian mythology.
  • Mince pies and milk or brandy for him may be remnant of Pagan sacrifices made to mark the end of winter and beginning of Spring.
  • USA figure of Santa Claus whose name comes from Saint Nicholas via the Dutch Sinterklaas.  Saint Nicholas of Myra (location in modern day Turkey) is the patron saint of Sailors.  A famous story has him anonymously delivering bags of gold coins to a man who could not afford a dowry for his daughters to get married.  Some versions of this story have St Nicholas dropping the bags down the chimney.
  • Figures of Father Christmas and Santa Claus are now indistinguishable

CHRISTMAS TODAY

  • Approximately 60% of people in the UK are Christian, yet Christmas is still the largest holiday in the calendar and it is mainly a secular holiday with the exchange of gifts main part of Christmas Day.
  • Ethical considerations have focused on over-commercialism with protests against consumerism being voiced by Christians and non-Christians such as ‘Buy Nothing Christmas’, encouraging people to spend time with their loved ones instead of money on them.

OTHER TRADITIONS INCORPORATED INTO CHRISTIAN CHRISTMAS

MISTLETOE

  • Greatly revered by the Druids – healer and protector – carefully cut to ensure it never touches the earth. Magical properties believed to be connected to the fact it lives between the world, between sky/heaven and earth.
  • Hung as a decoration represented seed of the Divine, Life and Fertility and people would kiss under the mistletoe hung over doorways to promote fertility in the home.

CHRISTMAS TREE

  • A decorated evergreen tree originally a symbol for ‘Life Eternal’ as even in dead of winter it bloomed green and full of life.

THE YULE TREE

  • Pine trees an essential part of goddess groves in ancient Rome and on the eve of Midwinter Solstice, Roman priests ceremoniously carry a decorated pine tree to the temple celebrations (Saturnalia)
  • People decked their homes with evergreen boughs and brushes in pots (Saturnalia)
  • Pagan families would bring a live tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a place to keep warm in the cold winter months and food and treats were hung on the branches for the spirits to eat.

HOLLY

  • Another evergreen of protection with spiky bristles believed to repel unwanted spirits
  • Pagans decorated doors and windows with holly to ward off evil spirit and newborn babies used to be sprinkled in holly water (holly was soaked in the water). It was especially potent if left under a full moon overnight.
  • It is sacred to Holle, Germanic underworld goddess and symbolises everlasting life, goodwill and potent life energy with the red berries representing feminine blood
  • Together mistletoe and holly represent the Sacred Marriage at this time of year with the the re-birth of the Sun/Son
  • ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly’ – boughs also symbolic of immorality and as holly and evergreen did not die they were considered sacred to the Celts, representing the eternal aspect of the Divine.

IVY

  • Symbol of immortality and resurrection and grows in a spiral reminding us of reincarnation and rebirth
  • Sacred to Osiris and to Dionysus

PINE CONES AND NUTS

  • These representation of the sleeping earth as in winter after autumnal harvests, the Earth went to sleep in the dark part of the year.
  • Pine branches bring healing and joy to the home and burning pine branches will purify.

YEW

  • Tree of regeneration and rebirth and deeply connected with the spirit worlds and the ancestors
  • Often used as the central ‘world tree’ in ritual spaces and was often planted in graveyards

THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS

  • the Song refers to the 12 days of celebration from the Solstice to the New Year (pre-Roman calendar) before Christianity took over.

CAROLING

  • Traditionally Wassailing took place in two forms – one an event of wassailing to the trees in an orchard as a blessing for the trees to thrive and live long in the spring. Second, event on 12th night of wassailing, an exchange between feudal lords and tenants/peasants. Tenants sang songs in a reciprocal exchange for food and hospitality. 
  • Here we come a’caroling derived from Here we come a-wassailing.

THE YULE LOG

  • Usually Ash in Pagan tradition which was dragged in on the Solstice and lit with a piece of previous year’s Yule Log and left to burn and smoulder for 12 nights of Yule-tide
  • Ash considered a bringer of light into the hearth
  • Druids began the Yule Log tradition and Celts believed sun stood still for 12 days in mid-winter and lit a log to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring good luck for the following year.

THE DIVINE CHILD

  • One of the major Yule Deities
  • As Yule was a celebration of fertility and rebirth; and peace, love and harmony, it is only natural that a Divine Child would celebrate this.

RED AND GREEN

  • ancient lore states belief was that from Halloween to Yule-tide, veil between world of living and world of dead was at its thinnest.
  • Red represents blood and Green represents soil/earth
  • Red attributed to the God of War (Apollo, Mars, Thor, Aries, Osiris)
  • Green attributed to Chthonic God (Dionysos, Iormigundr, Pan, Apophis)
  • This time of year is the festival of light out of darkness so lighting candles is a popular tradition. Red, green and gold are the colours of the Returning Sun.

THE WREATH

  • The evergreen wreath represents the Wheel of Life and is hung on doors or laid horizontally and decorated with candles
  • Later became the Christian Advent Wreath
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