Monday, December 21, 2009

today is the winter solstice, aka Yule

Around the world at this time of year people of many diverse cultures are looking forward to the winter holidays. By some the celebration is called Hanukkah, by others Christmas, Las Posadas, Kwanzaa, Ta Chiu, and many others. As Pagans we are preparing to celebrate Yule, or the Winter Solstice.

Usually occurring around December 20th or 21st it is the shortest day of the year and the longest night. At this solar festival the Goddess shows Her aspect of Life-in-Death. She is the icy Lady of the cold and darkness, and yet She is preparing for the birth of the Child of Light – her son turned lover who will make Her fertile once again, restoring light and warmth to the Earth.

The traditions of the season are many and varied, but it is a time of coming together with the sharing of gifts, a custom dating back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, of reflecting on the year past and preparing resolutions for the year to come.

Contrary to the popular belief of many, the customs we so often celebrate didn't begin with Christmas, but actually started over four thousand years ago in Egypt in a twelve day period of festivities honoring Horus the god who appeared as the sun each day. From that point forward, other sun-worshiping cultures such as Babylon, Greece, Persia and Rome created their own festivals until a new religion, Christianity began to sweep through the civilized world.

However, those who followed the Old Ways were comfortable with their unique lifestyle and traditions, knew their deities and weren't so eager to just give them up! In order to keep peace so to speak, the Church began to incorporate many aspects of Pagan worship into their rituals.

The plan was all well and good in theory, but the Romans weren't so pleased with this idea and felt that their gods and goddesses were being mocked. And so, around the fourth century the Church decided that what their patriarchal religion needed was a Mother Goddess figure. With that, a new emphasis began to be placed on Mary, the mother of Jesus, who received the often-used title of “Queen of Heaven” and in the pagan world created a link to the Egyptian Queen of Heaven, Isis!

The Church then chose December 25th as the day to celebrate and named their festival “Birth of the Son”. Sounds similar to the Pagan “Sun”, right? So, with this arrangement everyone could be relatively at ease and Christmas came into being.

As time went on customs and traditions sort of melded together – symbols adopted by those adhering to the Old Ways and those born of the new Christianity finally all passed into use and have become a part of our diverse winter celebrations – all with the common theme, the birth of a God by the Goddess.

Still today “decking the halls” sends a signal that we are anticipating a special time of the year, and making merry brings just as much joy as we gather with family and friends as it did among the ancient people as they feasted, drank and danced in honor of the return of the sun and the god of light and renewal. Greenery such as laurel, pine, and holly continue to serve as decorations of the season just as they did in the earliest winter festivals. Because they were always green they were thought to have power over death and destruction and to defeat demons.

Mistletoe, which was held in great reverence by the Druids because of its mysterious birth, was hung over doorways to protect from thunder and lightning and was held as being sacred – it's berries being symbolic of the semen of the god and believed to bring fertility and abundance. Bells were originally rung to drive away the dark spirits that came out during the long, cold nights and candles were given by the ancient Romans as gifts at Saturnalia because their brightness was thought to encourage the Sun back into the sky.

Perhaps one of the best-known customs, which dates back to Pagan roots, is the burning of the Yule Log. Although this originally came from the Greeks, the Celts gave it new meaning – the log which was of oak represented the Oak King and was adorned with evergreens for the Holly King. Traditionally, the log burned for twelve days continuously and a bit of the wood was saved to kindle the next year's fire.

From the Anglo-Saxons came the ritual of wassailing, the term “wassail” meaning to hail or salute. Wassailing the Orchard Trees was done by sprinkling them with a mixture of eggs, apples, and wine, ale or cider and offering a toast as a consecration so that they would continue to produce abundantly.

While historical facts are both important and interesting, our enjoyment of the Yule sabbat should not depend upon them. By whatever name we call this season, it should be one of light and warmth, peace and joy, and the celebration of birth and renewal. If we let it, Yule can be the one Sabbat that we can celebrate with those of other paths, without compromising our own.

We can appreciate the fact that we know the ancient origins of our current day customs, and whatever seasonal greeting we receive – be it “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Hanukkah”, “Happy Holidays”, or others – can answer joyfully, “And a blessed Yule to you also”!