How are you celebrating this winter? Giving and receiving gifts? Carol singing? Baking a yule log? Or drinking mulled wine or cider? Do you have a decorated tree? Does mistletoe hang in your doorway? Where do all these traditions come from and why do we celebrate a combination of many festivals at this time of year?
Our present day winter celebrations, like many, are a fusion of various festivals dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. We’re probably all familiar with Christmas and for some, Yuletide, but the story starts a long time before Christianity arrived to our shores.
The ancient Romans, renowned for their partying, drinking and feasting, celebrated a festival called Saturnalia, in honour of the agricultural deity Saturn. It was usually celebrated over a period that covered the winter solstice. A time to acknowledge and appreciate the past years’ harvest and to signify the light returning after the longest night. The festival began around the 17th December and carried through to approximately 23rd. Wax candles called Cerei were exchanged and people decorated their homes with wreaths and greenery and wore brightly coloured clothes. The festival went on for an entire week, with plenty of feasting, drinking and raucous behaviour! It is thought to have originated from agricultural related rituals celebrating the harvest and making offerings to the gods for a prosperous farming year ahead.
During the Saturnalia celebrations, a member of the household would be chosen to be ‘The Lord of Misrule’. Usually a lower ranked member of the household, the Lord Of Misrule was responsible for causing mischief and havoc by teasing, chasing girls and insulting guests! Where all normal rules are broken and chaos reigns! One custom was to hide a small coin in a cake as method of selecting the Lord Of Misrule. We still hide a coin in our Christmas pudding to this day, although it is for the finder to receive good fortune for the coming year. I quite like the idea of the The Lord of Misrule though, it sounds much more fun!
Saturnalia was a Roman Solstice celebration, but this cosmical event was celebrated in many cultures around the world in a variety of ways.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year. It occurs when either of the earths poles are furthest away from the sun. From this point the nights start to get shorter and so it was often thought of as the beginning of the ‘New Year’. In ancient Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles, Bonfires were traditionally lit and feasting and drinking were enjoyed.
When Christianity arrived to our shores, the Romans, in their attempt to convert Pagans to Christianity, adopted the date of the winter Solstice to honour the birth of Christ. But according to scholars, Christ’s birthday was likely not in December. Accounts of shepherds tending their flocks by night and other factors, like the time of the census suggests he was born in April or even in September.
The word Yule comes from the old Norse ‘Jul’ meaning feast. It was a time to celebrate the end of the long dark nights and to welcome in the light of the new year.
The Druids celebrated by decorating their homes with greenery, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe, each with their own significant meaning. They would make offerings to the Oak god/oak trees by tying decorations to the tree or leaving small gifts or amulets. This is likely where the idea of decorating our trees originate. It is said they would also sacrifice a white bull in honour of the gods.
The Celts celebrated similarly – although many traditions such as the Yule log, wassailing and decorating a tree can be traced back to Norse origins. A Yule log was a very large log, traditionally oak, that was lit and burned for 12 consecutive days. It was thought to protect the household from lightening, to ward off evil spirits and to bring good luck for the forthcoming year.
Another tradition was ‘Wassailing’. The word comes from the Old English phrase was hál (or waes hael), meaning “be in good health” and was part of the feasting and drinking celebrations. Originally Wassail was a drink, similar to mulled cider, and over the years evolved into a salute to good health. Farmers would gather in the orchard in the winter and the wassail was poured over dormant apple trees to ward off evil spirits and to ensure a prosperous harvest for the year ahead. When England became a Christian nation, wassailing was practised on the twelfth night of Christmas, asking the infant Jesus to bless the trees and bear them good fruit.
Wassailing eventually became the practice of going door-to-door with bowls of wassail, singing and sometimes expecting recompense. This tradition originated with peasants who would gather outside their lord’s house every winter. The lord would emerge with bowl of spiced wine and cry out, “Wassail!” The peasants would reply “drink hail,” and then proceed to the drinking. This was probably the pre-cursor to carol singing from door-to-door that we enjoy today.
The Oak King and Holly King represent the Summer and Winter in many neopagan traditions, including Wicca, but it’s roots go back much further. The Oak King is loosely based on the The Green Man of the forest and is a familiar motif appearing in folklore and architecture dating back centuries. The two kings engage in battles reflecting the seasonal cycles of the year. During the Autumn Equinox, the two Kings engage in battle where the Holly King regains power. His strength peaks at the Winter Solstice. The Kings will fight again at the Spring Equinox, where the Oak King will regain his crown and defeat the Holly King, reflecting the turning of the wheel and the emergence of new growth of the year.
Many of us celebrate Christmas where we remember the birth of Christ. Nowadays, Christmas is celebrated alongside and still incorporating our ancient pagan traditions, such as carol singing, decorating our tree and even the Yule log! Whatever your beliefs, I think it’s so lovely that we can enjoy this time of year regardless of our religious beliefs, where we can eat, drink and be merry!
I wish everyone a very happy holiday season and offer blessings and prosperity for the new year ahead.
Emma, The Pendle Witch