To many people this time of year is about holidays, parties and Christmas shopping. However, a much deeper meaning lies behind the festivities with many Christmas celebrations being directly linked to older, pagan traditions.
The word “pagan” tends to conjure up images of witches, magicians and druids – whilst this is certainly true as a modern definition, the word is actually derived from the Latin word “paganus” which means pertaining to the countryside, rustic, rural or countryman/woman. Until very recently in human evolutionary terms, our lives were governed by the seasons and the weather – especially the sun! Whilst we now know from modern astronomy that the sun will return from the winter and rise again in the morning, this is something that our ancestors did not take for granted. Additionally they will have suffered greater hardships from severe winter weather than we do today, to agricultural societies whose survival depended mostly on crops, the celebration of the return of the sun was not something to be taken lightly. The Winter Solstice Festival is probably one of the oldest in humankind and, to our ancestors, the return of the sun really was a matter of life and death!
In the Northern Hemisphere the Winter Solstice occurs when the sun is at its southernmost or lowest point in the sky. This year the Winter Solstice occurs at precisely 10.44 am on December 21st, it is the longest night/shortest day of the year. Solstice literally translates as "sun stands still", which is what it appears to do for 3 days from the Solstice before it starts to move northwards once more, bringing with it the light. Whilst our predecessors honoured the sun for its provision of safety, security, heat and photosynthesis, they also recognised the Winter Solstice as the birth of the spiritual sun within - the inner spiritual aspect or the "soul spark" being reborn. Celebrations included great bonfires, feasts, music and dancing to bring the physical sun back to its full strength.
Pagan Origins/Nordic Traditions
Traditionally, this time of year was seen as the return to the womb of mother earth with the dark, cold nights and typically frozen ground. Winter Solstice marks the beginning of Yule, a celebration which lasts for 12 days, this being the origin of the Christian “12 days of Christmas”. It is believed that the word Yule derives from the old Norse word “Jol” which became “Yul” meaning “Wheel”. The tracking of the seasons has, up until very recently, been a fundamental necessity for survival and was given utmost importance.
The Holly and the Ivy
People observed the masculine and feminine aspects to nature and personified them, the Winter King or Holly King is born of the Goddess on the Summer Solstice reaching the peak of his power at Samhain (Halloween), continuing through Yuletide and is celebrated by wearing holly sprigs in the hair – the pointy leaves were thought to afford magical protection from evil spirits and were brought into the house to shelter faery folk from the harsh conditions.
The tradition of bringing in the Holly and the Ivy also pays homage to the masculine and feminine elements, both evergreen, the male element is said to be the holly with its sexually potent red berries whilst Ivy is representative of the Goddess who keeps life going through the harsh winter months.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
This harks back to Norse mythology and the Goddess of Love Frigga or Freya. Legend has it that she had two sons, Balder and Hoder who was blind, Balder was the god of the summer sun and the most beloved. She went through all the plant kingdom and extracted promises that nothing would harm her beloved son Balder. The trickster god Loki found a loophole – mistletoe – according to some, the mistletoe refused, others say it was overlooked. Loki tricked Hoder into shooting a mistletoe arrow to kill his brother, Balder, whose death brought winter to the world. The mistletoe, heartbroken over this pledged “Where Yuletide brings the pain of loss will mistletoe bring love, beneath my humble leaves let love now be kindled. When two now meet beneath my leaves let loves kiss light between them”.
In Celtic language the word mistletoe means “All Heal” and this plant was sacred to the druids, it was considered so sacred that enemies who met in the forest underneath this magical plant would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting and keep a truce until the following morning. This is where we get the practice of suspending mistletoe over a doorway as a symbol of peace and good will to all comers. It was also attributed miraculous healing qualities with which our modern science has finally caught up! It is now known that mistletoe is anti-spasmodic, calming and stimulates the immune system.
Druids would ceremonially cut mistletoe from the branches of the sacred oak tree with a golden sickle 5 days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice, it was believed that if the branches touched the ground they would become contaminated. The priest then divided the mistletoe amongst the people who believed it protected them from evil spirits.
Yule Log - Symbol of Fire
This ancient symbol of the season came to us from the Celts and was the highlight of the Solstice festival. A phallic symbol, traditionally cut from Ash or Oak, the log must either have been harvested from the householders land or given as a gift. Once dragged into the house it was decorated with seasonal greenery such as holly, ivy and mistletoe to represent the intertwining of the god and the goddess, then dusted in flour and doused in cider or ale and set ablaze with a torch made from wood left over from last year’s yule log – this was seen as transferring the light from one year to the next and symbolised the new-born sun. The log was then burnt for the 12 days of Yule before being ceremonially extinguished.
Escape the Christmas Madness!
There are lots of ways we can destress our Christmas holidays, just tuning in to this magical season and observing some of the old ways can bring us into harmony and get the kids away from their TV’s, phones or computer games. Wrap up and take a wintery walk to find your Yule Log, holly, ivy and mistletoe, this can involve the whole family and if you don’t have an open fire you can decorate the log with candles. There are many ceremonies you can do with the log, a favourite one of mine is to write down old habits you wish to break then burn them either on the yule log fire or (carefully) with the candles on the yule log. This helps to strengthen your intention to release them and creates the space to allow the beneficial habits you wish to replace them with to flourish!
Make Some Me Time
Now the long dark nights have drawn in many of us feel the natural urge to hibernate in our cosy nests – this is completely natural and in line with our circadian rhythm. Electrical lighting has only been around for about 200 years and whilst this has revolutionised our lives in some ways it has also distanced us from the cycles our bodies have followed for millennia.
Although we tend to have much busier lives now regardless of the season, your body will thank you for making a little time this winter to relax and pamper yourself….
Put aside some time to have a long candlelit bath using traditional oils of the season. Add in some sea salt to revitalise your energy, put on some soothing music then spice it up with cinnamon, clove or bay; for a Christmas pick-me-up go for seasonal citruses such as mandarin, orange or tangerine. Cedarwood, pine or juniper not only smell amazing but can help with coughs, colds and other ailments prevalent at this time of the year. For a relaxing, soothing bath try our Destress and Unwind Blend – perfect to end a busy day of shopping, socialising and making preparations.
There are some beautiful incenses and oils which were traditionally used at this time of year, some to attract good fortune or to ward off evil spirits. There are many ways we can include these into our celebrations and create an authentic seasonal feel. If you don’t have a real Christmas tree then why not evoke the smell of a pine forest with pine needles or pine resin, other traditional incenses are cedar, bayberry, cinnamon and of course frankincense and myrrh – burn these instead of using toxic air fresheners to make your home smell naturally fragrant and fresh whilst washing any negative energy away.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry!
Go wassailing! Another seasonal ancient custom still found in the UK today is “wassailing”, here in Somerset wassail groups will go to orchards with their wassail cups and sing to the trees to promote good harvest for the coming year. The king or queen of the wassail will lead the parade to the oldest tree, dip a piece of toast in wassail cup of mulled ale or cider which is then placed in the boughs to attract favourable spirits. A more well-known type of wassailing stems from Anglo Saxon times where the lord of the manor would greet the people with the toast “was hael” meaning be well, to which they would reply “drinc hael” – drink well. Then the merry makers would go from one house to another, spreading fun and good wishes. The wassail drink itself would consist of warm ale, cider or wine with roasted crab apples, sugar, spices, eggs and cream served with little pieces of toast!
Mull some wine, ale, cider (or grape juice for the alcohol free version) by gently warming the liquid and adding cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom pods, an orange studded with cloves and sugar (use coconut palm sugar for a beautiful caramel taste).
For a healthy and delicious Yule Log, why not try this recipe for a velvety, smooth Chocolate Yule Log – packed with health benefitting nutrients and a taste sensation!
Seasonal root vegetables can be used to make deeply satisfying soups such as this Parsnip and Almond Butter Soup recipe.
Solstice Shenanigans in Glastonbury!
Here in our quirky little town we are lucky enough to have a community who wholeheartedly honour the seasons and celebrate each passing of the Wheel of the Year. There are a whirlwind of ceremonies, one particularly special one takes place on St Edmunds Mound, a place archaeologists believe was used by our ancestors to watch the solstice sun roll up the side of the Tor at dawn. A sacred fire is blazing, not only for warmth, it is where we can release that which does not serve us anymore – out with the old, in with the new! This is done by throwing a handful of seeds onto the fire and sowing our seeds of intention for the following year. Next one can head down to Chalice Well for a midday meditation and “Conversation Café” around another blazing fire (yes fires are a theme!), and finally there is a beautiful Sacred Mistletoe Rite at sunset to round off the day.
I have been partaking in these ceremonies for 5 years now and it certainly brings an air of magic and mysticism to my Yule/Christmas….From all of us here at Indigo Herbs, we wish you a very Merry Christmas, a Blessed Yule and a Wonderful Winter Solstice!“The night is darkening round me, The wild winds coldly blow; But a tyrant spell has bound me And I cannot, cannot go.” –Emily Jane Brontë, Spellbound
With Special thanks for their gorgeous recipes to:
Katie Hussong - www.katiehussong.com
And Victoria Leith - www.mamababado.com
Photo of Wassailer annointing tree roots: By Glyn Baker, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12407797
Sources for this article include: