Archive for December 21st, 2010

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy leaves are so unchanging;
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy leaves are so unchanging;
Not only green when summer’s here,
But also when ’tis cold and drear.
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Thy leaves are so unchanging!
–  Traditional translation of the German “O Tannenbaum”

Tonight is the night of the winter solstice, which will occur at 11:38 GMT; it is the longest night of the year, and tomorrow is thus the first day of winter.  The sun appears directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn today, so for those in the Southern Hemisphere it’s actually the first day of summer!  But since most human cultures arose in the Northern Hemisphere (including most of those who now inhabit the Southern), our traditions about this time all derive from the apparent aging and “dying” of the sun and the cold weather and dead vegetation which follows for the next several months.

The ancients were in awe of the natural world; they did not have access to the information since accumulated via centuries of observation and inquiry.  The weakening of the life-giving sun and the death of vegetation was thus very frightening to our distant ancestors, and they developed rituals to ensure that the sun would be “reborn” and the vegetation return.  In a number of cultures evergreen trees were considered symbols of hope for the return of spring, since they alone of all plants stand steadfast through the cold of winter.  In some cultures evergreen branches or small trees were brought into the house to remind the family that spring would indeed come again, and these were sometimes adorned with candles to symbolize the returning sun.  These were of course the first Christmas trees, and we still practice the custom though few modern people remember why.

As human civilization matured and people became confident that the sun would return as he always had throughout recorded history, these rituals took on a joyful character and blossomed into celebrations, usually marked by feasting, music and drinking.  The celebrations often included the giving of gifts as an act of sympathetic magic to encourage Nature to once again give mankind Her gifts in the spring.  And because these festivals were intended to celebrate the return of the sun rather than mourn its demise, many of them were eventually shifted to days or even weeks after the solstice (such as Chinese New Year, which can occur as late as early February).  Our modern Christmas holiday occurs on the day which was once the Roman festival of Sol Invictus (more on that Saturday), and its traditions are a fusion of Roman ones with Celtic and Northern European ones.  The Germanic version of the festival, called Yule, was so much like the Christian one of Christmas that the two simply flowed into one another when the Germanic and Scandinavian countries were Christianized, and to this day the words “Yule”, “Yuletide”, etc are popularly synonymous with “Christmas” in many countries.  Most modern pagans refer to the festival by its Germanic name, so without further ado I present our regular holiday feature, a short essay by my friend JustStarshine on the spiritual significance of the day:

The Significance of Yule

Through the ages faiths have linked the solstice with the birth of their god/gods.  In the past the descent into darkness, with no certainty that the wheel would turn or that light and life would ever come back to the world, was a time of fear and uncertainty and made  those of different beliefs adopt similar ways attempt to placate their gods/goddesses with gifts to ensure that the wheel would turn and life would go on.  These would take the form of lighted bonfires, offerings made of greenery and red berries, decorations of the living areas and gifts exchanged to show generosity of spirit.

We do the same today and many people would be surprised at the pagan origins of some of these practices.  One example is the Yule Log.  Traditionally this log had to be searched for or given as a gift – but never bought.  Placed on the hearth it would be decorated with seasonal greenery, doused in cider and flour and then ignited using a piece of log save from the previous year.  It would be kept burning and then allowed to smoulder for twelve nights before being completely extinguished, with a piece of the log being kept safely for use in lighting the next year’s log. Today pagans without an open fire will often use a small log, seasonally decorated and sprinkled with flour, with three holes bored in it to take three small candles.  This symbolises the sentiment without the need for a hearth.  Alternatively, there is the chocolate log, which can be decorated with three candles and consumed over the twelve days of Yule.

For witches the ritual of Yule celebrates the birth to the Great Mother of the new Sun King, sometimes called the Child of Promise, the Child of Hope or the Star Child, who grows one year each day up to the end of the celebration of Yule – 12th Night.  We light a candle to the newborn sun and rejoice that we share in the renewal of life with all creatures.  Although we no longer have the uncertainty of whether the wheel will turn and the darkness gradually recede we still drink a toast to the fact that the longest night has passed.

I ask that God (however you conceive Him, Her, Them or It) bless all my readers with health and prosperity in the new solar year, and that all your winters (both literal and figurative) be mild ones filled with the hope of renewal.  Blessed Be!

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