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The moment when the old solar year dies and the Goddess gives birth to the Divine child, the new solar year is known as the winter solstice. This eternal cycle of the sun's birth, death and rebirth is a basis for many of the world's most fundamental mythological beliefs. Just as these beliefs have grown from a natural event, so the symbols that cluster around the solstice have grown from the nature-worshipping peoples who populated this planet thousands of years ago. The Yule Log, candles, mistletoe and other icons of the Christmas season are borrowed from the Solstice celebration. While mostly viewed as decorative in nature today, these items had deep symbolic significance to the elder faith.
The Yule Log
Start of the solar year is a celebration of Light and the rebirth of the Sun. In old Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel. The arrival of the Yule season marks the death and impending rebirth of the vegetative season. By lighting a fire, the ancients were acknowledging the return of the sun, warmth and light, which was marked by the lengthening of days and the promise of the coming spring. In pagan belief, for good luck, the Log should be lit on the first try and must burn for twelve hours. The tradition of saving the ashes or remnants of the Yule log is an old fertility custom. By saving the ashes or the last sheaf of grain from the harvest until the next year, our ancestors were able to carry the success and health of the previous year into the next. The same can still be done with Yule logs, remnants from Christmas candles and gifts from the garden.
The "kissing bush" actually was one of a group of evergreens such as holly, rosemary, pine and yew. Since these and other coniferous plants flourished during the winter months, they became symbols that life continued its cycle even in the coldest and shortest of days. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe actually seems to have its origins in the late 18th century; interestingly, the actual bough could have been holly or some other evergreen as well as mistletoe. Ultimately, however, it was the bright berries and rich green color that could withstand the harshness of winter that made mistletoe the favorite.
The placement of representative objects upon vegetative matter such as a tree, or a bush is a form of imitative magic full of meaning. The power and placement of the object is thought to enhance the health or provide whatever attribute the seeker desires. The first "ornaments" were thought to be fruits, nuts and confections in the hope of speeding the return of the growing seasons of spring and summer.
The common highly reflective ball ornaments are representative of the "witch's ball," which reflects evil back toward them who would send it. The reflective quality of these ornaments, some with faceted indentations, catches and reflect back the light of the newly-born sun.
Wreaths and swags of holly and evergreen are reminders of the evergreen nature of the soul and the constantly regenerative duel of the Holly and the Oak King at the winter solstice. The decoration of homes with evergreen branches figured prominently in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.
The "lights in the dark" of the solstice season return to us year after year as the lights strung about Christmas trees and about our houses providing a sense of mystery and peace as we watch them twinkle quietly. As with most belief systems, the use of candles by the ancients symbolized light, focused the spirit and marked the belief that those beings of light, warmth and new life, God and Goddess, would again turn the Great Wheel and the spring would come again.
Greco-Roman worship of the god Dionysus/Bacchus evolved into the mystery-cult that became Christianity. Christianity named its sun-child, Jesus Christ, and in approximately 273 AD set his birthdate to coincide with the birth of the other mid-winter gods. The creative act of the Goddess' birth of the sun-child at mid-winter became the Christian nativity story.
The tradition of decorating and venerating trees is a primordial human practice. The Christmas tree represents the World Tree, whose branches support the sun, moon and stars and whose roots reach deeply under the fabric of our world, bridging the worlds of god and human. The worship of trees is a faith as old as mankind itself. The earliest evergreen solstice trees were thought to have been fir trees.
The star atop the Christmas tree is the five-pointed star of the early nature religions. The star represents the unity of the four elements and cardinal directions along with the place of spirit, the fifth direction, the sacred Otherworld. Another tree topper, the angel, is the Great Goddess herself.
The shiny, hanging "icicles" hung from Christmas trees are also known as "rain." As rain, or water is essential to any kind of life, the decoration that we now call tinsel was once a potent form of fertility magic. Any object, be it humble or highly decorative, brings good luck when hung on the sacred World Tree by a caring household.
The earliest trees were decorated with confections and these colourful canes replicate on a tiny scale the great red and white beribboned Maypoles found at Beltaine. Like so many other symbols, these too are concerned with survival and well-being and are meant to bring the seeker good luck and fertility.
Long before the creation of "Saint Nicholas," there were the potent male figures of Pan, Cerunnos, Wodin/Odin, Zeus and Nik. With the advent of Christianity, these powerfully creative figures were diminished or demonized. Pan and Cerunnos, with their hoofs and curling horns became demonized as the Christian devil known as "Old Nik." Their power would not be forgotten though, and "Old Nik" evolved into a jolly old elf named Santa Claus. Their potency can also be glimpsed in the not-often seen spirit of the Greenman. Interestingly, the churches of the Christian Saint Nicholas are often built upon the ruined sites of temples to these earlier gods.
The Norse god Odin (or Wodin) rode upon his eight-legged steed Sleipnir to test the civility of his people. He punished the undeserving and rewarded with gifts those who maintained the laws of civility. Much the same, the Greek god Zeus traveled the skies on his magical flying horse, again visiting and enforcing the laws of hospitality. The visits of Saint Nicholas are thought to have their origins in these early myths as well as Nordic and Germanic traditions. St. Nicholas in his flying sleigh, drawn by eight flying reindeer, doles out gifts to the deserving and alas, but a lump of coal to those who are not. Our tradition of gift-giving is also influenced by that practice during the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Much later, the Christianity attributed this characteristic of the December festival to the Three Wise Men of the Christian nativity myth.
Food has been associated with winter celebrations‘Saturnalia of the Romans, the Solstice, or Christmas dinner‘since time out of mind. In those distant times, the winter would have meant lean months when subsistence meant surviving on the last of the crops and meat harvested during the fall. To partake from this larder in honor of the run of the sun was to reaffirm the faith in God and Goddess to return light and warmth to the world.