This is another post based on material from my draft book.
The Winter Solstice is usually around the 20-22 December in the Northern hemisphere (in the Southern hemisphere this would be the summer solstice) and it is the centre point of the winter. It is the time of greatest natural darkness, from this point onwards the amount of daylight will gradually start to increase. I live in central Scotland and the difference between summer and winter light is much more noticeable here than it is around the South of England for example. I have friends living in Orkney and for them the difference is even more extreme. The actual amount of daylight you get on the winter solstice will depend on where you live but it will be the least amount for your area in any year. The weather often turns colder, although January can be colder still.
There is little evidence of how our ancient pagan ancestors may have celebrated this dark time of year. There are a small number of surviving neolithic monuments in Britain and Ireland that indicate that the solstice was considered important in some way such as Newgrange with its dawn alignment around the winter solstice, Maes Howe with its dusk alignment around the winter solstice and Stonehenge. Archaeological evidence from Durrington Walls near Stonehenge suggests feasting on pigs and cattle may have been a significant part of winter festivities in the landscape around Stonehenge. Surviving lore from Scandinavian and Germanic sources suggests winter festivities were important to iron age Pagan ancestors but we have virtually nothing in Britain relating to winter festivities that we can trace back to the iron age with any confidence. The traditions that remain in our modern culture around this time of year are a mixture of traditions that have built up around Christmas and New Year in different areas of Britain and many of them have been imported from mainland Europe.
One thing that had come down through history is that there seems to have been a very old tradition of several days worth of celebrations around this time of year. This has echoed down to us in the words of the carol “On the First day of Christmas”.
Professor Ron Hutton writes:
“The tradition of twelve days of celebration following ‘midwinter’ was firmly established by 877, when the law code of Alfred the Great granted freedom from work to all servants during that span.”
During the eleventh century and Danish rule over England the term Yule was introduced for the winter festivities. Over the next couple of centuries this became more popular as a term for the mid winter festivities surrounding Christmas in England and spread to Scotland as well.
Prior to period of the reformation Christmas or Yule in Scotland was celebrated in a similar manner to that in other medieval Christian countries in Europe. That changed during the reformation with much of the festivities becoming frowned upon by the early Kirk and in 1640 the Parliament of Scotland banned Yule celebrations. While that act and subsequent acts concerning Yule celebrations were repealed Christmas remained a quiet affair in Scotland for centuries due to the influence of the Presbyterian Kirk. Christmas day only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1954, Boxing Day didn’t become a public holiday in Scotland until 1974. New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay became the major public expression of mid winter festivities in Scotland. In recent decades there has been a gradual shift towards more widespread celebrations of Christmas but it is still Hogmany that is the major focus of mid winter festivities in Scotland.
In the UK, and probably many other places, shops everywhere have displays of Christmas foods and assorted gift ideas from November and sometimes from October. Children get increasingly excited while parents get increasingly stressed. Schools put on Christmas fairs, nativity plays, school concerts in December and often arrange other additional seasonal activities. Councils decorate streets with lights, canned Christmas music is played almost everywhere. There is an unspoken pressure that we should be joyful and celebrate but many people struggle to keep going and suffer increasingly from physical or mental health conditions.
For many Pagans of many different paths this time of year is difficult for religious reasons as well. Do we celebrate Christmas for the kids? Do we take part in the Christian traditions that have often been built upon much older Pagan traditions? How do we acknowledge the darkness, honour the winter?
There are no easy answers to these questions. If you have young school age children the chances of them escaping the increasing hype about Father Christmas or Santa Claus coming to them with gifts of all types on Christmas Eve is incredibly slim. As they grow older they may gradually move away from ideas of Santa but still want gifts – well most of us like gifts after all.
One advantage Pagans have is that some of the traditions of this time of year are rooted in Pagan traditions from other areas of Europe. Feasting during the midwinter is one aspect that has an ancient history. The details have varied as tastes and availability of foodstuffs has changed but the central theme of gathering in larger groups and feasting still remains. Where there is a feast in ancient time there would often be a fire and there are many variants of Yule log traditions, not something we do as much now that central heating has replaced so many open fires. While the very name Yule log suggests Scandinavian origins to this tradition there would have been other important fires during this time in ancient Britain if only to cook all the food for the feasting. In Scotland the importance of fire has remained in New Year traditions such as that of carrying a lit ‘Clavie’ or large fire pot around Burghead on the Moray Firth and the fireball procession at Stonehaven. In Burghead it is likely the tradition was transplanted from elsewhere in the region as the town itself isn’t ancient. The Stonehaven tradition again is relatively recent being developed in Victorian times but again it may have roots in older traditions. Whether these traditions are truly ancient or relatively young they speak deeply to us of the importance of light and heat in these cold and dark times.
Decorating the home with evergreens is another ancient tradition, holly, ivy and mistletoe being particularly popular choices in Britain, again the plants used have varied a little over time depending on availability and location. Then there is the Christmas Tree. Decorated trees of some sort have been used in various countries at this time of year for centuries but the Christmas tree as we now know it seems to be medieval in origin and brought to this country in Victorian times by Prince Albert from Germany. Now we make choices between live trees and artificial ones of different sizes, there are ethical pros and cons with both options and in the end we all choose what we feel is best for our homes and families. And then there’s that wonderful tradition of giving gifts and the mysteries of Santa Claus, Saint Nikolas or Father Christmas!
My own wider family is a mixed faith family but my husband and myself are both Pagan. My son has never been very interested in religion but we have talked many times over the years about various faiths, he has never been keen on all the Christmas hype. My daughter has been interested in Paganism for a few years and more recently stated that they are polytheist with a particular interest in the Heathen path at the moment but she adores all the colour and excitement of Christmas. We have a number of health issues in the family too, both physical and mental. So like many families we need to compromise with our winter festivities. In the wider family we celebrate the winter solstice and Christmas.
The first family activity for this season is decorating the house. I won’t even consider doing this until December and usually we are well into December before the decorations are brought down from the loft. My son is not at all interested in this side of festivities but my daughter adores it. She always helps with the tree decorating and in helping to decide placement for some of our other decorations. She has some decorations for her bedroom too where by son’s room is a decoration free zone. The decorations are usually all in place by Eponalia.
For me personally Eponalia, as mentioned previously, is of particular importance as a time of quiet reflection and prayer before the more hectic family activities begin. By Eponalia in past years I’ve usually been to two school fairs, at least one school performance of some kind and had to begin to plan what else will be happening and when for the rest of the festive season so I’m usually feeling a bit stressed by mid December. This year has been a bit quieter but I’ve also started working again so that has reduced the time and energy I have for planning and organising.
Just three days after Eponalia is the winter solstice and in my home that is the central point of the winter festivities. In some years I join a local group of Pagans on the closest weekend before in celebrating the coming time of the winter solstice. Sometimes other commitments mean I’m not able to join them. Several years ago though I started a family tradition for the solstice itself and that is our winter solstice walk. The kids and I wrap up warmly and we go out on the evening of the solstice (or if the weather is really bad as soon after as we safely can) for a walk around the local streets. When he’s able to (depending on work) my husband joins us. My nephews and niece who live very close to us often join us on our walk. We admire the lights we see on, and in front of, houses as we walk round and we chat a little bit about the importance of hope and light in the darkness. When we return home after the walk we have hot drinks, hot chocolate for those that want it, and a seasonal snack. Once we are all settled with food and drink the kids get their Yule gifts from myself and my husband. Giving my kids a gift at solstice helps to emphasise the importance of the solstice to us and other pagan members of the family. It also has the benefit of helping to spread out gifts and accompanying excitement rather than getting everything on one day.
The next couple of days are an odd combination of excitement and calm in my family. My daughter in particular gets increasingly excited for the coming of Santa and Christmas and my son quietly retreats to his room to avoid all the fuss. Depending on energy levels (mine rather than the kids) we might do some baking together. Why buy extra biscuits or mince pies when you can have fun with the kids making your own? It’s usually a messy and fun activity for the kids and a bit more stressful for me although eating the results is very enjoyable.
There’s visits to and from various family members on Christmas eve, Christmas day and Boxing day with Christmas gift giving among the wider members of the family. And then, just for a little bit, days begin to get calmer again. Outside it is still cold and dark but we know that daylight is slowly beginning to get increase again.
However you celebrate or don’t at this time of year I wish you all a sense of peace and hope in this time of darkness.
Hutton, R. (1996) The Stations of the Sun Oxford University Press
F. Marian McNeill (1961) The Silver Bough Vol three: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Halloween to Yule Stuart Titles Ltd