This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature.


In bygone ages most of us lived much closer to nature than we do now. Once every woman had to be something of an herbalist and healer, responsible for her household’s health, since professional medical help was either unavailable or too expensive (and possibly dangerous to boot). Every home kept some drying herbs and flowers to make herbal infusions, powders, oils and poultices, brewed wine and ale, preserved fruit, made jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys, and many also made inks, dyes, soaps and household cleaners. A girl would be initiated into the secrets of these family formulas by her mother, along with her knowledge of folklore, stories, healing potions, minor surgery, gardening, brewing and wine making, spinning, weaving, dyeing, childcare, home management, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, fortune telling and cookery know-how.

And then there were those in the community who knew that little bit more, the village wise woman or cunning man. When joined my first coven Julia, our high priestess, told us stories of the herb wives of the past, who cared for the bodies and spirits of those around them, telling their fortunes, treating their bodily ailments with herbs, dowsing their lost property, and physicking their farm animals. She held them up to us as examples of powerful, magical women in an age when women otherwise had little influence. They were the midwives who brought new life into the world, she said, and who laid out the dead at the end of life. Though such stories have often been wildly romanticised, folklore records and accounts do show that virtually every village seems to have had a wise woman or a cunning man of some sort. These village shamans had different names in different places, including handywomen, blessers, witches, conjurors, herb wives, wild herb men, snake doctors, fairy doctors and currens. These practitioners didn’t use athames and magic swords but everyday objects – stones, keys, shears, sieves, pitchforks, brooms, divining rods, wax, bottles, paper and anything that came readily to hand from the kitchen or farm.

This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature. Such expertise formed the pattern of women’s lives for thousands of years and that women developed highly skilful methods in all these areas, even though no contemporary historian wrote about them or accorded women due status for their invaluable work. Women’s knowledge has been derided and ignored for most of our history, and this is just as true today in western culture, in which knowledge is ‘owned’ by experts (mainly men) and can only be passed on through state-approved academic institutions, and where those seeking to follow traditional or alternative paths – such as herbalism – are dismissed as uneducated, naïve or even dangerous.

But this is our knowledge, our heritage – as women and as witches, both male and female. Discovering it and practicing my Craft has been a marvellous adventure for me, and it never ceases to fill me with wonder and awe at the power of Mother Nature. It makes me aware of the magic that flows throughout the world in every uncurling oak leaf in spring, every blushing rose petal, every humming summer bee, every rutting stag, and every misty shore. This is the reward of the path of the hearth witch.



Black Pepper Tea

250 ml (1 cup) water

½ tsp freshly milled black pepper.

Put the water and pepper in a ban and bring to the boil. Simmer for 4-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave for 10 minutes. Drink as required with a little honey, if liked.


Traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine use tiny amounts of black pepper to make the other herbs in the formula more available to the body. We now know that one of the most important benefits of black pepper is that enhances the bioavailability of phytochemicals from other spices and herbs, such as turmeric, as well as vitamins and minerals.

In Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper is believed to kindle agni, the digestive fire and, like many aromatic kitchen herbs, black pepper is considered a carminative in Western herbalism, in other words, it stimulates digestion and intestinal motility to ease gas and bloating.  The taste of black pepper on the tongue triggers the stomach to release hydrochloric acid, needed for the digestive process. If the body fails to produce enough, an inefficient digestive process may lead to heartburn or indigestion, so adding a little black pepper to food may help alleviate these problems.

Black pepper is a warming spice, its pungency due to one of its compounds, piperine, which increases the production of heat of the body. Black pepper boosts the metabolism, and a little black pepper can help in the fight against obesity.

Black pepper is a decongestant, useful in the treatment colds, coughs and flu, as well as being an expectorant, which means it helps break up congestion in the chest and sinuses. Fight off the seasonal misery with Black Pepper Tea.

NB: Black pepper is considered to be safe for most people, and since it is used medicinally in very small amounts, this is also considered safe for most people. However, to be on the safe side, avoid larger amounts if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, taking lithium, or medicines changed by the liver (talk to your healthcare professional). Consumption of excessive amounts of black pepper can cause gastrointestinal irritation. Avoid if you have acid-peptic disease, stomach ulcers, ulcerative colitis or diverticulitis.


© Anna Franklin


Valentine’s Day has its roots in the rites of the Roman mother goddess Juno, celebrated throughout February, and in an attempt to stamp them out, the Church replaced them with a festival of an entirely fictional saint, St Valentine.

The Parentalia and Feralia, celebrations of purification in early spring to honour of the goddess of women, marriage and relationships, celebrated between February 13 and 18. The opening day of the Parentalia itself was February 13, dedicated to peace, love and the household gods. February 14 was the second day of Parentalia called the Lupercalia. The day was dedicated to Juno-Lupa, the she-wolf. February 15 was the second day of Lupercal and the third day of Parentalia. The day is dedicated to Juno Februata (giving its name to February) meaning ‘Juno the Fructifier’. Februata was an aspect of the Juno, mother of Mars, god of fire, war and fertility, and there are two possible derivations of the name:  from februare meaning ‘to expiate, to purify’ or from  febris meaning ‘fever’, in the sense of the fever of love which strikes the human and animal kingdom in spring, with the warming of the land. It seems to have been a very ancient pastoral rite which persevered into classical times commemorating the passage of young men into manhood, and dedicating it to the god Lupercus, worshipped for his ability to keep the wolves away from Rome.

The celebration was held in the Lupercal cave on the Palatine Hill in Rome where Romulus and Remus were said to have been sheltered and fed by a she-wolf before founding the city of Rome. Two naked young priests, assisted by Vestal Virgins, would sacrifice a dog and a goat. The dog may have been a substitute for a wolf, or the traditional sacrifice to the underworld powers. Blood from the animals was spread on the two priests’ foreheads and wiped off with some wool dipped in milk. The priests then clothed themselves with loincloths made from the skin of the goat. They ran about the city, scourging women with februa (‘means of purification’) which were strips of skin taken from the sacrificed goat. The Romans believed that this flogging would purify them and assure their future fertility and easy childbirth. The goat is reputed a lusty animal, and therefore associated with fertility.

The celebration featured a lottery in which young men would draw the names of young girls from a box. What happened afterwards varied from place to place; in some areas a girl was assigned to each young man and would be his sweetheart during the remaining year. In others it was the single women who drew the billet with the single man’s name on it. The couple would then form a temporary liaison for the erotic games to follow. Unless one or the other of them was unhappy with the selection they would remain partners for the following twelve months. Sometimes marriages resulted from this practice.

With the coming of Christianity, the church tried to stamp out the customs associated with the Lupercalia.  In 494 CE, Pope Gelasius I tried to overwrite the feast of Juno Sospita (‘Juno the Saviour) in early February by designating it the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, directly replacing the mother goddess Juno with the mother of Jesus, and said to mark the time she was purified in the temple after giving birth to Christ. Counting forty days after the artificially imposed birth of Jesus on 25 December, this now fell on February 2.  The Lupercalia on February 14 became St Valentine’s Day.

St Valentine was an amalgamated figure with several conflicting and confused biographies. There are two main contenders for the role who both supposedly lived in third century Rome. The first was a bishop from Terni, a province in Umbria, who was said to be captured by the Romans while attempting to free his fellow Christians from prison. During his trial, he refused to acknowledge the dominance of the Pagan gods and was thrown into a dungeon. There he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and cured her blindness.  On the morning of his execution on February 14 he sent her a message signed “from your Valentine”, a detail obviously tacked onto the story to explain Valentine’s strange association with lovers. The second candidate lived under the rule of Claudius II, known as Claudius the Goth, who found that married men were loath to leave their families to fight in his wars, so forbade matrimony for soldiers. A Christian priest named Valentine performed secret weddings for them and so earned himself the title ‘friend of lovers’. He was captured and died in prison on February 14 in 269 CE. The legends of the two Valentines seem to have been deliberately confused by the Church to make one saint. During the reformations of the 1960s, the Church, somewhat embarrassed by the nebulous nature of the saint and finding no evidence of his existence, dropped St Valentine’s Day from the official calendar.

Valentine may have been an entirely mythical figure, or a figure on which the church pasted the already existing associations of the day. There are linguistic speculations as to the origin of the term ‘valentine’. It was usual for French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a ‘g’ as a ‘v’, and accordingly, the original term may have been the French ‘galantine’, which gives us the English word ‘gallant’.  The word originally refers to a dashing young man known for his love affairs.

Under the Church, instead of drawing out lovers’ names from the box as at the Lupercalia, young people could draw out saints’ names and sermons. They were then expected to meditate on their saints and emulate their qualities during the year. However (not surprisingly) this didn’t prove very popular. The practice of sending love letters on Valentine’s Day appeared in France and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The seventeenth century saw the introduction of handmade cards, and commercial cards were introduced in the eighteenth century. The Pagan nature of this festival is reflected in the depiction of Cupid (the cherubic son of Venus, Roman goddess of love) on cards to this day. He was the mischievous archer who shot golden arrows of love into some people, and lead arrows of indifference into others.

The custom of choosing a lover on this day may relate to the commonly held European belief that birds select their mates for the year on February 14. Chaucer, in Parlement of Foules wrote “For this was Seynt Valentine’s Day when every foul cometh ther to choose his mate” and Drayton declared:

“Each little bird this tide
Doth choose her beloved peer,
Which constantly abide
In wedlock all the year.”

 One later Valentine superstition was that the type of bird a woman first saw on the day was an omen of the type of man she would marry:

Blackbird- clergyman

Bluebird- a happy man

Crossbill- argumentative man

Dove- good hearted man

Goldfinch- rich man

Hawk- soldier or brave man

Owl- a man who would not live long

Sparrow- farmer

Woodpecker- the girl would remain single

© Anna Franklin

The Mystery of the Mistletoe

In Pagan times, the mistletoe was considered a potent magical plant because it did not grow on the earth, but on the branches of a tree in a ‘place between places’. It grows into a ball, imitating the sun, and the leaves are fresh and green all year long, making it a plant of immortality and life surviving in the dead time. The berries ripen in December as though it is not affected by the seasons and the winter cold.

Mistletoe is an evergreen, woody parasite growing on the branches of trees, mainly apple and pear, but occasionally on ash, hawthorn and oak trees. It is native to Europe, North Africa and central and western Asia. It may form a bush of up to 5 ft.

In Cornish, its name is ughelvarr; in Breton uhelvarr; in Welsh, uchelwydd, all meaning ‘high branch’ signifying its growing habit or perhaps even its high status. In Irish, it is uil-ioc, meaning ‘all heal’. In Anglo-Saxon it was mistiltan, from tan meaning ‘twig’ and mistl meaning ‘different’ from its habit of growing on other trees. The missel thrush is said to be so called from feeding on its berries.

Pliny said that the mistletoe was one of the most important magical plants of the Celts and served as a symbol for the winter solstice. He recorded that the druids called mistletoe by a name which meant ‘all healing’. They made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees and brought forth two white bulls whose horns were bound for the first time. Robed in white the druid ascended the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle (probably gilded bronze in actuality) and it was caught by others in a white cloak. The bulls were then killed, accompanied with prayers.

In Germanic myth, the mistletoe was sacred to Donar, the thunder and lightning god. In German, the plant was called Donnerbesen or ‘thunder broom’. The Christians demonised it as a plant of the witches, calling it hexennest (‘witch nest’) or teufelbesen (‘devil’s broom’).

In Norse mythology the mistletoe was used to slay the sun god Balder. One day, Odin discovered Hel was preparing for Balder’s arrival in the Underworld and the Vala prophesied that he would have a child with Rinda the earth goddess who would be called Vali and would avenge Balder’s death. The gods persuaded everything on earth to swear not to harm Balder, except the mistletoe growing on the oak at the gate of Valhalla as it was thought that such a puny plant could not harm him. The gods amused themselves by casting harmless darts at Balder. Loki, god of fire, was jealous of Balder and made a shaft from the mistletoe and tricked Hodur, the blind and dark brother of Balder, into throwing it and killing him. Odin sent Hermod to ask Hel for Balder’s return and she agreed, on condition that all things should weep. All did, except Thok, a giantess, who may have been Loki in disguise, so Balder had to stay in the Underworld. In due course, Vali was born and on the same day, slew Hodur.

This is obviously a seasonal myth relating to the winter solstice. The sun (Balder) is killed by the darkness (Hodur). Vali’s revenge is the breaking forth of new life after the winter darkness. The tears symbolise the spring thaw, when everything drips with moisture. Thok (‘Coal’) alone refuses to weep as she is buried deep in the earth and does not need the light of the sun. After Balder had been resurrected, owing to the pleadings of the other gods and goddesses, the mistletoe was given into the keeping of Frigga, the goddess of love, and it was ordained that anyone who passed beneath the mistletoe should receive a kiss to show that it had become a symbol of peace and love.

Though other evergreens were included in the decorations of churches, mistletoe was the one omission, being considered a Pagan plant. The exception was at York, where on the eve of Christmas-day mistletoe was carried to the high altar of the cathedral and a general pardon and season of peace was proclaimed.

Because the evergreen mistletoe bears its fruit in winter, it is an emblem of fertility. In Swabia, people bound mistletoe to fruit trees during winter in the hope that it would ensure a good fruit harvest. In Austria people put mistletoe in the bedroom to ensure the conception of a child. In Switzerland, it was included in the bridal bouquets to ensure a good marriage.

The mistletoe formed the ‘kissing bough’ and often still does. There was a tradition that the maid who was not kissed under it, at Christmas, would not be married in that coming year. With each kiss, a berry had to be plucked off with each kiss for luck. This seems to have been a purely English custom, though in Lower Austria a pine wreath was hung from the ceiling, while a masked figure hid in a dark corner. Known as ‘Sylvester’, he had a flaxen beard and a wreath of mistletoe. If a youth or maiden happened to pass under the pine wreath, Sylvester sprang out and imprinted a rough kiss. When midnight came he was driven out as the representative of the old year.

Many traditions associate the mistletoe with the New Year, rather than Christmas. In West Shropshire tradition, the bough was not to be put up until New Year’s Eve. Worcestershire farmers gave their Christmas mistletoe to the first cow to calve in the new year to bring luck to the dairy. At New Year, the first person to enter a house should carry a sprig of mistletoe in one hand and a sprig of evergreen in the other. Until quite recently in some rural areas farmers would burn a globe made of mistletoe and hawthorn or blackthorn in the New Year. The ashes would then be thrown onto the field that was to be ploughed first.

At midwinter the berries are ripe and should be cut. Mistletoe berries are used at the midwinter solstice in rituals to give strength to the weakened sun. Mistletoe is seen as a herb of fertility, and a symbol of rebirth. Hang over the doorway at Yule, tied with red ribbon for harmony and to represent a welcome to all who visit, all year round. Replace at the next Yule, throwing the old piece in the Yule fire to burn away the old and welcome the new.

Though the berries of the mistletoe are toxic, the leaves and stems of the mistletoe have been used in herbal medicine. European mistletoe contains eleven proteins and substances called lectins which are currently being investigated for anti-cancer effects.

Adapted from Yule, History, Lore and Celebration by Anna Franklin, Lear Books, 2010


The winter solstice is probably the most ancient festival of all. Evidence for its celebration goes back at least 30, 000 years and is found on every continent of the world. Sheltered in our warm houses and able to buy food from the supermarket all year round, we find it hard to imagine what winter meant for our ancestors. During the summer, the long hours of light and warmth provided a bountiful harvest of greenery, corn and fruit. Animals had plenty of grazing and reproduced, supplying meat and milk. But then winter came. Darkness and cold increased daily, plants withered and animals expired while struggling to find fodder. Humans died from cold and hunger. Every day, the sun seemed to grow weaker, as if it too were dying. Every day, it rose lower and lower in the sky. Darkness and death threatened to overwhelm the world forever.

The sun governs the pattern of life on Earth, its cycles dividing the hours, days, months and years, and the round of sowing, growth, harvest and decay. It is only the movement of the sun that makes life possible. Its regular daily and seasonal rotations stand as a symbol of cosmic order.

Each day, up to the winter solstice, the sun grows weaker and weaker. Each day it is lower and lower on the horizon, and each day the hours of daylight grow fewer. Darkness is spreading; everything is winding down, threatening to come to a standstill. If the sun does not regenerate then time will come to an end, life will be extinguished and the world will return to the dark womb of night from which it emerged. And when the sun decays towards its death at Yule, that primal chaos threatens to return. Our ancestors thought that before the sun was set spinning on its course – creating the hours, days and seasons – there was only chaos; it was the beginning of regularised time that brought the cosmos into being.

At the solstice, the sun is still for three days as though time itself is frozen. Everything stands in suspension, waiting for the rebirth of the sun to chase the chaotic spirits back to the Otherworld and set time spinning on its course once again. In reflection of this, the Lapps forbade the turning of any kind of wheel, including cartwheels and churns. In many countries across Europe all forms of spinning and weaving were also prohibited. In Shropshire no spinning was done during the Twelve Days of Yule, for if any flax were to be left on the distaff, the Devil would cut it. In other places fairies or hag goddesses were said to destroy any spinning left at Yule.

As the sun winds down and darkness increases, our ancestors believed that the immortal spirits of chaos are released from the underworld and try to overtake the world. The threat of the longest night and dangerous Twelve Days that follow is reflected in the folk tales of ghosts and fairies temporarily freed from the underworld. In the Orkneys the evil trow fairies leave their mounds and dance. In Sweden the trolls were believed to be abroad, celebrating the dark time with dancing and revelry or flying to assemblies in the mountains in the company of witches, mounted on wolves, shovels or broomsticks. Passersby might hear their laughter and music. In Iceland the thirteen Yule Lads or Jolasveinar appear. Though today they have become cuddly gift bringers, leaving presents for good children and potatoes for naughty ones, originally they were terrifying characters, the sons of two undead trolls, Gryla and Leppaludi who stole and ate naughty children.

More frightening and closer to their original characters are the Greek Kallikantzaroi who appear during the Twelve Days. In Greek folk tradition it is believed that when Christ is born, so too are these winter spirits. They are half-animal, half-human monsters, black, hairy, with huge heads, red eyes, goats’ or asses’ ears, lolling red tongues, ferocious tusks, long curved claws and animals’ feet. Though they normally live in the underworld, at this time they attempt to climb up the World Tree to emerge on earth. The signal for their final departure does not come until Twelfth Night with the Kalanda festival, when the ‘Blessing of the Waters’ ceremony takes place. Like other such creatures elsewhere, they are often said to be spirits of the dead. Children born at Christmas are susceptible to becoming Kallikantzaroi, as are people with inept guardian angels. In some places they are thought to be transformed humans placed under a spell after being born with a caul during the Twelve Nights.

This is a characteristic they share with the werewolf, a man who is supposed to change into a ravening wolf – ‘man-wolves’ is the name given to the Kallikantzaroi in southern Greece. The connection between Christmas and werewolves is not confined to Greece. According to a belief in the north and east of Germany, children born during the Twelve Nights become werewolves, while in Livonia and Poland that period is the special season for the werewolf’s rapacity. In Poland, an excitable drunk is said to be like one ‘who runs amok at Christmas in a wolfskin’. In Campania, those born on Christmas night turn periodically into werewolves. In Naples, those born on Christmas day have tails and turn into werewolves. There are many stories of werewolf transformations at Christmas. The wolf is associated both with the wild side of nature and the time of chaos and boundaries. In France, the twilight is called ‘between the dog and the wolf’. In Norse myth the Fenris wolf embodies the forces of night and chaos and will bring about Ragnorok, when those forces will overwhelm the world.

In many parts of the world it is believed that the dead return at Christmas. In Hungary, troops of the dead returned at the Epiphany, accompanied by witches. In Scandinavia Christmas was the time when the dead revisited their old homes and had to be made welcome. Before people went to bed, they made sure the house was left tidy with a fire burning in the hearth. Food and ale were left out on the table. If earth was found on the chairs in the morning, it was known that a kinsman, fresh from the grave, had sat there. In Poland, the dead were invited inside to warm themselves and funeral foods were eaten. In Portugal crumbs were scattered for them on the hearth. In ancient times, seeds were left out for the spirits of the ancestors so they could return with fruits and grains from the Otherworld at harvest time.

Only the sun’s rebirth can send the spirits of chaos back and restore time and order to their proper courses. Until then, the world is turned upside down, and the Kingdom of Misrule is established on earth. The customs of the Lord of Misrule, along with most of our other Christmas traditions, seem to derive directly from the ancient Roman Saturnalia. Saturn (the Latin equivalent of the Greek Cronos) was the original king of the Golden Age which was temporarily regained at the Saturnalia. It was an annual period of license, when the customary restraints of law and morality were thrown aside and everyone gave themselves up to excessive mirth and jollity. Catullus called it ‘the best of days’. Masters changed places with their servants, and the slave might dine with his master or even be waiting on by him. Every house had its Saturnalicius Princeps (Master of the Saturnalia), the Lord of Misrule, chosen by lot, who had to act as foolishly as possible and was free to order others to do his bidding. His command was law, whether it was to dance naked, to sing, suffer a dunking in icy water, or carry a flute girl round the house.

At Yule, the old year dissolves back into the chaos and darkness from which it emerged as the world is reborn and a new cycle begins. At such a time, the pattern for the future could be set by sympathetic magic, and the future divined.

It was considered very important to complete the old year’s work before the New Year began: a magical act of leaving behind the past and being ready to embrace the future. In the same vein, there was also a sense that Yule was a time for settling moral accounts: bad behaviour in the previous year would be punished and good behaviour rewarded. Today’s Christmas celebrations still retain an element of this whereby children are told that of they are good, Father Christmas will bring them presents. Less common is the injunction that naughty children will be deprived of their goodies or left pieces of coal instead. In the past bad children were promised severe punishment and whipping by the Winter Spirits, and adults were just as likely to reap penalties ranging from bad luck to dismemberment and death. Yule was the time when the souls of the dead were collected, or returned in ghostly companies accompanying the Winter Hag or Wild Hunter. In Europe, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving spirits had (and in some places still have) a variety of helpers that bear no resemblance to the cute elves of the American Santa. These are ragged, sinister spirits, sometimes horned, often hairy with blackened or hideous faces, which carry rods to punish naughty children and evil doers, even dragging some away to hell. They go by a variety of names in various regions and include Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Zwarte Piets, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock. They are often identified with demons or the devil himself.

The year has declined and languishes in the season of its old age, standing on the edge of its grave. The rich and fruitful days of summer have given way to the dreary days before the winter solstice, and flowers have given way to naked branches. Each day grows a little shorter. The great source of life is failing, overcome by the powers of darkness and chaos. The sun god is dying. Will he be overwhelmed, or will he fight and overcome? The fate of the whole world rests with him.

Then, on the shortest day, in the time of greatest darkness, the sun is reborn.
For our ancestors the eternal cycle of the sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. There are thousands of sun gods and goddesses with remarkably similar characteristics: they battle the forces of darkness and dispel evil; they illuminate the sky; see everything on their path and uncover those secrets hidden by darkness (often in the form of prophecy); they represent truth, justice and enlightenment and they bring healing. The sun god is born at the winter solstice and grows until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, where he languishes for three days in his grave before rising from his tomb, reborn. Sun gods born at the winter solstice include Zeus, Dionysus, Bacchus, Osiris/Horus, Adonis, Zeus, Chris of Chaldea, Mithras, Sakia of India, Chang-ti of China, Jesus and Krishna.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice celebrations of the nativity of such saviours into a single festival called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’ on Bruma, the winter solstice or December 25th. Roman women would parade in the streets crying “unto us a child is born!”

The worn-out age (or year) is defeated and imprisoned with the other forces of chaos, and the new age (or year) begins. Even today we have the familiar image of Father Time (Saturn or Cronus), usually depicted as an elderly bearded man carrying a scythe, who is the personification of the Old Year who passes the duty of time on to the New Year baby. At Yule, the old year, the old cycle of existence and time, dissolves back into the primordial chaos. The sun reborn and the new year represent the world rejuvenated and reality renewed.

It is impossible to separate the celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas, as all of the myths, symbols and customs of Christmas are Pagan in origin. But while Christians see time as linear and believe that the birth of the divine child came but once, two thousand years ago, Pagans view time as cyclical, and know that the Child of Light, and with him the world, is reborn and renewed every year.

Anna Franklin, abridged from Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010


In Europe, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving spirits had (and in some places still have) a variety of helpers that bear no resemblance to the cute elves of the American Santa. These are ragged, sinister spirits, sometimes horned, often hairy with blackened or hideous faces, which carry rods to punish naughty children and evil doers, even dragging some away to hell. They go by a variety of names in various regions and include Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Zwarte Piets, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock. They are often identified with demons or the devil himself.

The English Father Christmas was a very different figure to the American Santa Claus until the mid-twentieth century. Before then, he personified the good will and cheer of the season, depicted in a variety of clothes, and never climbed down chimneys, had reindeer or filled stockings.

He was banned by the Puritans, along with mince pies and games. Occasionally secret publishers would print broadsheets with a verse about ‘Old Christmas’. He became the personification of everything the British people held dear about Christmas.

In the eighteenth century, Father Christmas began to appear in the Christmas plays of itinerant players. In the middle of the play, he would appear, heavily disguised, shouting his challenge, “In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!” He was used as a symbol of good living and gaiety in the eighteenth century in order to ridicule the Puritan objections to Christmas.

Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, described the Spirit of Christmas as a jolly character clad in a green robe and wreathed with holly, and Victorian illustrators usually depicted him as a very Pagan character with icicles or ivy round his head in robes of various colours.

As more influence came to Britain from America after World War II, Father Christmas was presented as a fat and jolly character, who filled stockings, and occasionally gave guest appearances at civic and public places. By the twentieth century, he was a common figure in most department stores the length and breadth of the British Isles. He was often austere looking and would ask children questions about their prayers, their reading, writing and arithmetic. If they had been naughty, he would tell them they must improve or he would not visit them at Christmas.

The American Santa Claus is generally stated to have his origins in Saint Nicholas, but modern representations of him don’t seem to bear much relation to a bishop. In 1809, Washington Irving published his satirical A History of New York poking fun at New York’s Dutch past. He represented St Nicholas as a jolly pipe-smoking Dutchman with baggy trousers, who rode over the tops of trees in a horse-drawn wagon dropping presents on children’s houses as he went. However, rather than the austere bishop, he was drawing on the tradition of the saint’s helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) who dressed in baggy trousers and wore pointed caps of the same colours.

St Nicholas was known as Sinterklaas in Holland. Children there would put their shoes in front of the fireplace with a present for his horse and sing songs such as:
Sinterklass, castrated cock
Throw something in my show
Throw something in my boot.
In 1821, a New York printer named William Gilley issued a poem about a Santeclaus who dressed all in fur and drove a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.

On Christmas Eve of 1822, another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote down and read to his children a series of verses; his poem was published a year later as An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today by its opening line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas . . .”). Moore gave St. Nick eight reindeer (and named them all), and devised the now-familiar entrance by chimney. Moore’s Nicholas was still a tiny figure, a ‘jolly old elf” with a miniature sleigh.

The image further developed in 1863 when an American political cartoonist called Thomas Nast was commissioned by Harper’s Weekly magazine to produce a Christmas cartoon, and drew one of Santa. As time went on, his annual cartoon developed and incorporated a range of Christmas imagery drawn from around the world. In 1866 the cartoon was published in colour for the first time, giving us Santa’s familiar red suit. Nast drew him walking on rooftops and going down chimneys, and gave us Santa’s workshop at the North Pole and his association with Mother Goose characters.

It is speculated that Nast based his image of Santa Claus not on Saint Nicholas, but on Pelznickle, his helper. Unlike Saint Nicholas in his bishop’s robes, the saint’s companions were hairy, bearded and fur clad. Nicholas didn’t come down the chimney, but his helpers did, and were subsequently covered in ashes and soot. The helper carried the bag and handed out the treats (or punishments) to children, not the saint.

There is an urban legend that an advertising campaign by Coca Cola created our modern image of Santa Claus. It is true that Haddon Sundblom, in 1931, created a series of Santa Claus ads for Coca-Cola, but his Santa image was very close to Nast’s, though it emphasised the red and white nature of the robes to echo Coca Cola’s famous brand more closely.

© Anna Franklin, abridged from Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010

Samhain Journey

As he journeys through the darkness of a cold night, the Fool meets an elderly woman gazing into a cauldron.

“The Wheel turns,” she tells him. “I am the Cailleach, daughter of the winter Sun and mine are the darkest months of the year. I bring an end to summer and growth as I harden the earth with frost. The gates of the Underworld begin to open and the spirits of bane, darkness, winter and chaos creep through. The Otherworld is close and we can speak once more to those who have gone before.

“It is the time for culling and death. Everything dissolves in my cauldron as all things return to the source. But as the mound is raised above the seed, the seed prepares itself for rebirth, and all things are transformed by death.”

From Pagan Ways Tarot by Anna Franklin, Schiffer, 2016

Soul Cakes


6 oz butter

6 oz caster sugar

3 egg yolks

1 lb plain flour

1 tsp mixed spice

3 oz currants


Mix flour and spice. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl. Beat in egg yolks. Add flour and spice mixture, and the currants. Add enough milk to form a soft dough. Make into flat cakes and mark with a cross. Place on a greased baking tray and bake at 350/180 degrees until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

From the Middle Ages until the 1930s, when the practice gradually died out, Soul Cakes were traditionally made for All Hallow’s Eve in England and given out to children and beggars who came to the door singing and pleading for treats:

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

We use Soul Cakes in our Samhain ritual, putting them out as offerings for the ancestors.