Sheltered in our warm houses and able to buy food from the supermarket all year round, we find it hard to conceive what winter meant for our ancestors. Just imagine for a moment. During the summer, the long hours of light and warmth provided a bountiful harvest of greenery, grain and fruit. Animals had plenty of grazing and reproduced, supplying meat, milk and cheese. But then winter comes. Darkness and cold increase daily causing plants to shrivel and die and animals to perish while struggling to find fodder. Humans die from cold and hunger. The great source of life, the Sun, is weakening daily. 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. The year has declined and languishes in the season of its old age, standing on the edge of its grave.
If the Sun does not regenerate then time itself will come to an end, life will be extinguished and the world will return to the dark womb of chaos from which it emerged. And when the Sun decays towards its death at Yule, that primal chaos threatens to return.
In the myths of many cultures, 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. In Greek, chaos (χάος) did not mean ‘disorder’ as it does today, but primordial emptiness, space and darkness, a confused mixture of the four elements, a formless mass without order, but which contained everything in potential. The world began when Chronos, the god of time, set the world in motion, and confined the forces of chaos to the underworld. But although chaos was locked away, it continued to exert an influence. They believed there is a gateway to the underworld which cracks open as the Sun declines. As darkness increases (beginning at Samhain and culminating at Yule), the immortal spirits of chaos creep from the underworld.
In many parts of the world it is thought that the dead return at Christmas. In Scandinavia 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.  In Poland, the dead were invited inside to warm themselves and funeral foods were eaten. In Portugal the souls of the dead are welcomed at Christmas with crumbs are scattered for them on the hearth. In ancient times, seeds were left out for the dead so they could return with fruits and grains from the Otherworld at harvest time. In Lithuania food would be left on the table as it was believed that once the family was asleep, the dead would come in and feast.  
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.
The great source of life is failing. The Sun god is dying. Will he be overcome by the powers of darkness and chaos, or will he fight and overcome? The fate of the whole world rests with him. Eventually, everything comes to a standstill. For three days the Sun does not move on the horizon. The great wheel of the year has stopped turning. Then, on the shortest day, in the time of greatest darkness, the Sun is reborn.
Each sunrise, the Sun demonstrates the victory of life over the forces of death and darkness; it is a metaphor for human spiritual and physical life, reflecting our own experiences of birth, growth, decay and death, as well as our hope of rebirth, our struggles against negativity and the triumph of spirit. For our ancestors the eternal cycle of the Sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. 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.
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 the winter solstice or December 25th. Roman women would parade in the streets crying “unto us a child is born!”
The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Teutons (among others) all had a twelve day festival around the winter solstice. The Twelve Days represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, or the twelve months, the Sun must past through in the coming year. The idea was adopted by Christianity in the fourth century.
Many of the ancient beliefs and customs surrounding the Twelve Days remain to this day. They are a time of danger, the eerie and the supernatural, haunted by spirits which might punish or reward. Many omens were taken from them. In England it was said that the weather on the first day would reflect the weather in January, the weather on the second day the weather in February and so on.
Modern gift-giving spirits, such as Santa Claus, have their origin in much older Pagan legends. The Hag Goddess comes into her power during the Twelve Nights and flies through the midnight skies, accompanied by wild women, ghosts and other spirits, collecting the souls of the dead, especially those unbaptised at the time of their death. Usually described as a spinner, or she is a crone with long nose, or perhaps a nose made of iron, or she has iron teeth. She sometimes carried a pitcher of live coals or a cauldron to burn the distaffs of lazy spinners. However, though she was severe in her punishments, she rewarded those who pleased her, and her passing blessed the land with fertility. It was she who gave newborns their destiny.
In many parts of Europe, the gift giver is St Nicholas, allegedly a fourth century bishop though his historical validity is in some question, as he does not appear on any contemporary list of bishops. He seems to have taken over the legends and functions of the gift giving Pagan spirits of the season. In the Netherlands, children put their wooden clogs (or sometimes baskets) by the hearth on the Eve of St. Nicholas, hoping that St Nicholas, riding through the air on his white horse, will pause, come down the chimney and fill them with sweets.
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 or devilish 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 Piet, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock.
Modern Christians celebrate 25 December is the birthday of Jesus Christ, but this is a date that was not fixed until the fourth century and which is still not accepted by some Eastern Churches. Various sects have celebrated Christmas on one hundred and thirty-six separate dates and every month of the year as been mentioned as the possible one in which Christ was born. The first evidence of the birth of Jesus being celebrated was in Egypt in around 200 CE, when it was celebrated on 25May. The Nativity of Christ was not considered an important festival by early Christians, unlike Easter (which celebrated the resurrection). The celebration of a birthday was rejected as a Pagan tradition by most Christians during the first three hundred years of Christianity. However, partly in reaction to the claims by Gnostics that Jesus had not been mortal, Christians began to emphasize the Nativity, though a date could not be agreed.
The celebration of Christmas arrived in Britain around the early fifth century. By 1100 Christmas was celebrated all over Europe. The Protestant Reformation in sixteenth century Europe saw a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, and turning to the Bible, they found no evidence of a date for Christ’s birthday, and no commandment to celebrate it. Puritans called Christmas by such pejorative names as ‘Old Heathen Feasting Day’ and abolished the Christmas celebration by an act of Parliament in 1647, a ban not lifted until the Restoration. Parish officers were subject to penalties for allowing the decking of churches and allowing services to be conducted on Christmas Day. However, the much loved feast was not so easily suppressed and many people protested; there were riots in several places. In 1647 evergreen decorations were defiantly hung up in London, and the Lord Mayor and City Marshal had to ride about setting fire to them.
The Puritans had a point – every element of the Christmas story, and every Christmas custom is 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, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2021
 The Russian witch goddess Baba Yaga had iron teeth and flew with witches at the summer solstice.