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