Rites of Winter

Catalonian Sun Goddess

“Catalonian Sun Goddess” by Stuart Yeates. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

by Hunter MacKenzie & Erin Abernethy

Most winter celebrations, rather than celebrating the unique weather phenomena of winter itself, have traditionally centered around the winter solstice. This usually occurs on the 21st of December, and is the turning point when the longest night of the year heralds the return of the sun as the daylight hours begin to lengthen again.

There are a couple of general themes that recur in winter observances: 1) celebration of a miraculous birth, and 2) the transition of seasons or calendar years. The transition between seasons or calendars generally involves participating in activities to assure success in the coming year, and often includes a period of hedonism and frivolity followed by a cleansing process.

A great number of sources are available both online and off which describe how the modern “Christmas” holiday evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) from its original roots; that being the case, we’ll note just a few points concerning that, but won’t go into it in too much depth here. Instead, we’ll mainly cover some of the more obscure folklore related to the midwinter festivities.

Regarding the miraculous birth concept, it’s interesting to note that Christians were not the first to put forth the immaculate conception idea. Before people fully understood concepts of biochemistry (and quite a few still don’t), any number of things from mistletoe to mushrooms were believed to spring from, essentially, nothingness. Mistletoe, which appeared in the treetops without any apparent need for being rooted, seeded or planted, was simply accepted as a divine gift. How it went from being a “gift from the gods” to being a way to get a kiss out of someone who’d rather give you a slap in the face is not quite clear.

In a similar vein of thought, early Egyptians believed that the sky goddess Nuit gave birth to the sun at the winter solstice. (Apparently it was necessary to repeat this every year, however, despite the fact that giving birth to a glowing ball of fire once ought to be enough for anyone, goddess or not.) Other deities who were believed to have been born at this time include (but are certainly not limited to) Horus, Dionysos, Mithras, Osiris, Adonis, Apollo, Balder, and Jesus. Interestingly, many of them were given similar titles which reflected their status as a solar deity: Light of the World, Sun/Son of Righteousness, etc. The Egyptians, in fact, used the image of an infant to represent the newborn sun, and on its “nativity” or “birthday,” the winter solstice, they brought out this image to be shown to his worshippers. If analyzed from a philosophical perspective, this long line of deities and babes born of mysterious origins might suggest that as long as there have been humans on earth, they have exhibited an almost compulsively egocentric need to impose personification upon forces of nature.

Turning now toward the less controversial theme of transition of seasons and calendars, let’s look at some customs related to that. One prominent feature of many traditions of this season is the Yule log. Many have noted that the burning of the Yule log is most likely a survival of the ancient custom of lighting fires at the winter solstice to celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Although one might reasonably assume that a “Yule log” comes from one of the evergreen varieties of the yew tree, it was traditionally oak, a fact suggesting that at least some of the ideas associated with the burning of the Yule log might derive from earlier beliefs linking the oak tree with Thor, the Norse god of thunder. (This association can also be noted in Clement C. Moore’s Night Before Christmas story in which he names two of Santa’s reindeer Donner and Blitzen–German words meaning “thunder” and “lightning.” Thor was also said to ride through the sky with reindeer, and some sources indicate that the image of the flying reindeer might come from the fact that reindeer are prone to eating a certain type of wild mushroom which has hallucinogenic properties.)

Most of these ideas connected with the Yule log fall into the category of rituals performed to assure good luck or success in the coming year (or at least averting disaster). Throughout various areas of Europe, the Yule log has been credited with protecting the house from fire, thunder, lightning strikes, and hail. It has also been used as a protection against sorcery, including curing and preventing various maladies of cattle and saving wheat from mildew (which were often thought to be the results of sorcery). Additionally, it has been said to heal swollen glands, make seeds thrive (if a piece of the Yule-log is used on the plow, or if the ashes are scattered on the fields), promote a healthy flock of chickens (or lambs or calves or pigs or kids) and drive away vermin from under beds. Nowadays, of course, people’s beliefs are more “advanced,” so the burning of Yule logs has been largely replaced by homeowners’ insurance and the year-round consumption of antidepressants.

To obtain these protections and cures, various procedures were employed concerning the Yule log. Some involved burning the log just enough to char the end, and then keeping it in the house throughout the year to insure success. Most rituals, however, involved burning the log bit by bit over a course of several nights, and using the remaining pieces (including the ashes) in appropriate circumstances where a bit of extra “luck” might be desirable.

Incidentally, aside from the regular Yuletide log-burning customs, some ancient cultures also believed in “hearth spirits” who needed to be kept happy. This usually involved thoroughly cleaning the house to prepare for the visit of the hearth spirit, who entered by coming down the chimney. The spirit was usually depicted wearing a red hat and coat, and was believed to deliver blessings or punishments.

In northern cultures where trees were decorated with lights and tinsel during the winter festivities (the lights being in honor of the sun and the tinsel being representative of either melting snow or the semen of the gods, according to various sources), after the holidays the branches were cut off the tree and the trunk recycled as the May Pole, which was then re-recycled as the next year’s Yule log.

Typically, Yule festivities begin just before the winter solstice and run for several days and nights, ending at Twelfth Night, when it was generally held that the final trappings of Yuletide–wreaths, decorative greenery, candles, etc.–should be removed. This custom apparently no longer holds true, as in parts of the United States it is not unusual to see life-sized plastic nativity scenes left on front lawns well into February, at which point the traditional gifts of the three wise men may be simply replaced with boxes of Valentine candy.

The sequence of holidays around Yule is related to the old celebration of Saturnalia, a winter festival held in honor of the Roman deity Saturn. During these festivities, all public business was suspended, schools kept holiday, friends exchanged gifts, and slaves were allowed to eat at the same table as masters (which at that time was considered a great liberty). Saturnalia was also a time of great license, when the typical constraints of morality were thrown aside and people indulged in behaviors which were not allowed under ordinary circumstances.

Many cultures throughout the history of the world have set aside periodic times when the normal rules of society are suspended. These “Roman holidays” during which the pent-up urges of human nature are given free expression occur most commonly at the end of the year. Cultures which adhere to less repressive rules of behavior generally have not found it necessary to designate specific times to indulge oneself. The Nicolaites, for instance (Gnostic followers of St. Nicholas) believed that the way to salvation was through frequent sexual intercourse.

When the transition is made to the new year, it is typical to drive out the demons and troubles of the old year in order to begin anew with a clean slate. In Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) celebrations in Scotland, for instance, traditions once involved lighting bonfires, rolling blazing tar barrels, tossing burning torches, dressing in the hides of cattle and running around the village while being hit by sticks. At midnight, doors and windows were opened to let out the old year and to let in the new year. Household utensils were rattled and banged to drive away any remaining psychic vestiges of the old year. It is uncertain whether these activities would be any more or less likely to rid one’s house of any lingering devils than the present-day custom of shooting off fireworks (and, in some rural areas, pistols and shotguns) until all hours of the morning.

Some Scandinavian winter festivals involved a couple of men prancing around in a goat costume, occasionally having a third person riding them. In 18th-century Sweden, the goat came to be regarded as a gift bringer in a similar role to the present day Santa Claus. Although this idea has apparently died out, some Scandinavian parents continued to use the seasonal icon of the goat to admonish their children into good behavior, much in the same way that American parents warn their children that Santa is watching to see who is naughty and who is nice.

The goat symbol also turned up in Poland in the form of little pastries shaped like goats or cows and handed out as treats to carolers. One of the group of carolers generally carried a bundle of sticks, and after caroling and receiving treats, the caroler would then hit the host/hostess lightly with the stick and wish the household happiness and good health in the coming year. Those who did not reward the carolers with treats were subject to having nasty tricks played upon them–having trash dumped in front of their house, their gate torn off, their fences vandalized, etc.–and would not receive the blessing for good luck during the new year. Considering the alternatives, it would seem much easier to bake up a batch of goat cookies for the carolers.

Connecting the goat to the winter holidays might seem odd to some, but consider this: during the part of the calendar year when these festivities occur, the sun is in the zodiacal sign of Capricorn. Although Capricorn is traditionally symbolized by something called a “sea goat,” the word Capricorn is closely related to the Latin caper, meaning “goat.” And far from being evil, nasty, demonic creatures, goats are more inclined toward capers (pranks and tricks) and capering (playful cavorting and jumping about).

After the revelry of the holidays has died down and the demons have been expelled for another year, many people carry out further rituals for success or good luck while others engage in divination to get a better idea of what the new year may bring. Various cultures place great emphasis on the food to be eaten on New Year’s Day; everything from black-eyed peas to hog jowls are reputed to bring the eater good luck during the coming year–in fact, it almost seems as though the more repulsive the food, the better one’s luck will be.

As far as divination, some practices designate a particular night (for instance, the “Mother Night” among followers of Norse beliefs) in which dreams on that night are believed to foretell events that will take place in the upcoming year. One Russian tradition involves sitting between two mirrors with candles in order to see “between the worlds.” A German custom suggests that burning fresh boughs from a fir tree will allow the future to be divined in the smoke patterns. There are copious amounts of folklore relating to predicting weather for the coming year, of course, and many of these survive and are reprinted from year to year in almanacs.

Our present-day custom of making New Year’s resolutions probably stems from a combination of the licentiousness of the old Saturnalia celebrations and the desire to rid one’s house of evil spirits for the new year. Overindulging on New Year’s Eve or behaving like a drunken goat at the office Christmas party might cause one to have second thoughts the next day and swear off such behavior. Embarrassment is short-lived, however, which is why most of our New Year’s resolutions rarely last past the following week, and why we’ll need another holiday party the next year to let it all out again.

On that note, we wish you a happy holiday season, no matter what you’re celebrating. May you have more fun than a herd of flying reindeer.

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