The house always smells so good in December; gingerbread baking, cinnamon candles burning, and of course, the pine scent of the Christmas tree. I know the lyrics to over 100 carols, and have my own list of must-see holiday movies. I love the festive decorations, and even add some holly to my Goddess altar.
Yup, I’m a pagan witch who celebrates Christmas.
It isn’t as big a stretch as you might think. I’m more offended by the commercialization of Christmas than the Christian take-over of the ancient winter holy-day. Just imagine the beautiful simplicity of this time of year in days gone by, before electricity and noisy plastic toys. Of course, it was still a stressful time, but instead of credit card debt people worried about enough firewood and food to make it through the winter.
Winter celebrations have been happening in northern Europe for millennia, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to the Norse and Icelandic cultures, to the British Isles. These festivals, known as Jul or Yule, involved many of the traditions that carry on today: feasting, gift-giving, decorating, and singing. It was a time to bring merriment to the darkest time of the year – the winter solstice, which happens around December 21st.
Back when Christianity was new, people didn’t want to convert and give up their holidays. Taking the approach of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, they built Christian churches on old Pagan worship sites, and incorporated some of the same symbols. Within a few centuries, the Christians had everyone worshiping a new holiday celebrated on December 25.
This new holiday was, of course, Christmas – the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. As the story goes, his birth had been foretold by three wise men from a bright star rising in the East. The symbolism of a “bright star” and “three Kings” represent motifs that long predate Christianity and are found within Egyptian religion, symbolizing the star Sirius and the three stars in the constellation of Orion known as Orion’s belt.
Wait, what? The Christians plagiarized an older Egyptian myth about the birth of their king and savior Osiris? The three wise men were stars in the sky? And Christmas just conveniently replaced the winter festival of Yule? Yes.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. On the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, we have the shortest day and longest night. For three days after the sun reaches its “solstice” (definition: from Latin sōlstitium, literally: the standing still of the sun, from sōl sun + sistere ), it appears to stand still.
This yearly pause was, for agriculture-dependent early humans, a stressful time. It was the beginning of the most difficult time of year, and there could be some suspicion about whether the longer, sunnier days would return. Why not have big parties with lots of booze, food, bonfires and music to forget your cares?
Three days later, the sun has visibly increased and been “re-born”. The sun, God, born on December 25th, three days after the sun “dies” on the winter solstice. Sound familiar?!
This is why I can wholeheartedly celebrate Yule and Christmas together, because its essence is a seasonal celebration of the turning of the wheel of the year.
My favorite traditions have pagan roots anyway: decorating a live tree in your home, lighting candles and having bonfires, caroling and feasting with loved ones.
If you’ve never celebrated Yule or Winter Solstice before, find an event or sister circle in your community, or a virtual gathering online. On this darkest night of the year, we can embrace the feminine Yin quality of the blackness. This is a time for an inward journey, to connect with your soul as reflected by kindred sisters in sacred space together.
Join my Facebook group, Awaken the Goddess Within, to stay tuned for Wheel of the Year events like this.