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Yule vs. Christmas

Blessed Yule, everyone.


In recognition and celebration of the season, I thought it might be useful to some in our extended coven to review some of the history of this holiday. In particular, I am going to look at the history of how Yule intersects with the more commonly celebrated holiday, Christmas.


I am sure that there are many who pay little mind to the origins of the many common traditions around the Christmas holiday, so many who celebrate – either as a part of their Christian faith or even as a secular cultural celebration – would likely be surprised to know that this holiday is rife with traditions derived from pagan practices. In fact, the similarities and “inspirations” are quite plentiful, so I will limit myself to just few here in this post and will, perhaps, return to the topic sometime in the future to provide additional details.


All about the timing…

Christians often celebrate Christmas as a recognition of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christ’s December 25th birthday has long been accepted as “fact” but, in reality is not entirely accurate. In fact, the bible makes no actual mention of an exact date of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth. Instead, the date December 25th is widely understood to have been declared by Pope Julius I [1].


But “why December 25th?” You might ask.


Well, the Roman celebration of Saturnalia was already a popular time of celebration around this time. It is believed that this timing was an attempt to make the newly minted “holiday” more palatable to the masses, (hopefully) increase the odds of converting people to the Christian faith, and to “adopt and absorb the traditions of the Pagan Saturnalia festival” [2]. So, basically, choosing this date was a clever marketing ploy on behalf of the church.


Decorating a Christmas Tree

One of the staple activities and feature pieces of décor for the Christmas holiday is the Christmas Tree. This tradition too is one derived from Pagan tradition.


First, it is important to understand that trees, in general were known to be worshipped by Pagans. That being said, the evergreen (and other similarly green-all-year) trees were held in special esteem with Pagans. These trees were highly regarded because of their perceived liminality, existing between both the living and the dead. Often, this plant life represented the promise of renewed life to come after a rough winter season. As such, many Pagans would decorate their homes with pieces of this greenery. In fact, Pagans were known to affix an evergreen bough to their door in an effort to ward against forces such as ghosts or illness [3]. Similarly, other forms of greenery of this kind were placed around the house for their perceived protective powers.


The tradition of adorning trees started long before people brought them into the home for the purpose of decorating them for Christmas. For example, Scandinavians once took to the forest and “decorated trees with runes, coloured clothes and food, to entice the tree spirits to come back in summer” [4].


The tradition of bringing a Christmas tree into the home did not start until 16th century Germans began using “paradise trees” in performances depicting the Adam and Eve origin story [5].


Here we come a wassailing

A time-honored Christmas tradition comes in the form of caroling. People band together and travel from one house to the next to sing traditional Christmas tunes to their neighbors and friends, spreading the joy and spirit of the holiday season. This tradition is directly derived from the Pagan tradition of wassailing, which was typically performed around the 12th day of Yule.


Wassailing came in two distinct forms. The first consisted of people singing through fields and orchards to scare away any evil spirits who might prevent a bountiful harvest in the coming year. The participants would also spill wine over the fields as an offering to that same end [6, 7].


The second form of wassailing is the most similar to the modern-day practice of caroling. People would travel door-to-door, singing carols and offering a sip of wassail (a spiced ale or mulled wine) from a wassail cup in exchange for gifts or treats from a home’s inhabitants (who were usually members of the upper class). This tradition is also closely related to the Pagan practice of “guising” or “mumming,” which I may have to consider writing about next Samhain…


More to come?

These are just a few of the connections between Pagan traditions and the more modern (and thus commonly celebrated) Christmas traditions. There are so many more connections to be explored on this topic, but you came here for a blog of shadows post not a full academic article or dissertation, so I will leave you with these items...for now.


If this is a topic you would be interested in reading more about, be sure to like this post and leave a comment to let us know. Perhaps we can come back to this topic in the future to offer you additional information.


In the meantime, I did leave several sources below where you can find additional information.




Sources:

[1] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm

[2] https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas

[3] https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

[4] Spiderwyck, Edward. Pagan Roots of Christmas Folklore and Traditions. 2020.

[5] https://www.zmescience.com/science/history-science/origin-christmas-tree-pagan/

[6] https://www.learnreligions.com/go-a-wassailing-for-yule-2562973

[7] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/wassailing-season-upon-us-ancient-pagan-ritual-bouncing-back-thanks-new-generation-january-revellers-9954124.html

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