Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas:Yule, Saturnalia Whats the deal? Essay Series.

Hey all. These are a series of articles I wrote about the Christmas/Yule Winter holidays for a site called a little over 5 years ago. I really enjoyed writing and researching for these articles. And I took the time to refind them and re save them to post here to save for future years and I hope to continue to get positive feedback on them. So I hope people continur to enjoy and read them. Thanks. -Paul.


by Paul R
Member since:
July 30, 2007
Christmas: Yule, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice; What's the deal?
November 18, 2008 11:11 AM EST (Updated: December 18, 2008 10:06 AM EST)
views: 973 | comments: 9

The Following is the first installment of my Christmastime/ Winter Holiday essay. I am focusing on Christmas with an emphasis on the Neo-Pagan observance of The Winter Solsitice and the Old European customs of Yule and of the Ancient Roman Feast of Saturnalia and what they have in common with the Feast Day of the Nativity and Christmas time.

Well we’re in mid-November, and though we have a somewhat major holiday coming up in a little under two weeks (Thanksgiving) it is generally downplayed for an even bigger Winter Holiday, Christmas. There are other Holiday’s around this time of year, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa come to mind. But it seem none so important to American Culture as Christmas. When we think of Christmas we think of presents and evergreen trees. Decorations, and lights, candy, and great food, Santa and his reindeer. We think of good times, jolly times, and playful times with our family. We think of singing carols and attending our children’s Christmas programs at school. There is also religious significance, Christians go to church and celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus who will one day become the savior for Christians and mankind.

However, where do we get these ideas, and customs? Surely they are not original to Christianity? Anyone who has done any studying knows that Jesus was not born on December 25th. The Catholic Church moved the feast day of the nativity to that day to coincide with the Roman Feast and celebrations of Saturnalia, and the Northern European festivals of Yule. They moved it to that day to help convert those nasty Heathens to the new religion of Christianity all those centuries ago.

The customs of Christmas are borrowed from these earlier holidays. And, the original holidays are celebrated today by those people who identify themselves as Neo-Pagan, people who attempt to revive the old gods, and the old customs and traditions and religions of the pre-Christian era. Not all Neo-Pagans attempt to reconstruct these old religions; some use the old religions as a model but upon which to build modern modes of worshipping the old gods. Wicca is one such modern religion, that while based upon myth and stories from these old Pre-Christian religions, are also based on modern lore from Witchcraft, Gerald Gardner, went public with this religion in the late 1950’s when the last of Britain’s anti-Witchcraft laws were repealed. There is much debate on if Gardner invented the whole Wiccan religion or simply brought it to light. Such debate rages like a five-alarm inferno in the Wiccan and Neo-Pagan Community to this very day. Of course this essay is not about the merits or history of Wicca, it is about Yule and other Early Pagan Festivals that took place around the Winter Solstice that coincides with the modern Christmas. So let’s get on with the show.

The Modern Yule usually takes place on the Winter Solstice (DEC. 20-22nd) It is not a fixed holiday, as it comes about based on the season and planetary and astrological alignment. Yule in Modern Wicca/Neo-Pagan lore is seen as the longest night of the year. The cold depths of Winter is setting in. This is a time to reflect. However, there is the promise that imbolc will be here in February, and that spring time will soon be here. Though this is the longest night of the year, from this point on the days will start to get longer. It will be subtle to those unaware, but the day gets longer from this point until around June 21st or the Summer Solstice when the sun is at its very peak. Traditionally this is a time when Yule logs are to be burned to help give energy and strength to the Sun. This is also said to be the time when the newborn god, the bright child of promise is said to be born from the eternal mother goddess. Some Neo-Pagans take part in a ritual known as “Birthing the Sun/Son” it is a ritualistic way of aiding the Goddess into delivering the god child, and in aiding the natural world in delivering the mighty Sun out of it’s winter slumber and giving it strength to help bring about the warmer months of the year.

“Sun Gods: Apollo, Mithras, and Jesus”

“Without the sun there would be no life. Without the sun there would be no plants, and without plants, there would be no oxygen. Without oxygen, there would be no animals or human beings!

Like many pre-Christian customs and beliefs, the old feast commemorating the yearly return of the sun was rededicated to the birth of Christ. In the year 274CE, the Roman emperor Aurelianus established the cult of “The God Of The Invincible Sun” which was celebrated on December 25th, even though the actual day of the winter solstice is the twenty-first or twenty-second day of the month. Why? Perhaps this was the first day on which the people could actually discern the elevated position of the sun, and see that it truly was coming back from the depths of darkness. The feast associated with the event was called the “rebirth of the sun.” At the same time the Romans rededicated the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Christ, they also took over the cult of the Persian sun god Mithras, whose birthday was also celebrated on December 25th. “The [Mithraic] mystery started with his initiation into a heavenly soul voyage.” ( Giebel 1990, 200).

Many of the gods of the past were associated with the sun: Ra and Osiris, the Egyptian sun and vegetation gods; Helios and Apollo, Greek gods of the sun and light; and the Germanic Wotan, who searches for the sun in the time of darkness with his wild army, to name just a few. The power of each of these important gods was attributed to the reigning emperor or king of the day. The sun was the giver of life for plants and thus also for human beings. Therefore, the first day of the week –Sunday- was named after the day once dedicated to Helios, the sun god.

In the context of this cosmological and mythological background, the idea that Jesus was a descendent of the former sun gods was only logical, and it is easy to see why his followers associated the rebirth of the sun with his birth. But there remains a significant difference. According to Christian belief, the sun itself is not divine, but is “a mere creation that God has given special duties. … The Pagan belief remained centered on the divine beauty of His work, and worshipped it, in their adoration of God, instead of only comprehending the Creator” ( Forstner 1986, 96).

This is why the Church was so keen to point out that the Pagan admiration of the sun really amounted to adoration of the “glowing light from the heights.” (Luke 1:78, quoted in Forstner 1986, 97).

From: - “Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and rituals at the Origins of Yuletide; Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling 2006 inner traditions publishing (originally published in German by AT Verlag 2003), Pg. 149-150

Look for the next installment of this eassy where I focus on The Customs, myths, and stories of the Northern European Yule and of the Ancient Roman Festival of Saturnalia (As I compile the information)

And look for an installment about the Feast of the Nativity and the Christian celebrations of this Winter holiday.


by Paul R
Member since:
July 30, 2007
Christmas: Yule, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice; What's the deal? (Part 2 - II )
November 18, 2008 01:53 PM EST (Updated: December 18, 2008 10:06 AM EST)
views: 541 | comments: 7
This is the second part installment of my series on the history, rituals, customs, and myths surrounding the Winter Holiday Season, more specifically The Winter Solstice and the Ancient and Modern day Pagan Observances of it and how the Christian Celebration of Christmas is factored in and influenced by these earlier celebrations.

Part 1 - I can be found here: Christmas: Yule, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice; What's the deal?


Yule is a winter festival identified with Christmas in modern times. The pagan Germanic peoples celebrated Yule from late December to early January on a date determined by the lunar Germanic calendar. When the Julian calendar was adopted in northern Europe, Yule was placed on December 25 to correspond with the date of Christmas.

The word "Yule" come from the same root as the word "jolly." Modern Yule traditions include decorating a fir or spruce tree, burning a Yule log, hanging mistletoe and holly branches, giving gifts, and general celebration and merriment. Yule celebrations at the winter solstice predate Christianity. Yule is a feast celebrated by sacrifice on mid winter night 12 January, according to Norwegian historian Olav Bø.

There are many references to Yule in the Icelandic sagas but few accounts of how Yule was celebrated beyond the fact it was a time for feasting. According to Adam of Bremen, Swedish kings sacrificed male slaves every ninth year during the Yule sacrifices at the Temple at Uppsala. 'Yule-Joy' with dancing continued through the Middle Ages in Iceland but was frowned upon after the Reformation. The ritual of slaughtering a boar on Yule survives in the modern tradition of the Christmas ham and the Boar's Head Carol.

On Yule Eve the best boar in the herd was brought into the hall where the assembled company laid their hands upon the animal and made their unbreakable oaths. Heard by the boar these oaths were thought to go straight to the ears of Freyr himself. Once the oaths had been sworn the boar was sacrificed in the name of Freyr and the feast of boar flesh began. The most commonly recognized remnant of the sacred boar traditions once common at Yule has to be the serving of the boar's head at later Christmas feasts.[8]

According to the medieval English writer the Venerable Bede, Christian missionaries sent to proselytize among the Germanic peoples of northern Europe were instructed to superimpose Christian themes upon existing local pagan holidays, to ease the conversion of the people to Christianity by allowing them to retain their traditional celebrations. Thus, Christmas was created by associating stories of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity, with the existing pagan Yule celebrations, similar to the formation of Halloween and All Saint's Day via Christianization of existing pagan traditions.

The confraternities of artisans of the ninth century, which developed into the medieval guilds, were denounced by Catholic clergy for their "conjurations" when they swore to support one another in coming adversity and in business ventures. The occasions were annual banquets on December 26,

"feast day of the pagan god Jul, when it was possible to couple with the spirits of the dead and with demons that returned to the surface of the earth... Many clerics denounced these conjurations as being not only a threat to public order but also, more serious in their eyes, satanic and immoral. Hincmar, in 858, sought in vain to Christianize them."[9]

Many symbols and motifs associated with the modern holiday of Christmas derive from traditional pagan northern European Yule celebrations. The burning of the Yule log, the decorating of Christmas trees, the eating of ham, the hanging of boughs, holly, mistletoe and others are all historically practices associated with Yule.

When the Christianization of the Germanic peoples began, missionaries found it convenient to provide a Christian reinterpretation of popular pagan holidays such as Yule and allow the celebrations themselves to go on largely unchanged, versus trying to confront and suppress them. The Scandinavian tradition of slaughtering a pig at Christmas is probably salient evidence of this. The tradition is thought to be derived from the sacrifice of boars to the god Freyr at the Yule celebrations. Halloween and aspects of Easter celebrations are likewise assimilated from northern European pagan festivals.

English historian Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum contains a letter from Pope Gregory I to Saint Mellitus, who was on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Pope Gregory suggested that converting heathens would go easier if they were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards the Christian God instead of to their pagan "devils": "to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God". [10]

_____________________ From: Wikipedia

The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the Yule time festivities. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder's land, or given as a gift... it must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze be a piece of last years log, (held onto for just this purpose). The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out. Ash is the traditional wood of the Yule log. It is the sacred world tree of the Teutons, known as Yggdrasil. An herb of the Sun, Ash brings light into the hearth at the Solstice.

A different type of Yule log, and perhaps one more suitable for modern practitioners would be the type that is used as a base to hold three candles. Find a smaller branch of oak or pine, and flatten one side so it sets upright. Drill three holes in the top side to hold red, green, and white (season), green, gold, and black (the Sun God), or white, red, and black (the Great Goddess). Continue to decorate with greenery, red and gold bows, rosebuds, cloves, and dust with flour.

Deities of Yule are all Newborn Gods, Sun Gods, Mother Goddesses, and Triple Goddesses. The best known would be the Dagda, and Brighid, the daughter of the Dagda. Brighid taught the smiths the arts of fire tending and the secrets of metal work. Brighid's flame, like the flame of the new light, pierces the darkness of the spirit and mind, while the Dagda's cauldron assures that Nature will always provide for all the children.

Symbolism of Yule: Rebirth of the Sun, The longest night of the year, The Winter Solstice, Introspect, Planning for the Future.

Symbols of Yule: Yule log, or small Yule log with 3 candles, evergreen boughs or wreaths, holly, mistletoe hung in doorways, gold pillar candles, baskets of clove studded fruit, a simmering pot of wassail, poinsettias, christmas cactus.

Herbs of Yule: Bayberry, blessed thistle, evergreen, frankincense holly, laurel, mistletoe, oak, pine, sage, yellow cedar.

Foods of Yule: Cookies and caraway cakes soaked in cider, fruits, nuts, pork dishes, turkey, eggnog, ginger tea, spiced cider, wassail, or lamb's wool (ale, sugar, nutmeg, roasted apples).

Incense of Yule: Pine, cedar, bayberry, cinnamon.

Colors of Yule: Red, green, gold, white, silver, yellow, orange.

Stones of Yule: Rubies, bloodstones, garnets, emeralds, diamonds.

Activities of Yule: Caroling, wassailing the trees, burning the Yule log, decorating the Yule tree, exchanging of presents, kissing under the mistletoe, honoring Kriss Kringle the Germanic Pagan God of Yule

Spellworkings of Yule: Peace, harmony, love, and increased happiness.

Deities of Yule: Goddesses-Brighid, Isis, Demeter, Gaea, Diana, The Great Mother. Gods-Apollo, Ra, Odin, Lugh, The Oak King, The Horned One, The Green Man, The Divine Child, Mabon.


Yule Drinking:

“When the gods left the earth, beer became alcohol and the divine intoxication became a purely mean drunkenness…” (Gronbech 1997, 180).

In the north, Christmas is called Jul or Jule. This is the time for Juldrinking and Julfeast. In this season, one can choose among specially brewed Christmas beers, Wodelbeers (Wodel=Wotan) made from rye, and traditional Yule beers. Old Nordic Julbeers were not brewed in keeping with Bavarian pureness laws, but instead included intoxicating herbs like hemp, wormwood, black henbane, fir greens, and wild rosemary.

The festive time was sometimes called “beer days” in Germany, and the tranquil atmosphere of domestic family togetherness was described by the name “beer peace.”

Beer brings a festive shine with it. It does not belong to the mundane nourishment and thirst-quenching quality of everyday food, but offers a spiritual enjoyment of a higher level than milk and whey, a holy nourishment. And it is the drink that honors the high feast with its blessing, of a special power to unite gods and human beings. (Gronbech 1997, 164).

The magical power of old Germanic brewing methods has been replaced largely by technology by now. Instead of intoxicating ingredients, manufacturers add the sedative plant hops to create a beer without holiness, a festive beverage made profane. However, the magic of the past still shines on modern labels, and the consciousness that accompanies the drinking can be a catalyst for a sense of Christmas holiness.

Germanic mythology, especially from the north, is full of drinking stories. According to one myth, Odin (Wotan) robbed Odhrarir of the “ecstasy drink” or the “meade of inspiration.” Whoever drank this beverage would be filled with wisdom and knowledge, become artistically and gifted in the art of poetry, and develop the ability to lure and seduce with words.

Thor, the thunder god, was the heaviest drinker of the gods. His thirst was unquenchable, his drinking feats legendary. One myth recounts that during a drinking competition he drank from the sea godÂ’s drinking horn, which was connected with the worldÂ’s seas. He gulped three times and caused high and low tides. These were some truly divine gulps! Many humans seem to want to emulate Thor, especially during Yule drinking; thus the Yule feast always ended when the people were drunk.

- “Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and rituals at the Origins of Yuletide; Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling 2006 inner traditions publishing (originally published in German by AT Verlag 2003), Pg. 117-118

Look For Part Three, a Look at the Roman Festival Saturnalia

and Part Four a History of the Feast of The Nativity from the Churches point of view.

and Finally a Part five A Modern Look at how Christmas celebrations are conducted today.

look for them whenever I get them complied and wrote up.


by Paul R
Member since:
July 30, 2007
Christmas: Yule, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice; What's the deal? (Part 3 - III)
November 19, 2008 05:30 PM EST (Updated: December 18, 2008 10:07 AM EST)
views: 275 | comments: 10
For Those of you following along in this series Hooray for you!

For Those of you that aren't here are the links to the first two articles;

Christmas: Yule, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice; What's the deal?

And; Christmas: Yule, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice; What's the deal? (Part 2 - II )

I would Suggest reading those before going any farther, Thank You.

PART 3 - III of my Winter holiday essay series.

The Roman Feasts of Saturnalia and To Sol Invictus:

The Roman Feast of Saturnalia was celebrated in commemoration of the Roman Sun Deity Saturn. The greeting for this event was “IO, Saturnalia!” Which roughly translated into, “Ho, Praise be to Saturn!” Originally it was only a day long celebration but it became so popular and important in Roman culture that it expanded into a week long festival. The cities in Rome were turned upside down the Slaves became businessmen and businessmen became slaves, it was all in good fun and only for the festivities. The town Mayors usually picked a citizen of low class to be in charge of the festivities as a “Master of ceremonies” for the events. Gambling was made legal for this time and even the slaves could participate. There was the making and exchanging of small gifts. The slaves were absolved from any sort of punishment during this time and treated their masters with a bit of disrespect, giving them a taste of their own medicine so to speak. Everyone wore their most colorful and nicest clothes. It was a time to eat, drink, party, and to be merry. During huge dinners the Masters would cook, prepare, and serve the slaves. In addition to the public festivities, private citizens would conduct their own parties and celebrations. It was remarked that during this time there was to be no serious business performed.

Seneca the Younger, around 50AD wrote about Rome during the Saturnalia;

It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business....Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.

In the year 274AD Emperor Aurelian created a new Roman god, a State-Supported Roman god at that. This new god’s name was Sol Invictus, and it quickly took Saturn’s place as being significant. Soon after that the festival of Saturnalia was replaced by the feast to commemorate the birth of Sol Invictus or “The Unconquered Sun.” The Week long Festival of Saturnalia was replaced by one big party day held on the day of the Winter Solstice on the Julian calendar, December 25th.

When Christianity took root and a day of worship and commemorating the Christian deity Jesus Christ was needed it seems only appropriate that it was super imposed on December 25th. Because, Jesus was the Unconquered Son to them. If you need a farther explaination of this, please go back to the first article in this series and read the Section from the book “Pagan Christmas” Titled “Sun Gods: Apollo, Mithras, and Jesus”.

Saturnalia and The Feast to Sol Invictus soon waned as Christianity and the Christmas grew in popularity. Still, if you look close enough you can find traces of these Roman Pagan Festivals in our Modern Day Celebrations of Christmas. The same can be said for the Northern European Celebrations of Yule, If you look close enough can find traces of that in our modern Winter holidayÂ’s as well.

Thank you for your time.

Look for future articles between now and Christmas time on the Christian history of the Feast Day of the Nativity and how it came into being from a early and modern Christian perspective.

And a last article on how people choose to observe the Winter holiday time today, maybe if your nice IÂ’ll include a modern day neo-Pagan Yule Ritual.

(Information for this article compiled with the aid of Wikipedia and and

Thank you again.

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