Yule is one of our most sacred times of the year. Not only do we have the twelve days of Yule usually bookended by Mother’s Night and Twelfth Night in our observances, we also have other celebrations like Krampusnacht (and with it the rebranding of Saint Nicholas’ Day as Oski’s Day), Lussinatt, and more throughout December and through the wassailing season, which concludes by early January. So many folk customs have persisted from what were once surely pre-Christian practices, that we get excited to have so much we can sink into as we celebrate the holy tide. We also are opportunistic, seeing traditions from mainstream religious observances around us and deciding to do our own thing that speaks to our own religious pathways.
In modern times, heathens have created a new tradition in the 21st Century known as Väntljusstaken (literally, candles we light to wait) or Sunwait. Sunwait began specifically in Sweden, and it quite intentionally was started to echo Christian advent style countdowns towards Christmas. Sunwait starts six weeks before the winter solstice, and is an anticipatory lead-in towards Yule. One candle is lit per week leading up to Yule. Each candle is also symbolically tied to the first few elder runic letters: ᚠ – Fehu, ᚢ – Uruz, ᚦ – Thurisaz, ᚨ – Ansuz, ᚱ – Raido, ᚲ – Kenaz. Traditionally Thursday evening’s at sunset is when each candle would be lit, but others have created timings that work for them instead. Some decide to have it coincide with Friday’s because of work schedules, or choose instead to have each week fall on the same weekday as the winter solstice does in that given year. Still others opt to observe it on Sunday, since that day of the week is named for the solar goddess Sunna.
So you want to learn about the Northern Tradition, but don’t want to read scholarly analysis, or any ruminations from modern practitioners. You just want one source from the culture to learn everything that’s historically authentic to the culture but tells you about the cosmology, and the details of all the rituals? Well sorry to burst your bubble, but that doesn’t exist.
There is an old joke, that ours is the religion with homework (and really, all religion has homework). There’s a lot you need to understand in the big picture before you can really start to tease out the details of pre-Christianity.
Before I go down the very nuanced rabbit hole, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: the history, the stories, the folk customs, the archaeology are all useful and important. But a faith is a living thing, and you have to live a religion, which means finding ways to practice it. How do you conduct rituals? What offerings do you give? What prayers do you say? What are your devotions? How do you live a religion? You can find helpful resources and inspiration from the past but at some point you have to venture out and find your own way of living the religion.
I also want to stress that you do not need to be a scholar to follow this religious path. The only thing standing between you developing a relationship with our Gods, the ancestors, and the vaettir is simply you. Some enjoy delving into the history, to immerse themselves and tease out nuances. Others don’t, and merely want a framework of understanding so they can then move onto living the religion through the customs that come with a living and ever evolving practice. But for those of you who want to delve into the vast knowledge from antiquity, the following should help define a helpful framework to have in mind before you start your own explorations of the sources. This is useful as well to read, even if you only ever plan to do a little bit of exploration into the ancient sources on your own.
We can find a lot of information if you’re patient by going through the old literary and archaeological sources, but it’s not easy. For those of us in the Northern Tradition we have the misfortune that so little has survived to us from ancient believers. Unlike some other major polytheisms, like the unbroken tradition of Hinduism, or other major polytheistic traditions that have a large corpus of work by believers from antiquity about their own religious culture that survives into the present day: Kemetic, Hellenic, and Cultus Deorum, etc.
First you have to understand the history, the various sources (and how they connect to the historical context). Then comes the harder element, the fact even when rituals are mentioned it’s usually in passing, or only in vague context. In order to obtain our creation story you have to look at five different sources: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Vafþrúðnismál, Gylfaginning, and Alvissmal. So it’s very common that we have to take little puzzle pieces from a range of material to try to piece together specific details. This means to fill in the gaps many look at the entirety of the Northern Tradition umbrella from the lore (various literary sources including (but not limited to) the sagas, eddas, & skaldic poetry, various Anglo-Saxon sources, as well as Byzantium, Roman & Arab accounts, late appearing folk customs & tales, and even archaeological finds. Approaching this material with an understanding of how this culture viewed the seasons, and drafted their calendar can help you tease apart the timing of some of the rituals too. While we can find commonalities in the over-arching shared worship to Odin/Woden, there were also unique traditions tied to specific settlements or tribal groups that to our knowledge did not appear elsewhere too. This has led in the modern movement to a range of different approaches, some are strictly reconstructionist from a specific area, and others may be more universal across the entirety of the umbrella, plus a range of other denominations in between.
Tonight as the sun sets begins the Yuletide for me with Mother’s Night.
To friends near and far, may you have a joyous Yuletide blessed with the laughter or friends and family (even if socially distanced). May the Gods and our ancestors continue to bestow their blessings upon us, and strengthen our luck for the days that lie ahead.
For those with difficulty reading the graphic…
Let us honor our Mothers, who through joy and suffering endured so that their children, and their children’s children might not just survive but thrive.
I call to our mothers, the light and the life bringers who have guided us from darkness onto the paths our ancestors have traveled, and now the paths we walk down.
All-mother Frigga I hail thee, and I thank thee. For the immeasurable blessings, your guidance and your wisdom. You see all things, even if I may not know them. May your counsel follow me into the year ahead and be the compass from which I navigate.
Yule is a magical time of year, and when we look to the various holiday traditions from Krampus and Saint Nicholas, to the celebration of Saint Lucia Night, we see the pre-Christian customs as remnants scattered across all of December. But I wanted to acknowledge Lussi, as her feast day approaches. Unfortunately most information about her doesn’t appear in English, but primarily in folk traditions and their accounts from Norway and Sweden (and therefore, in those languages). Usually what we find in English relates more to the Christianized syncretization, and the church’s “Saint Lucia” story.
Some scholars have posited that the Christianized Saint Lucia and the customs tied to her celebration in modern times is most likely a syncretization of pre-Christian customs of Lussi (from areas of Norway and Sweden) with the Italian Christian martyr Saint Lucia. Folk traditions describe Lussi having a Wild-Hunt (oskorei) like horde called the Lussiferda.
In some regions of Sweden there would be the lussebrud (the Light Bride). Sometimes the lussebrud was merely a female dressed for the occasion, but sometimes this may be a male or female dressed up in straw as a bride, or the lussebrud may be a straw doll. The lussebrud may also be accompanied by the lussebock (Light buck). This is similar to other Wild Hunt figures in the Northern Tradition: Perchta & the Perchten, Saint Nicholas (possibly influenced from Odinic origins) and the Krampus. Like other Wild Hunt figures, she has ties to the reward/punishment folk traditions. Lussi or her horde would come down chimneys and steal misbehaving children. Lussi might destroy chimneys if certain tasks weren’t done before her night: spinning of thread or yarn was to be finished, cleaning finished, slaughtering for the year to get through the winter, and other such tasks. Symbolically, these were all tasks you’d need to help you survive a winter. If people hadn’t finished all their work, they feared Lussi would smash their chimneys.
The celebration of Lussi’s Night was meant to be culturally connected with the winter solstice, and that is what we see with the older Julian calendar. We can tell this from the clue we have of the celebration’s name from parts of Norway, where it was called ‘Lussia Langnatte’ (or Lussi’s Long Night). In Sweden it’s usually referred more simply as Lussinatta (Lussi’s Night). When a new calendar methodology was adopted, the Gregorian Calendar, we ended up with her celebration on December 13, and the astronomical solstice falling about a week later.
Today in Sweden, Lussinatt falls on the evening of December 12. There exists a multiplicity of folk traditions that can mark the celebrations. Some are secular, some are tied to the church. Previously as we near the modern era, you would have lussegubbar, or youth dressed up like Lussi and go carousing door to door in the countryside singing, in a tradition that seems reminiscent of caroling and wassailing traditions we see elsewhere. Today the songs are still sung especially the Sankta Lucia (which is believed to originate from an Italian folk song, rebranded with Swedish lyrics), but the processions are a bit less wild as they tend to wind their way through town from schools and churches, to nursing homes and hospitals. Today many towns will have an elected (or chosen by random lottery) Lucia who leads the procession (Luciatåg) wearing a candled wreath (known as a luciakrona, which was traditionally worn as a crown decorated with evergreen lingonberry branches), accompanied most usually by young girls as her handmaidens (tärnor) in evergreen wreath crowns and more recently young boys as star boys (stjärngossar) in pointed white hats holding gold stars. Everyone is all dressed in white holding candles. Sometimes they are also accompanied by gingerbread men (pepparkaksgubbar), or in some places they might dress as the local elves.
Traditionally the crowns were adorned with real candles and open flames. But in a move towards safety most places have shifted to using electric lighted versions of the candled wreath instead. In addition to the crowns there are also more candle-ladened items associated with the observance called Ljuskrona (ceiling mounted chandelier) or Ljustaken (table-top candelabara) usually, though some other names include: julstaken, julkrona, or jul tradet. Sometimes they were adorned with handcut and fringed paper decorations, different patterns were known to be prevalent in specific communities in Sweden. These Ljustaken are usually hidden until December 13, then brought out and decorated. It’s quite common for this to be a family activity. They would be part of the decorations in the home throughout the entirety of the yuletide until January 13, when they are put away again until next December.
The practice of Lussevaka – to stay awake through Lussinatt (the evening of December 12) to guard oneself and the household against evil, not only fits symbolically well with a solstice celebration of longest night, but also brings to mind the description from Bede that Mother’s Night was observed for the entire night as well. Today it’s not uncommon for their to be parties as part of the lussevaka observance, sometimes with people actually cooking and making the lussekatter rolls they’d eat in the morning. People may use the time to work on handcrafted projects. Some will drink and be merry with their peers. There are old references to folk traditions of writing Lussi’s name on doors and fences, or in other areas of having weapons at hand (or hanging them up) while you observed the vigil. In some areas you were meant to feast to keep you strong through the terrors of the night. It was a night where animals were said in some areas to be able to speak. Livestock in some areas were given a treat of extra food, or a lussebit, meant to help them survive the evil that may lurk during the long night. There’s some folk customs that include women invoking Lussi for oracles on their future husbands. Others that have the eldest daughter in her role as light bringer might walk the property with her candle from house, through barn and stable, and around the boundaries of the farmstead to ward it from evil. One imagines in pre-Christian times this was probably accompanied by prayers of invocations to the Holy Powers for protection.
In Northern Europe, especially some of the most extreme latitudes there can be very, very little daylight indeed. We know that lack of sun, can be a lack of both mental well-being, but physical well-being as well causing vitamin D deficiencies. The celebration marks the start of the holiday season. On the morning of December 13, households will designate a member of the household (usually the eldest daughter) to serve drinks and baked treats from pepparkakor (ginger snap cookies), mulled wine (glögg), coffee as well as saffron baked goods like cookies or the more iconic treat lussekatter in honor of Lucy’s Day. The yellow color used in those saffron spiced treats are a nod to Lussi’s connections as a light bringer. One presumes this could be the conclusion in some areas to the warding of the property from the night before, and the corresponding nightlong vigil.
While there’s a few different Christian origin stories for Saint Lucia (or Lucy), one of them has her bringing light to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs surrounded by the dead with nothing but a lit wreath to guide her. Symbolically, traversing the dark and realm of the dead with light, seems to fit with pre-Christian symbolism. There is another story of how a woman with golden radiance appeared in a boat with food during a time of great hunger as well, who disappeared once the food was delivered. Another comes from what seems to be an attempt by the Church to demonize her, saying she was another wife of the Biblical Adam that consorted with Lucifer, and the unholy product of their union would be the demons or lussiferda.
The traditional depiction of Saint Lucia is of a woman clad in white. We know this is sacred iconography that is referenced time and again in Northern Tradition areas. We see this mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania that priest or priestesses wore white, we also see in the folk traditions mentioned by Grimm that women clad in white appeared at dawn for Ostara/Eostre.
Lussesang – A Song for Lussi
While I don’t agree with the song’s description saying this is for Freya (and thus assuming that Lussi is an aspect of Freya), the lyrics only mention Lussi and Alfrodul (an attested name for Sunna) and the lyrics are perfect for Lussinatt. If you visit this song on youtube, you can find the lyrics in Swedish and English if you expand the description.
At its heart this is a festival of lights in the darkness where observed in Europe, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, as well as parts of Estonia, Croatia, and Italy. Denmark began observing it in 1944 when Franz Wend imported it from Sweden as a cultural counter protest to Nazi Germany and their occupation of Denmark. Plus across the diaspora of communities created through Swedish immigration elsewhere. The Nordic Museum has a small gallery of photos of Lussinacht celebrations from the first half of the 20th Century.
I will leave you with this striking, cinematographic observance of Lussi’s Night “Light in the Darkness” by Jonna Jinton, an artist, musician and filmmaker living in the northern woodlands of Sweden.
*Update: December 2, 2021 with Swedish terminology.
The Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) has a bibliography of resources (alas, not in English).Skjelberd's "Jul i Norge" is a recent book re-collating together much older folk tradition research, including information on Lussi.
On the eve of December 5th throughout parts of Europe, Krampus makes his appearance. The strange creature sent to punish naughty children. On the morning of December 6th however, Saint Nicholas has made his appearance leaving small gifts or sweet treats for those children who were nice.
If we look to Europe we can see a connection between Wild Hunt figures and the Santa Claus mythos tied to a concept of reward and punishment. We also see that the Norse god Odin has connections to the Santa Claus mythos as well in more than one way, but especially as he has three epithets that connect to the holytide listed in the skaldic poem Óðins nöfn: Oski (God of Wishes), Jólnir (Yule Figure) and Jölfuðr (Yule Father).
There is a small movement among Northern Tradition polytheists to reclaim December 6th, and celebrate it not in honor of Saint Nicholas, but rather in honor of Odin in his guise as Oski. The purpose is not to break the bank with this, but rather to share a little yuletide cheer. Edible treats typical of the season (cookies, candy, chocolate, apples, oranges, nuts) would be appropriate, and other small trinkets. In other parts of the world, including America, we have instead the tradition of setting out stockings Christmas Eve for Santa to deliver some goodies for us. So to think of ‘stocking stuffers’ is a good rubrik in terms of what to gift, but I offer this caution: the ‘stockings’ we so commonly use in our decorations are ridiculously big. In Europe, for December 6th it is shoes that are filled, most commonly a shoe is placed outside the door, though in some households they may opt to have a designated area where the shoes are left. Some will use their actual shoes, but others will use special clogs kept just for the holiday for these purposes (which is a nicer way to avoid shoes that are stinky). So there’s not alot of real estate available to fill up with goodies. This is not where to show your gift giving American largesse.
Just as there are traditions for leaving out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, and maybe some carrots for the reindeer, in parts of Europe they may leave some hay, carrots or other appropriate treat in the shoes for St Nicholas’ white horse. Many Northern Tradition polytheists will instead include treats for Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. This is a tradition that lends itself well to the magic of the season, and especially to those with younger children. But even as I write this I set on a small collection of wrapped goodies I’ve received from friends and kindred members, waiting to open them on December 6th, and I have a few small things that I’ve sent off to others as well with instructions they have to wait till the 6th.
Today when we hear people talk about the so-called war on Christmas, it is a battlecry of Christians who feel they have a monopoly on the winter holidays. A common refrain being Christ is the reason for the season. But in Early America, Christmas was outlawed as a criminal act, or was viewed as having no consequence at all by some of our founding forefathers–especially those of Puritan background.
To understand why this notice even existed, first a bit of a history lesson is necessary.
In colonial America, the Puritanical leaders (for this article I am including the Pilgrims in this group) felt that Christmas was indeed a ‘Pagan’ celebration (as explained by Puritan leadership including the minister Increase Mather of the Massachusetts Colony, such festivities were rooted in the practices of Saturnalia) and the observance of the holiday was heretical and had no part of building the Godly society they had fled Europe to create. In addition to the umbrage they took to those “Satanical” practices, the Puritans were also anti-Christmas because the Bible did not talk about celebrating the nativity, nor being clear on when it was, therefore the Puritans viewed it as not being a part of their religious observation. Their attitude created the original American ‘War on Christmas’, of course they preferred to call Christmas ‘Foolstide’, in part because only the ungodly fools would celebrate such ‘Satanical Practices’, and no doubt as a further scathing reference to the ‘Lord of Misrule’ seen in some Christmas traditions found in parts of Europe, including England.
The very first Christmas in Colonial America at the Plymouth Colony in 1620 went unobserved. In fact there’s an account from 1621 in the colony, that governor William Bradford yelled and chastised people he caught at merriment on Christmas Day. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas beginning in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating it was monetarily penalized. Christmas Day was so insignificant to our founding forefathers that Congress was in session during Christmas, and on occasion they did actually meet for business: the earliest occurrences being first in 1797 when the House of Representatives met, and 1802 when the Senate also met on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Congress began to have formal recesses for Christmas.
In Early America it was common to find in parts of the country that people were expected to work or attend school on Christmas Day, many churches didn’t hold any observance on the day at all. In some areas, particularly in parts of New England, Christmas celebrations continued to be criminalized until it became a National holiday in 1870.
I for one, am glad we’ve got our festivities now, and I like today’s growing climate of greater inclusiveness, there are dozens of special religious observances and festivities in this time frame. Tis the season to be merry and bright!
To understand the ‘pagan connections’ (or rather we should say origins) that the Puritans had such criticism about, only takes an exploration of human history and world religions.
In the earliest days of the Christian Church, Pagan Romans were the elite powerhouses of that ancient world, and most Christians numbered among the lowest of the social classes in the empire. So when the Roman Empire celebrated their festivals, the Christians in the Empire got a bit of a break as well.
Many Pagan cultures have had various forms of celebrations around this time of year. In Ancient Rome, the celebration of Saturnalia spread in popularity. Saturnalia was a time to eat, drink, and be merry while honoring the Roman God Saturn. Just as Christians might use Merry Christmas as the seasonal greeting, for those ancient Romans the common greeting during the festival was, io Saturnalia. The festival was characterized with a modest type of role reversal where slaves could get a little taste of what it might be like to be at the other end of the social ladder. The one-day festival spread into a multi-day affair lasting for about a week, roughly correlating to our December 17-23. While work was still being carried out, this was a festival that the slaves and servants really loved as they were able to have a break, and their masters got a bit of a glancing lesson about the work the servants did for them. In the revelry gambling occurred, and gifts were given. Most gives were specially made for the day and were called sigillaria, these were inexpensive gifts, or what we might think of as gag-gifts. We have records that children were given toys during such observances too. We see from Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis vast writings into Saturnalia and gift-giving, he even has some verses that appear to be meant to go with gifts, as like a modern precursor to the greeting card tradition we have today.
Overtime the celebration of Saturnalia appears to have expanded from one day to many, and we see develop a tradition of the Ruler of Saturnalia (Saturnalicius princeps), which is somewhat analogous to the Lords of Misrule we see develop in other areas around Europe. Tacitus records some details about the practice. We know he was chosen by lottery, those present had to obey, and their might be commands like “sing naked”.
In addition to Saturnalia there were other festivities as well in polytheistic Rome. Roman Emperor Aurelian declared the 25th of December as the birthdate (or nativity) of Sol Invictus, a sun deity very popular with soldiers. So popular that Christians like Augustine were still preaching against the cultic practices against Sol in the 6th Century. It should be noted that known records point this as a rather late development compared to the much older practice of Saturnalia. Sol seemingly appears at a banquet in shrines connected with the Mithraic Mysteries, and so some will also connect the date of December 25th to Mithras and his cultic practices as well. What I find fascinating about Mithraism is that it began in Persia, was transported by Alexander the Great’s Greek soldiers, and then was spread even wider by the Roman Empire itself. But how much changed between Persian practices and the cultic practices we see within Rome may be very different adding to the confusion. While we have a lot of records to Mithraism in the archaeological record, no known writings really describe with clarity the practices, so theories about Mithras related to any celebrations around the winter solstice is much debated in academia.
Favored by Roman Emperor Commodus (161-192 C.E.), Mithraism certainly had widespread influence. Of course, everything changed when Emperor Constantine converted in 313 C.E. and Christianity suddenly went from a marginalized religion of the minority to a mainstream religion. While the tide of destruction that Christianity brought to Pagan practices and temples was briefly halted during the reign of Emperor Julian (who tried to restore polytheistic practices and issued an edict for religious freedom), after his death the machine of destruction continued.
Yet despite early Christianity’s attempts to wipe out the Pagan celebration, the people enjoyed it too much and kept practicing it. While some early Christian leaders (such as Gregory of Nazainzus) fought against the combining of the Pagan practice with Christianity, eventually the church decided that instead of fighting it, it would be smarter to assume power over the festival and slowly Christianize it, leading to the Papal Decree by Pope Julius I in 350 AD formalizing December 25th as the date for Christ’s birth. It should be noted that the various Christian denominations do not have a consensus about the time of Christ’s birth. While some do believe it was at least in the Winter, other groups do not. For instance, the American Presbyterian Church puts Christ’s birthday sometime in the autumn.
An unnamed 5th century Syrian writer had this to say about the change:
It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which [time] they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true nativity [of Christ] should be solemnized on that day.
Emperor Justinian in 529 AD made it a civic holiday, and then in 567 AD the Council of Tours officially proclaimed Advent a period of fasting for the 12 days from Christmas to the Epiphany, (thus why it’s 12 Days of Christmas, of course many Pagan observances were multi day too). Through the years various Popes instructed various Church leaders to further the rebranding of Paganism into Christian significance, such as when Pope Gregory I sent instructions for Augustine, the First Archbishop of Canterbury (England). While the original letter is lost, the letter was preserved in quotation by Bede:
To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus; Gregory, the servant of the servants of God. We have been much concerned, since the departure of our congregation that is with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed.
For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; 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.
For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, in his own worship; so as to command them in his sacrifice to kill beasts, to the end that, changing their hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This it behooves your affection to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being there present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son.
There is ample evidence through the centuries of this institutionalized conspiracy to slowly Christianize the old Pagan ways. With Christianity coming into existence within the confines of the Roman Empire, it’s been only natural that we’ve looked at the interaction between Christianity and Roman polytheism. But as Christianity spread, that also meant it spread into other areas of Europe, such as Northern Europe where entirely different Gods held sway with the populace. We see again that as Christianity comes into contact with those new polytheistic religions it begins to start to force a merging of traditions. King Hakon of Norway, who as a Christian passed a law that the Christian Christmas Day (which was already a weird bastardization of the Christian story of the Nativity and Saturnalia/Mithraic customs) AND the Northern Tradition polytheistic yuletide celebrations were to henceforth be celebrated at the same time. While this only specifically impacted Norway (and its territories), it illustrates an intentional combining of the holy-days into one celebration.
In this case the above church edict from Pope Gregory I is ironically against the dictates found in Biblical passages. Christians should be familiar with prohibitions against Pagan practices. The Bible states:
Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” (Jer 10:1-5).
One of the biggest hallmarks of Christmas celebrations today is that of Santa Claus, caroling (or wassailing), and the decoration of homes and businesses with evergreens and trees, which specifically come to us from polytheistic cultures found throughout Northern Europe. And I expand upon that in this other article: Yuletide Origins and Traditions – The Santa Claus Mythos.
Eventually, the church did try to crack down on these Christianized Pagan elements. During medieval times they banned gift-giving because of its Pagan origins. But Pope Paul II revived some of the most depraved customs of the ancient Pagan festival and spun them with a Christian anti-semitic tradition. Those traditions were now used to target the Jews who were forced to run naked for Christian entertainment, and to the laughter of the pope. By the time we reach the 18th and 19th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church forced rabbis to wear clownish outfits while they were force-marched as the Catholic crowd pelted them. In 1881, Polish church authorities riled up the masses to anti-semitic riots across the country leading to the racist murders of Jews, as well as other physical and sexual assaults against others. The riots were so severe that property losses in the millions were suffered, but worst of all lives were lost too.
Puritans in particular took great umbrage with the pagan origins of Christmas, and actively begin to revolt against it. Both in England and later in the American colonies they continued to fight against it.
So Puritan Christians for nearly the first hundred years of “American” history combated Christmas. So here’s some food for thought: To those early Puritan leaders, the sheer fact offended Christians are wasting time on rhetoric on the ‘War on Christmas’ today would mean that those modern practitioners are to their way of thinking, ungodly.
Most of the Christmas traditions that exist — gift-giving, the hanging of the evergreens, “Christmas” trees, gift-giving, feasting, Santa, caroling/wassailing — all originated from a variety of polytheistic practices. While I can understand that to some Christians this is a holy time of reflection as they celebrate their Christ, let us remember we were here first. And Christ is notthe reason for the season. He’s just a latecomer to the party.
There are numerous religious observances during the ‘holiday’ season: Channukah, Mawlid el-Nabi, Rohatsu, Zarathosht Diso, Kwanzaa, Pancha Ganapati, Solstice, etc. In fact stating ‘Solstice’ is really misleading as it is one umbrella term encompassing dozens upon dozens if not hundreds of unique celebrations worldwide such as the celebrations from various Native American tribes, Aboriginal peoples, as well as Pagan and Polytheistic observances (both the unbroken traditions and the modern reconstructed ones).
So to the Christians, who do claim that Christ is the reason for the season, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy this time of year for your own religious reasons. Please enjoy your holiday season. But would you do the rest of us the courtesy and please consider the history and context before you get upset the next time when someone doesn’t wish you a Merry Christmas. If you as a Christian want to wish Merry Christmas, that’s fine, but don’t be surprised when I wish you a Joyful Yule back, or someone else wishes you a Merry Solstice, Happy Chanukah, the politically correct Season’s Greetings, its alternative Happy Holidays, or some other cheery salutation for some other happy festival. But to expect by default you will always be greeted at retail with a Merry Christmas is hubris.
If you’ve ever heard the Christmas Carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” modern heathens opt to celebrate this as the Twelve Days of Yule, with the last day culminating on 12th Night. Since ancient calendars followed a different method of time, the solstice celebrations as well as later ‘Christmassy’ style observances can vary from place to place as to when they occur. Today, most pagans and heathens celebrate the yuletide as running from approximately December 20 – December 31 (but there are variations). For Christians in 567 AD the Council of Tours would officially proclaim that the 12 Days were to be celebrated from Christmas Day through to the Epiphany.
We do know that the celebration of Yule wasn’t always twelve days long. In the Norse text Heimskringla: The Saga of Hakonthe Good talks about it once lasting for three days, or as long as the ale lasted. The night it began was known as the slaughter night, where animals would be ritually slain. Ynglingna saga also talks of animal sacrifice. The meat later used to feed the community, as well as the Gods. We know there were practices as well of human sacrifice too during other ritual observances across the Northern Tradition umbrella for various rites. In Ynglinga saga ( in Snorri’s Edda) is that of the Swedish King Domalde being sacrificed to help during years of drought and famine, the scene famously imagined by Swedish painter Carl Larsson in his Midvinter’s Blot.
Just as our pagan cousins celebrate the eight major sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year, for those of us in the Northern Tradition we too have somewhat similar key celebrations that we call holy tides (from the Old Norsehátíðir). Some of these celebrations are more significant and special than others, and these especially important holy-days are known as high holy tides: such as Ostara, Winter Nights, and Yule which is now upon us.