It’s Christmaaaassss! But should it be Yule?
We are fast approaching the end of the year and winter is well and truly upon us… UON’s Drew Gray takes a tour through 5,000 years of festive history
The days are shortening, and it is getting colder but we all have something to look forward to and that is the midwinter festival and feast that is Christmas. For many people Christmas has a lot more to do with the anxiety of buying presents (and wondering how to afford to pay for them), and coping with the proximity of relatives than it does with the celebrating the birth of Jesus.
That, of course, is what Christmas is supposed to be about but somehow that has got lost in all the shopping, festive films, and gorging ourselves silly.
As a Christian tradition Christmas has been around for about 2,000 years but we have been celebrating this time of year for even longer. The pagan Romans held the feast of Saturnalia round about the middle of what we call December. The festival was in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture and everything shut down so all of Roman society (slaves included) could join in the fun.
Our ancestors marked the passage of the sun at the Winter Solstice (21 December). At Maes Howe on Orkney (a 5,000-year-old burial mound) a carefully constructed tunnel leading to its centre is lit by the rays of the midwinter sun. This was deliberate and, while we don’t understand their rituals, we can reasonably suggest that they had something to do with the seasons of the year.
Drew Gray is Subject Lead for History (and an existential pagan) at University of Northampton
Seasons meant more to people in the past: today we can buy meat, bread and vegetables all year round but for most of history crops and cattle were time constrained: the harvest was crucial and its failure meant starvation and death for thousands. If you want a ‘recent’ example you only have to look back to the Irish potato famine in the 1840s to see how devastating crop failure could be. So, it is no wonder that our distant ancestors prayed to their gods and made sacrifices to appease them.
The Vikings marked the solstice with the festival of Yule which continued into early January. They brought a tree log into the home and it burned continuously. Each new spark symbolised the birth of new animal that would feed them in the coming months, in the meantime they feasted on the animals they had been fattening all year. Yule was a time to come together, to praise the gods for the bounties they had given in the previous twelve months and to ask them to be generous in the next twelve.
Odin, the father of the Norse gods (and of the Germanic people that migrated to what was to become Aengleland — England) made a circuit of the world during Yule. He flew through the sky making decisions about who would do well, and who would not. In their huts and homesteads the people of early medieval Europe toasted the god and hoped he would touch their homes with prosperity.
Is any of this feeling a little familiar? A yule log, a long holiday from work, lots of food and drink, and a bearded man who flies across the rooftops?
Well it is hardly surprising given that we live in a country that is built on hundreds of years of folk traditions handed down from generation to generation. We have Viking and Saxon DNA in our makeup and a culture heritage which blends Roman, Norman French, and Celtic with both. In recent years we’ve been influenced by new imported traditions like the Coca-Cola Father Christmas and the North American Thanksgiving turkey, but many of our ‘Christmas’ traditions are pagan, not Christian.
When Christianity was trying to establish itself in Britain its early priests realised they would have adapt it to fit the religious practices that already existed. Christianity (for all its supposed emphasis on love and peace) was an aggressive religion which imposed a system of control (the Church) on the societies it sought to dominate. Where the Church found an existing set of beliefs it systematically worked to wipe it out. Churches were built on the sites of pagan temples, people were persuaded (and in some cases forced) to convert to the worship of ‘the One God’ rather than the veneration of a collection of deities. Fundamental to this process was the appropriation of pagan festivals that marked the passage of the ritual year with Christianised versions of them.
The most obvious of these were Christmas and Easter, the latter of which also retains many pagan elements (such as eggs which symbolise fertility) and even the trace of the original pagan name (Eostre).
Christmas was less important to the early church than Easter (which marks Christ’s death and rebirth) but its leaders recognised that if the new religion was to dominate it had to supplant pagan traditions. Therefore around the 4th century Christmas began to be celebrated on the 25 December, even though the date of Jesus’ birth was very unlikely to have fallen on this day. Instead the 25 December marked the end of around two weeks of festivities that honoured Saturn, who oversaw the success of the harvest. During Saturnalia families gave each other presents and enjoyed themselves at the end of the year. If Christianity wanted to survive and prosper it had to offer an alternative belief system which allowed the people to continue to enjoy their holidays and merrymaking.
Christmas directly supplanted Saturnalia and the Feast of the Sun (Natalis Sol Invicti) which had been held to venerate the Roman Sun God. Have you ever wondered why the Christian holy day is Sunday (when in the Jewish faith it is Saturday)? In the 4th century the emperor Constantine decreed that the day of the sun should be the Roman day of rest, and that tradition has survived (well at least until rampant late twentieth-century consumerism effectively rendered it obsolete).
So, Christmas has very little to do with Christ but everything to do with people coming together in the darkest and coldest period of the year and enjoying what matters most in life — food, warmth, and family. When we put up a tree (a Germanic tradition which was popularised in the Victorian era, since Victoria’s consort was German) or tuck into a chocolate Yule log we are connecting to our Nordic pagan past. By giving presents and treating our relatives and friends with drink and food we are continuing a tradition as old as the Romans. By marking the passage of the year in late December we are carrying on a ritual that is probably almost as old as mankind itself.
We should also remember then that religion has been adapted to fit the societies in which it finds itself. There is little that is passive (or even pacifist) about the early Christian church. Today’s church may find itself struggling to survive in a largely secular society but we still have bishops in parliament and are only one of two countries that allow priests to hold positions in their legislature (the other is Iran). Christianity has survived for over 2,000 years, largely because it has been state-sponsored since the Roman Empire adopted it. It crushed those that resisted it, forcibly converting pagans at pain of death. We rightly condemn the practices of militant Islamists in various parts of the world but what they do in the name of their religion has been done in the name of other faiths for hundreds of years.
When schools choose to stage nativity plays without religious content they draw down accusations of being ‘too PC’. When the shops start selling Christmas decorations in November we grumble about loss of tradition in the face of unstoppable consumption. But both views are wrong: Christmas is about eating and drinking and treating our loved ones. It isn’t about the baby Jesus, it is about getting through another year alive and girding our loins to make it through the dark days of winter.
So eat, drink and be merry, for who knows what tomorrow brings. Happy Yule!