Christmas is often referred to as a Christian festival, particularly in the current political climate in which we are attempting to promote our traditions in the face of attack from foreign cultures, but the truth of the matter is that there is very little about the celebration that originates from Christianity proper. In actual fact, Christmas was a celebration in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity. There were some serious differences, however, the most obvious of which being the name, but also in the reasons for the celebration itself. It is true that they both even have in common the fact that they are not really in celebration of the birth of Christ, for Christ was in fact born sometime during the Spring if we are to go by the implications of the biblical story.
The Germanic peoples of northern Europe celebrated this time of the year under the name of Yule. This festival begins on Mother Night, which is the 20th December, and ends on the night of 31st December to celebrate the new year. The second day/night of Yule is the 21st December which of course is the longest night and shortest day of the year, which was celebrated by our ancestors as the Winter Solstice. This day marks the passing of winter and the return of the sun, during which time it is said that our departed ancestors are closest to us and when the dead are more active than at any other time of the year.
Many will be interested or perhaps even surprised to know that the tradition of decorating a tree has been part of the winter celebrations for many centuries. The modern interpretation of the Christmas tree comes from 16th century Germany, where devout Christians took trees into their homes and it later took hold in Britain when in 1800, King George III’s German wife Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz introduced the Christmas tree at a children’s party. However, in ancient times the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe celebrated a mythical tree called Yggdrasil that, according to mythology, connects the 9 worlds. These Yule trees were celebrated by the pagans during Yuletide and were decorated with Sun Wheels to mark the return of the sun after the passing of the winter (Winter Solstice).
Yuletide was also a time for honouring the Gods and Goddesses of the Æsir and the Vanir. Odin, the all-father of the Gods leads the procession of the Wild Hunt throughout Yuletide, through the skies with the spirits of people, dogs and horses. The God Thor is honoured with the burning of a yule log (traditionally a large Oak log). Thor is honoured with this as a sign of gratitude for driving away the Frost Ettin (Jötunn), a mythical race often portrayed as being hostile to or in competition with the Gods of the Æsir and Vanir, that were banished to Jötunheimr. The God Frey (Norse: Freyr) is one of the most important Gods of the Germanic people’s native religion, who is honoured for peace and prosperity in the coming year, amongst other things. Traditionally, the Gods and Goddesses of our ancestor’s religion were honoured collectively with a large feast, which is the most likely source of meaning for the oversized meals we eat today for Christmas lunch.
The Twelth Night of Yuletide is New Year’s Eve. Our ancestors joined the celebrations nicely and the new year’s resolution is another tradition that we get from them. The ancient Germanic peoples used to swear oaths for the new year over the sacrifice of a boar to the Gods. These oaths were more meaningful than the resolutions we make today, for they were direct promises to the ancestral Gods and Goddesses, as opposed to just promises of will power to ourselves that we tend to make today. The Twelth Night of Yule is also the time that the Yule tree and associated decorations get packed away for another year, which differs slightly from the 6th January tradition that we currently observe. The trunk of the Yule tree is saved to be used as the Yule log for the following year.
Yule was known as a time for patience, of quiet reflection waiting for the cold winter to take hold and pass. It was a time to be close to your family, your community and the ancestral spirits and also a time for prayer and thanks, all the while enjoying a good feast.
You will notice that there is one stark contrast between the Christianised celebration of Christmas in comparison to Yule: the latter is devoid of gift giving. This is because our ancestors were a lot less materialistic than we are today, even though the Christianity supposedly teaches us not to be. However, our ancestors saw the value in family and community as opposed to what meaningless material items they could give to one another and they did not have the story of the humble men bringing gifts to a newborn king. No, whilst the Gods were revered and celebrated, they were regarded as interconnected ancestral equals, whose blood runs through the veins of their people.
Based on the evidence available, it is clear that the celebration of Christmas did not replace the pagan celebration of yuletide. In fact, it was more a case of re-branding the latter to fit the societies that were to be Christianised, as there is little substance to the Christian tradition of Christmas taken by itself in comparison to what we celebrate today. It is a shame that the practises of our ancestors were essentially usurped by a foreign belief system, that was imposed on the people of northern Europe often by force, so we would be doing the festive period something of an intellectual justice by learning and remembering the roots of our most beloved celebration.