“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like eskimos.” ~ The Christmas Song
Today is Yule, a day that celebrates the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year and the official start of the winter season. It’s an ancient pagan holiday dating back some ten thousand years at least. It is even known to have been practiced during the early days of Stonehenge. In fact, it is now believed that the site itself was used as a temple for that very purpose.
In my junior year of high school, we read Beowulf around December. My literature teacher at the time gave our class a history lesson on ancient Norse pagans and how monks later wrote down many of the oral tales, inserting Christian concepts in place of the pagan ones. We were told this was done for various reasons. One was because the monks found the tales exciting and interesting, but had to transpose religious ideologies to avoid being prosecuted as heretics. Another was because the church wanted to convert the pagan population altogether.
The concept of Christianity supplanting its beliefs onto those of other cultures should not be news to anyone in this day and age. Since the formation of the Catholic Church in the 4th Century, the Church has been systematically acquiring and assimilating rites and holidays from cultures all over the world; one of the earliest being to convert the image of Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun, into the image of Jesus Christ.
Many Roman sites, such as Trajan’s Column and the Pantheon, were also converted into Christian monuments. And when the Conquistadors sailed to the New World, they built Churches on top of the Mesoamerican temples. Christmas is another one of those things that the Church stole from other pagan religions to make their particular version seem more palatable to the locals.
Just before Christmas time that same year, my literature teacher explained to us the history of the yule log and where that tradition comes from. Since then, I’ve acquired a bit more information to fill out the rest of the details of the story.
In my posts on the Circumpunct and the Solar Cross, I explained briefly that the ancients worshiped the sun as the source of all light and truth, and that they held December 21 as the death of the sun with the 25th being its rebirth.
The Winter Solstice is also the time of year when feminine, yin energy is at its maximum. As we know from looking at a taijitu, the universe will often create its opposite as the direct result of something being in its maximum state. In ancient paganism, the height of feminine energy demanded a ritual to be performed that would invoke the opposite and continue the cycle to the opposite extreme. Towards that end, the festival of the Yule Log was created.
The feast of Yule actually gives us two notable icons in modern day Christmas celebrations: the Yule Log and the Christmas Tree.
The Yule Log was originally cut from a large pine tree, usually the biggest one that could be found. The pine tree was actually a phallic symbol in this ceremony and represented tremendous strength, size, power, and masculine energy. To this day, we still refer to a man having as erection as him “having wood.”
Once the tree was chosen, it was covered in tar and pitched and set up vertically (i.e. “erect”). The celebrants would then light the tree on fire – fire being an earthly reflection of the sun, in whose honor the ceremony was performed. The people would then dance and eat and fuck around this burning symbol of solar masculinity as part of their Yuletide festivities.
In modern times, we still “light our trees,” only we do so with LEDs instead of embers. If we light a piece of wood on fire, it’s usually in the confines of a fireplace or outdoor fire pit instead of the middle of the village.
I think we all know well the Catholic Church’s position when it comes to sex (and I’m not talking about missionary style). It’s obvious that such sexually charged rituals as these would not fly in the midst of those that wanted to manipulate pagan persons into believing that their salvation could only come from the one true savior JC. But the people would be hard-pressed to convert if they had to give up all their rituals. I mean, let’s face it, if the choice was between partying and mass, between wild orgies and abstinence, and there were really no spiritual distinctions between the two, which would you choose?
So the church performed a triage and allowed the local peoples to keep their trees and their feasts and their songs and some of the yuletide benefits (so long as they were married), and in exchange, the people would celebrate a new version of the holiday with Christ as the central figure in place of the sun.
That’s somewhat ironic, since Christ was originally a sun god himself, but with enough history having gone buy, it evolved into something much different, and the holiday is evolving still.