We Wish Yule A Merry Solstice

     Ask almost anyone what big holiday occurs around late December, and they'll most likely answer "Christmas!" without a moment's hesitation. Some other people might suggest other celebrations, like Channukah, or perhaps Kwanzaa, which, although not as widely worshiped, are still familiar names to most people. However, I doubt very many people would answer, "Well, the Winter Solstice, of course!"

     That's unfortunate, because for most Pagans, it's the Winter Solstice that's most important. What's more, without us Pagans, Christmas would have been a very different holiday indeed. Intrigued? Read on.  


     At its most basic definition, the Winter Solstice is one of four great astronomical events each year, including two equinoxes and one other solstice. Winter Solstice is the night which is darkest, longest. In other words, from the Summer Solstice to the Winter Solstice, the days slowly get shorter and shorter. After the Winter Solstice, the days get longer again until the Summer Solstice, when the entire cycle is repeated once more.

     Well, that's great, you say, but what does this have to do with Christmas?  


     Here's how it all fits together. Christianity wasn't a big hit immediatley after the crucifixion. Most people considered Christ to be a criminal, a far cry from the type of man one would want to worship. (Please understand, by the way, that I am not making a value judgment here, just repeating historical facts. As far as I can tell, Christ was a pretty great guy.) In fact, early "Christians" were regarded as nothing more than a renegade sect of Judaism, and most Jews considered them religious cult that didn't deserve a second thought. So, it took quite some time for Christianity to catch on, several centuries, in fact.  


     The history of early Christianity may seem inconsequential, but it has a lot to do with our story. For one thing, because few people took Christianity seriously at its very beginning, the stories surrounding it and the life of Jesus weren't written down for several centuries following his death. Among other facts, this means that no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. Some scholars believe that he was born in early November, some place his birth during the sign of Pisces - late February to late March. But one thing is certain - Jesus was most likely not born around December 25th.  


     So how did that date get assigned? Well, when the church was first converting Europe, it had a devil of a time (no pun intended) eradicating the old Pagan ways of worship (as evidenced by the many "saints" who are in fact thinly disguised versions of Pagan deities). The church's solution was to rearrange the Christian calendar to coincide with major Pagan holidays. Thus, we have Christ's crucifixion set near the Pagan fertility/regenerative (read: resurrective) holidays such as Ostara and, of course, Christmas in December. You see, not only was December home to the birthdays of the Welsh Pryderi, Irish Lugh, and Briton King Arthur, but it also coincided with the birth a very important and widely worshipped Persian solar deity named Mithras. Christmas was placed near the Solstice to bump aside, if you will, the worship of Mithras' birthday.  


     The Winter Solstice (alternately called "Yule," "Midwinter," or "Alban Arthuan") is still a very important period for modern Pagans. It represents the birth of the Lady's divine Son/Sun, the triumph of light over darkness, and is the first herald of spring, even in the depths of winter. Of course, some people (Pagans included) downplay the importance of the Winter Solstice among Pagan cultures in antiquity, but don't believe the hype. Ancient sites such as Stonehenge and Newgrange in Ireland were both built to mark the rising/setting of the sun on the Solstice day/night. This not only proves how important the date was to those people, but is also a testament to their architectural and engineering genius.  


     Other customs, such as Christmas trees, also have their roots in Pagan worship. After all, most ancient cultures venerated tree spirits in some form or another, and plants like conifers (literally, ever-greens) were seen as powerful omens that spring would, indeed, come again. Fir cones were viewed as reproductive or fertility charms. Holly and ivy or mistletoe decorations are also very Pagan in origin. Not only are they also examples of evergreens, but the red berries of holly paired with the white berries of mistletoe and ivy evoked menstrual blood and semen, respectively, two very powerful fertility charms.  


     So, there you have it - a brief history of Christmas and how it was influenced by ancient Pagan customs, perhaps even some you were unaware of. It's just one more example of the many aspects of Christianity that that religion owes to its Pagan ancestors.

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