by Mike Nichols

    Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how 
enthusiastically we Pagans celebrate the 'Christmas' season.  Even 
though we prefer to use the word 'Yule', and our celebrations may peak a 
few days BEFORE the 25th, we nonetheless follow many of the traditional 
customs of the season:  decorated trees, carolling, presents, Yule logs, 
and mistletoe.  We might even go so far as putting up a 'Nativity set', 
though for us the three central characters are likely to be interpreted 
as Mother Nature, Father Time, and the Baby Sun-God.  None of this will 
come as a surprise to anyone who knows the true history of the holiday, 
of course.  

    In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always been 
more Pagan than Christian, with it's associations of Nordic divination, 
Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism.  That is why both Martin 
Luther and John Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans refused to 
acknowledge it, much less celebrate it (to them, no day of the year 
could be more holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even made ILLEGAL 
in Boston!  The holiday was already too closely associated with the 
birth of older Pagan gods and heroes.  And many of them (like Oedipus, 
Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus, Apollo, Mithra, Horus and 
even Arthur) possessed a narrative of birth, death, and resurrection 
that was uncomfortably close to that of Jesus.  And to make matters 
worse, many of them pre-dated the Christian Savior.  

    Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle of 
the year.  It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated, seed-time 
of the year, the longest night and shortest day.  It is the birthday of 
the new Sun King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you choose to call 
him.  On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother 
and once again gives birth.  And it makes perfect poetic sense that on 
the longest night of the winter, 'the dark night of our souls', there 
springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, 
the Coel Coeth.  

    That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as 
Christians.  Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were rather late in 
laying claim to it, and tried more than once to reject it.  There had 
been a tradition in the West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the 
twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month.  
Finally, in 320 C.E., the Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make it 
December, in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the Romans 
and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.  

    There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose was 
historically accurate.  Shepherds just don't 'tend their flocks by 
night' in the high pastures in the dead of winter!  But if one wishes to 
use the New Testament as historical evidence, this reference may point 
to sometime in the spring as the time of Jesus's birth.  This is because 
the lambing season occurs in the spring and that is the only time when 
shepherds are likely to 'watch their flocks by night' -- to make sure 
the lambing goes well.  Knowing this, the Eastern half of the Church 
continued to reject December 25, preferring a 'movable date' fixed by 
their astrologers according to the moon.  

    Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one knew 
when Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally began 
to catch on.  By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or public 
business (except that of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed to the 
delight of the holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor Justinian.  In 
563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four 
years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from 
December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season.  This last point is 
perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader, who is lucky to 
get a single day off work.  
 Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a SINGLE day, but rather a 
period of TWELVE days, from December 25 to January 6.  The Twelve Days 
of Christmas, in fact.  It is certainly lamentable that the modern world 
has abandoned this approach, along with the popular Twelfth Night 

    Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to many 
countries no faster than Christianity itself, which means that 
'Christmas' wasn't celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century; 
in England, Switzerland, and Austria until the seventh; in Germany until 
the eighth; and in the Slavic lands until the ninth and tenth.  Not that 
these countries lacked their own mid-winter celebrations of Yuletide.  
Long before the world had heard of Jesus, Pagans had been observing the 
season by bringing in the Yule log, wishing on it, and lighting it from 
the remains of last year's log.  Riddles were posed and answered, magic 
and rituals were practiced, wild boars were sacrificed and consumed 
along with large quantities of liquor, corn dollies were carried from 
house to house while carolling, fertility rites were practiced (girls 
standing under a sprig of mistletoe were subject to a bit more than a 
kiss), and divinations were cast for the coming Spring.  Many of these 
Pagan customs, in an appropriately watered-down form, have entered the 
mainstream of Christian celebration, though most celebrants do not 
realize (or do not mention it, if they do) their origins.  

    For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon 'Yula', meaning 
'wheel' of the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter 
Solstice, which may vary by a few days, though it usually occurs on or 
around December 21st.  It is a Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the 
modern Pagan calendar, one of the four quarter-days of the year, but a 
very important one.  This year (1988) it occurs on December 21st at 9:28 
am CST.  Pagan customs are still enthusiastically followed.  Once, the 
Yule log had been the center of the celebration.  It was lighted on the 
eve of the solstice (it should light on the first try) and must be kept 
burning for twelve hours, for good luck.  It should be made of ash.  
Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree but, instead of 
burning it, burning candles were placed on it.  
 In Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented 
the custom, and Catholics might grant St.  Boniface the honor, but the 
custom can demonstrably be traced back through the Roman Saturnalia all 
the way to ancient Egypt.  Needless to say, such a tree should be cut 
down rather than purchased, and should be disposed of by burning, the 
proper way to dispatch any sacred object.  

    Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe 
were important plants of the season, all symbolizing fertility and 
everlasting life.  Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic 
Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon, 
and believed it to be an aphrodisiac.  (Magically -- not medicinally!  
It's highly toxic!)  But aphrodisiacs must have been the smallest part 
of the Yuletide menu in ancient times, as contemporary reports indicate 
that the tables fairly creaked under the strain of every type of good 
food.  And drink!  The most popular of which was the 'wassail cup' 
deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon term 'waes hael' (be whole or 

    Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless:  that animals will all 
kneel down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the '100th psalm' on 
Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas will bring good luck, that a 
person born on Christmas Day can see the Little People, that a cricket 
on the hearth brings good luck, that if one opens all the doors of the 
house at midnight all the evil spirits will depart, that you will have 
one lucky month for each Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree 
must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck is sure to follow, that 
'if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we shall see', that 'hours 
of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the month of May', that one 
can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the weather for each of 
the twelve months of the coming year, and so on.  

    Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based upon 
older Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim their 
lost traditions.  In doing so, we can share many common customs with our 
Christian friends, albeit with a slightly different interpretation.  And 
thus we all share in the beauty of this most magical of seasons, when 
the Mother Goddess once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and sets 
the wheel in motion again.  To conclude with a long-overdue paraphrase, 
'Goddess bless us, every one!'