At winter solstice, the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky, thus giving us the shortest period of daylight all year. It’s been honoured as a significant time since prehistory and marked at ancient monuments worldwide.
This year, the shortest day falls on Sunday 22 December. Rather than get up to go to Stonehenge at dawn, I’ll be heading to Glastonbury for a ritual at the more user-friendly time of 4pm.
The Sacred Mistletoe Rite was created and has been led for nearly twenty years by druid Morgan Rhys Adams. It is held in a field off Cinnamon Lane, in the shadow of the Tor. Old mistletoe from the previous year is burnt, symbolising letting go of anything we no longer need from the last twelve months, then new sprigs are given as a blessing for the year ahead. Although it’s Pagan ritual, it’s inclusive and all are welcome.
These days, mistletoe is often just an excuse for your drunk neighbour to sneak a kiss but, in Celtic times, the plant was sacred. The druids cut it from the oaks with a golden sickle and caught it in a cloak before it hit the ground, otherwise it would lose its healing powers.
Mistletoe used to be banned in churches because of these associations, but, in fact, most Christmas traditions are Pagan, including the supposed birthday of Christ. The Bible gives no reference to when Jesus was born, but this didn’t worry early Christians. They didn’t want to celebrate his birthday because that in itself was a Pagan practice, honouring the cycle of the sun.
Despite the spread of Christianity, midwinter festivals did not become Christmas for hundreds of years. It was only in 340 AD that Pope Julius I fixed the date of the messiah’s birthday at 25 December. Prior to that it was thought to be on at least three other occasions: 29 March, 6 January, or sometime in June, now considered most likely given that is meant to have been during a census.
So why chose 25 December? This was already an established holy day in Rome as the birthday of Sol Invictus, originally a Syrian deity, later adopted as chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian. Not too much of a stretch to adapt the nativity of The Invincible Sun to that of the Son of God.
Sun worship was the basis of many Pagan traditions, including Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, which also observed Sun-day and honoured 25/12 as the sun’s birthday. The exact date of the Winter Solstice changes slowly over time; it’s likely that it fell closer to 25 December in the Roman era so that was the day chosen to celebrate that to which we owe all life on Earth.
Many of our other favourite Christmas traditions stem from another Roman festival – Saturnalia. Held from early to mid-December, this was the wildest party of the year, already long established by 274 AD, when Sol Invictus started.
Saturn was the Roman God of agriculture and plenty; someone you definitely wanted on your side. Homes were decked out in greenery, gift giving symbolised the redistribution of wealth during the toughest month, and the rich threw feasts for the poor. Over a few days, the whole structure of society was turned upside down with servants taking control and masters following their orders. I think we should reinstate it today – look forward to Boris serving the mince pies!
These days, most modern Pagans call this period Yule, after the Scandinavian tradition. According to a well-known Viking saga, the C10 King of Norway Haakon the Good used the Yule rites to smuggle in his true faith. Having been raised as a Christian in England, Haakon worshipped in secret because “the land was altogether heathen and much idolatry prevailed’. So, he made it law that Yule was to be honoured ‘at the same time as is the custom with the Christians’. As it didn’t interfere with the Pagans’ knees-up, they didn’t mind.
Maybe even good old Santa himself is a Pagan. At school, we learnt that Father Christmas was based on St Nicholas, a benevolent bishop who lived in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in about 350 AD, around the time Pope Julius was fixing the date of Jesus’s birth.
Many of the more recent details of Mr Claus’ image as a jolly, old chubster with a white beard come from 1823’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, aka “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” written by American academic Clement Clarke Moore. Was the poet inspired by northern European mythology? After all, the Norse god Thor (known in German as Donner) flew in a chariot drawn by goats.
Some say that Santa’s red and white garb is reminiscent of the psychedelic Amanita muscaria mushrooms that the indigenous Artic circle Koryak shamans guzzled to “fly”. Other historians deny it, but curiously, many Victorian Christmas cards depict the distinctive fly agaric fungi for no apparent reason.
Whatever your religion, one thing’s for sure; we all need a good party to get us through the bleak midwinter. It gives hope and helps us to feel a sense of renewal and rejuvenation as the light starts to return.
After the Sacred Mistletoe Rite, as a special Solstice treat, I’ll be staying at my favourite inn. The George and Pilgrim was built in the late 15th century to lodge visitors to Glastonbury Abbey. Although closed these days, it even has an underground passageway from the Abbey, which the old Abbot used to slip away for nightly visits and the “purging of his loins.”
This is the only pub I know that has a whole menu of mead, that sweet honey drink the Pagans loved, guaranteed to cheer you up on even the longest night. It’s also reputed to be one of Britain’s most haunted places and frequented by a ghostly monk. I’ll let you know if I see him – before I start drinking!