Today* is the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.
This time of year is held sacred by many modern Pagan and Heathen traditions, and has a rich history in ancient pagan religion.
The solstice time was marked as special by pre-historic peoples in both Ireland and England. While there is scant evidence of specific celebrations, it is generally thought that the pagan Celts did mark the solstice time.
Germanic pagans and modern Heathens celebrate Yule at this time. During this holiday the god Freyr was honored. Several traditions we associate with Christmas (eating a ham, hanging holly, mistletoe) come from Yule.
The ancient pagan Romans celebrated Saturnalia which typically ran from December 17th through the 23rd. The festival honored the god Saturn and featured lavish parties and role-reversals. From Saturnalia we can see the traditions of exchanging gifts and decorating evergreen trees indoors that would be adopted as Christmas traditions. Following Saturnalia were the birth celebrations in honor of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun) and Mithras both held on December 25th.
Many modern Pagans, including Wiccans, Witches, several Druidic traditions, and their many off-shoots hold this time as one of the eight Sabbats/holy days. Usually called Winter Solstice or Yule. It is a time when many of these traditions celebrate the re-birth of the god by the mother goddess.
Here are some recent press quotes on our winter observances.
“Shops catering to pagan customers have been busy selling items which are familiar to any Christian, including candles, incense, and scents like frankincense and myrhh. The similarities between Christmas and solstice are widely attributed to the fact that both festivals are really a celebration of life.” – CBC News
“Solstice celebrations began with pre-Roman Empire pagans and were centered around agriculture, food, nature and the cyclical seasons of the universe, Burton said. Romans exchanged candles and figurines in celebration. In 274 A.D., Christians in the Roman Empire adopted some of the solstice’s pagan traditions (also known then as The Unconquered Sun) in an effort to convert pagans to their religion. Anglo Saxon Christians in the Middle Ages did the same.” – Jennifer Crossley, The Times Daily
“Traditionally the log that celebrated Yule – a name that may have been derived from an old word for wheel, as the wheel of the year turned – was big enough to light 12 days of feasting. A fragment would be saved to light next year’s log, symbolizing continuity and rebirth. We still light our homes and neighborhoods in an effort to bring cheer against the gathering gloom of deepest winter.” – Michael Babcock, Great Falls Tribune
“Celebrating during the darkest days of the year near the winter solstice goes back to ancient times, Blackmer said, when people met for large feasts and placed evergreens in their homes. It is these original traditions that interest Mike Morse of Gaithersburg, who attended the ceremony Tuesday. Many people don’t realize that Christmas has roots in such ancient practices, Morse said. The coming of the light to world, whether literally or metaphorically in the Christian sense, ‘is all a take off from the [winter] solstice,’ he said. ‘This kind of experience seeks to take back the wonder and awe of the coming of light.’” – Katherine Mullen, The Business Gazette
“What has become of our holy Saturnalia, fellow pagans? I go into my local Wal-Mart, greeted by all the familiar holly and ivy of yore, and am welcomed not with the rousing “Io, Saturnalia!” of simpler times, but with some made-up newfangled, supposedly “non-offensive” substitute: this “Christ-Mass” thing.” – Garrett Eisler, The Huffington Post
No matter what your religion or tradition, may this year’s winter celebrations and observances bring you peace and joy!