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 quotes on our winter observances.
“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 twenty-fifth, we nonetheless follow many of the traditional customs of the season: decorated trees, caroling, 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.” – Mike Nichols, The Witches’ Sabbats
“Many modern pagans attempt to observe the solstice in the traditional manner of the ancients. “There is a resurgent interest in more traditional religious groups that is often driven by ecological motives,” said Harry Yeide, a professor of religion at George Washington University. “These people do celebrate the solstice itself.” Pagans aren’t alone in commemorating the winter solstice in modern times. In a number of U.S. cities a Watertown, Massachusetts-based production called The Christmas Revels honors the winter solstice with an annually changing menu of traditional music and dance from around the world.” – Brian Handwerk, National Geographic
“Ancient and not-so-ancient cultures were keenly aware of the sun’s annual cycle and many of them worshiped the sun. In fact, there was a lot of sun worshipping going on in Northern Europe. Ancient observatories like Stonehenge in Great Britain and the cavelike Newgrange in Ireland are examples of this. It’s no accident that the early Catholic Church established Dec. 25 as the day that Christ was born. No one really knows the exact date of Christ’s birth, but one of the reasons the church chose Dec. 25 was to battle against the great pagan celebrations that occurred around the time of the winter solstice, when the sun was “reborn” and started its upward climb into the sky.” - Mike Lynch, HeraldNet
“Celebrate Yule with a series of rituals, feasts, and other activities. In most ancient cultures, the celebration lasted more than a day. The ancient Roman Saturnalia festival sometimes went on for a week. Have Winter Solstice Eve and Day be the central focus for your household, and conceptualize other holiday festivities, including New Year’s office parties and Christmas visits with Christian relatives, as part of your Solstice celebration. By adopting this perspective, Pagan parents can help their children develop an understanding of the multicultural and interfaith aspects of this holiday time and view “Christmas” as just another form of Solstice. Have gift exchanges and feasts over the course of several days and nights as was done of old. Party hearty on New Year’s Eve not just to welcome in the new calendar year, but also to welcome the new solar year.” – Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary
“‘Tis the season to be merry, and for some adherents of Pagan and earth-based religions, that means celebrating time-honored traditions that center on the Winter Solstice, which occurs on Monday. “The Winter Solstice, or Yule, has always been a time of celebration,” said Jim Mosher, of Topeka, high priest of the MoonShadow Coven, an earth-based religious group. “It is the return of the sun, the promise of the evergreen boughs and the birth of the midwinter — or sun — king.” The Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year for those living north of the equator. Mosher noted the sun on the Winter Solstice is at its lowest point of the year in the sky. In Topeka, the sun is above the horizon less than 10 hours. In Yule celebrations, which Mosher said date back thousands of years, people conduct rituals designed to welcome back the sun and longer days of light.” - Phil Anderson, The Topeka Capital-Journal
No matter what your religion or tradition, may this year’s winter celebrations and observances bring you peace and joy!