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The Battle for Yule

It’s Christmas!  Time for wars, fighting, and religious buffoonery.  Time for us to remember that the reason for the season is what the minimum-wage workers at Wall-Mart tell us as we push our shopping carts into the store. 

Well, sign me up.  If keeping with the holiday festivities means going forward to the holiday wars, that’s where your intrepid theologian has gotta go.  With the wind at our backs from the recent elections, it’s about time to stir up some punditacious tomfoolery. 

As Wall-Mart used to say, the “Holiday Season” is almost upon us.  It is a time for Christian pundits and miscellaneous others to worry excessively about where bells can be rung [1] and what greetings may be delivered.]2]   Even last week Wall-Mart™ said that they had strayed and would revert to the godly practice of saying “Merry Christmas” in their stores.[3]   In doing so they may be adopting a “Where Would Jesus Shop?” retailing strategy.  This will give them the advantage over such heathen-friendly places as Target™, which in 2004 very un-charitably banned bell-ringers from their stores.[4]  

I guess Christ wears rayon, while the rest of us settle for Issac Mizrahi™. [5]

What puts us Pagans in this Christmas cesspool is that last year Wall-Mart™ decided that, in addition to dominating the practice of selling cheap crap at discount prices, it also wanted to become the dominant retailer of Pagan Theology.[6]   In an e-mail response to a Catholic-league member a Wall-Mart™ employee went on at exceeding lengths about the “origin of Christmas” as a Pagan holiday.[7]   It was not a wise choice for many reasons:

"Walmart is a world wide organization and must remain conscious of this. The majority of the world still has different practices other than "christmas" which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. The colors associated with 'christmas' red and white are actually a representation of of the aminita mascera mushroom. Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world."[8]

While I can understand the poor soul’s desire to offer a rather weird explanation for holiday greetings, I don’t get the mushroom part[9] .  Or the Caucuses. Or why Goths are into logs.[10]    I think this is a sly attempt at revisionist history to put Wall-Mart’s™ shareholders off the idea that a big box retailer is clueless about what its target demographic wants to hear in holiday greetings.   Spend the money, do a survey. 

Now this is nowhere as amusing and ironic as the equally silly kerfuffles over banning Halloween celebrations.  Ironic because a holiday where we dressed up like Christian martyrs and went asking for candy would not be viewed sympathetically.  Silly because Pagans and Witches generally do not object to people having a little fun, even at their expense.[11]   Perhaps we don’t object as much because there are bigger issues for Witches and Pagans to deal with, like getting veterans the ability to have their religious symbols on their tombstones. [12]

Hmmm...maybe it would be helpful to dress up as martyrs and go trick or treating on Christmas for the right to put pentacles on our tombstones.

But I digress. 

Before we begin decking the halls with boughs of holly we need to ask ourselves:  are we celebrating a Christian holiday thinly disguised as “Yule”?  Maybe this is just a devious way of giving Pagan’s the impression that Christians want to have fun, eat a lot, and give us presents when what they really want is for our mothers to take us to church.  Or is Christmas a Pagan holiday that the Christians don’t realize they’re celebrating?   Are the presents, good cheer, and family revelry just a way for us to trick them into honoring the Gods and Goddesses?  And, if Yule and these traditions belong to us, what should we make of what our holiday has become? 

Maybe we should we put the “reason for the season” back into Yule. 

The Real Christmas

As with most holidays the origins of Christmas can be divided into two pieces:  recent implementation, and original intent.  By “recent” implementation I mean post-reformation changes that took place in the holiday.  Most holidays seem to have taken their modern shape during the Victorian era, or in the mid-1800s, after industrialization had everyone moving into cities and much of traditional, rural, life was disrupted [13].  Since most of the holidays took form during this period, the traditions and ideas behind them reflect the desire for domesticity and idealized family life that dominated this era. 

Christmas in America can be traced pretty clearly to a movement and a man.  Originally Christmas had all the trappings of our current Halloween.  Well that is if drunken adults with sticks replaced the kids and the candy was replaced with food and money.   Then it would be exactly the same.  Hence you get all these stories of people outlawing and quashing Christmas.  It wasn’t that they were Scrooges, it was they didn’t like drunken home invasions.  Likewise as people came into the cities with families they began to dislike all the drunken mobs running up and down the streets.  Cities made it easier to form mobs, and for mobs to find people with food, liquor, and money.   

So the ones with the food, liquor, and money decided to domesticate Christmas.  That brings us to Clement Clarke Moore.  Moore wrote the poem the “A Visit by Saint Nicholas” which showed Santa spewing forth gifts.  This, combined with the images of Thomas Nast, led directly to the modern idea of Santa, and in turn fueled the already emerging commercialization and domestication of Christmas.[14]    It is not surprising that both Nast and Moore were based out of New York, where much of the holiday mischief was centered. 

Deep time refers to the question that inevitably comes up when discussing holidays:  what portions of various holiday traditions come from historical Pagan practices?  In the case of Christmas there are a large number of traditions said to reflect Pagan influences, from the name Yule, to the Christmas tree, to the holly and mistletoe. 

What can we say?  I think we can say that there are many coincidences surrounding a lot of the symbols of Christmas.  But that is true with many things in modern, neo-Pagan, practice.  Witchcraft and magic, for example, are arguably traditional Pagan practices.  There is an enormous amount of evidence for spell casting and charm making in pre-Christian times, both historical (written) and archeological.  However that spell craft has been modified and adapted to a Christian view by countless mages, cunning men, and witches during the Middle Ages and subsequent times. 

Any understanding of modern holiday traditions has to be filtered through the lens of all the years and days that have come between our Pagan ancestors and us.  Meanings can be changed.  What was once a symbol of one thing can be expropriated to mean another.

The association of Christmas with December 25th comes from the Romans, with the Saturnalia being held during the period December 17th (the birthday of Saturn) and December 25th (the birthday of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun and later associated with the birthday of Mithras).[15]   Under Constantine the early Roman church probably expropriated these dates into the birthday of Jesus, given the association of the birth of the sun with the birth of Jesus.

This was all rather thoroughly mashed up with local rural customs and Christian theological calculations to come up with the concept of Jesus birthday being celebrated on the 25th. 

Thus Christmas is rather loosely based on Pagan celebrations surrounding the winter solstice.   Much of what is done is Pagan.  Can Pagan’s celebrate “Christmas” without in turn celebrating the Christian holiday? 

I think there is a greater argument for Pagan celebration of the winter Solstice, and for participation in Christmas celebrations, than there is for that other big Christian do, Easter.  We can lay claim to the spirit of Christmas, and that, I believe, is our most important contribution to the Season.

Theological claim for Yule

While the historical Pagan claim for Christmas is as strong as a Pagan claim for any other holiday, I think we have an important theological claim for Yule, and by extension the secular celebration of Christmas. [16]

First some terminology.[17]   As with most of the terms we lay claim to as Pagans “Yule” has a rather complex and disputed etymology.  Suffice to say that it was borrowed from the Scandinavian and referred to a wide range of time periods, from November through January. [18]  In the Scandinavian and Germanic languages it refers to both Yule and Christmas.   In its current usage it is a borrowed term, one that comes to mean an inclusive set of winter festivities surrounding the Solstice. 

There was historically no universal “Pagan” holiday around December and midwinter.  We have created that.  Instead there were many, many different festivals and associations that occurred during the time of the Solstice.  In adopting the Wiccan calendar of Sabbats we have established a liturgical calendar for ourselves, a cycle within the year which we can use to guide and structure our rituals, and keep both our selves and our rituals in tune with the seasons.   

This brings us to the question of Pagan relations with the secular celebration of Christmas.  Given the complex derivation of the holiday, the mixing and matching of so many Pagan and Christian traditions, the secular Christmas has become a holiday that is rather devoid of any religious associations, other than the name and a bunch of music.  Now I know that people get their shorts in a twist whenever their darling little terrors are forced to sing Christian Christmas music in the school play.  I know this because I’m one of those people. I complain because I have to listen, not because they sing. 

But that’s another digression. 

I believe that the general secularization of the holiday has also seeped into and colored other traditions that are more directly religious.  The argument is basically that commercialization has so removed and influenced the nature of the holiday that even overtly religious symbols and songs (the star and “Silent Night”) have come to mean something other than their traditional meanings.  Their religious meanings have diminished, and the secular culture has added secular meanings to them. 

This reasoning follows the same line of argument as some Christian sects about the commercialization and diminishment of Christ in the holiday.  I would argue that when particular religious traditions insist on incorporating religious iconography into holiday celebrations, such as occurs with crèches, or they use non-traditional Christmas elements, then that should be kept out of publicly funded observances.   But the incidental inclusion of symbols and songs linked to the holiday, such as singing “Silent Night” can be viewed as part of the secular celebration.  It all depends on what the motivations are.

But what about the Pagan celebration of Yule?  There are two lines of argument about Yule.  One is the whole Holly King, Oak King ritual performance.  Something that can certainly lively up a circle and provide a lot of opportunities to interest kids in participating.  Particularly if you also incorporate candy and presents into the activities.  This version of Yule is the ritual celebration of the Solstice, as defined by whatever tradition your circle follows.  The other argument involves asking what the season, and Yule, really means.  What is our “reason for the season?”

In thinking about Yule celebrations we have the opportunity to look deeper into the Pagan worldview, and see what it says about the season.

In future columns I will argue that there is a fundamental difference between the Pagan worldview, and the view of many other religious traditions, Christianity in particular.  At the risk of unnecessarily putting down Christianity (this is the season for wars isn’t it?) I will term this difference “life affirming” instead of “life denying.”

Remember the whole immanent/transcendent discussion we had a while back on the nature of the Gods and Goddesses?  Well that thread of belief flows along through much of Pagan thinking.  It influences things like how we see ourselves, and our relationship with the world. 

In the transcendent view of the world the overarching goal of our spiritual quest is to leave the world behind, to transcend to a higher, and by implication better (because higher is always better) reality.  The world thus becomes a place to be fought against.  In its more extreme forms a transcendent view can become life denying, as was the case for much Medieval Christian theology, starting in earnest with Augustine.[19]    If the world is viewed as something that drags us down spiritually, as something to be escaped from, as something evil, then the idea of spirit acting in the world through magic can also be seen as evil.  Magic is not here, its “out there,” somewhere beyond the world we know.

In an immanent view of spirit the physical world is intimately entwined with the spiritual.  The earth, trees, and animals all have spiritual as well as corporeal components.  By extension so do the Gods and Goddesses, they are in the world, with it, not somehow above or against it.  What happens in the world becomes a sacred spiritual practice, if it is done with love and an eye toward the inherent magic that surrounds us.

So how exactly does this relate to Yule.  We are fond of saying that the “veil is thin” at certain times of the year, particularly Samhain.  Likewise it is often repeated that “we are between worlds” once the circle is cast and sacred space has been established.  These comments are not merely routine jargon, they mean that the spiritual has been invoked into the material, that we recognize the immanent manifestation of the Gods and Goddesses, and other spirits, as part of our religious rites.

At Samhain the emphasis is on the dead.  At Beltane it is on renewed life.  But at Yule the emphasis is on the changing balance between light and dark, the emergence of light from the dark and cold of winter.  The veil is thin at Yule but it lets through the light, it lets through happiness and fellowship.  It is a type of magic not of death as at Samhain, or of new growth as at Beltane, but of simple charm, a cozy sort of veil. 

As Pagans we are well placed to accept the magic of Yule, to have it grow through our circles, and replace the stereotyped and dead magic of the secular, and the transcendent spirit of other religions.

There are really two fronts for the battle for Yule.  One is the battle between those who see the earth as a vessel for an independent and transcendent soul and those who see spirit as intimately entwined within the world.  One denies the celebration of who we are, the earth, and all of our and its flaws.  The other embraces the imperfections, and tries to make something special, and fun, out of them. 

The other battle is between the reification of the celebration of Yule, the decidedly un-spiritual way in which celebrations have drawn away from the tribe, family, and spirit, and into the world of commerce and hucksterism.  The commercial has a place in Yule, as presents are a representation of the gifts we give each other in circle, and the bonds that exist between us as worshiping Pagans.  However the focus on the “technology” of giving, for want of a better name, loses some of the magic that is associated with the season.  The magic of this Sabbat is subtle, delicate, and easily missed if you don’t have the time, mindset, and heart to be able to see it.

We should be glad that we have our special day, separate from the trodden on, commercialized Christmas.  It gives us a chance to celebrate the magic of the tribe, of the earth, and of our families. 

In the Yule season the heart must be light, free from worrying about paying extra bills, whether you’ve bought enough presents, and what particular technology you’ve bought that your mother-in-law will pick to criticize this year.  The magic comes as the interplay of winter light, the deep green of the forest, and the smell of January snow coming in the air.  Seeing Yule magic requires quiet, a heart filled with friends and family, and the knowledge that the Goddess is afoot even in this season of bleak and cold.  We feast with the God at our table, we hear the Goddess as the wind sings through the pine trees.  And our battle is won.  The reason for the season is within us, within nature, and in our relationships with the Gods and Goddesses. 

Our magic is more powerful than all the battles and punditry, it must be, or we will have lost a very special enchantment. 

Endnotes

[1] Target has banned bell ringers: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/202988_salvation09.html.

[2] Last years “War on Christmas” seems to have been won this year, which is why we now need to stir things back up.  See, for example, anything written by Bill O’Reilly last December (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,177932,00.html) or John Gibsons extraordinarily long-titled screed:  The War on Christmas... http://www.amazon.com/War-Christmas-Christian-Holiday-Thought/dp/1595230165

[3] Though this has not apparently kept them from hawking the malicious “Happy Holiday’s” Santa Tombstone seen here: http://www.onlinediscountmart.com/51-5031.html.  For coverage of the story see: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15639425/ or just Google Wal-Mart and “happy holidays.”  For an even more hysterical list of offending retailers go to the American Family Association web site: http://www.afa.net/faq.asp.

[4] http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2004/11/17/ban_on_charitys_bells_doesnt_ring_true_for_all/

[5] Whoever the hell he is.  I guess my daughter would know. http://www.target.com/gp/browse.html?ie=UTF8&node=3666961

[6] Which, I will point out, is not hard. 

[7] Taken from: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=47330 or if you prefer your news from something edited by a former Today Show host: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/11/11/ap/national/mainD8DQFCFO0.shtml

[8] Just put (sic) after the whole thing. 

[9] Methinks it can be explained at least partially as an over-reliance on Wikipedia for information.

[10] Hmm..that didn’t sound quite right. 

[11] The most famous incident being the 2004 “Witches Brew-up” in Washington State: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=184701&page=1

[12] While Eckankar, Baha’i’s and Sufi’s can have graves marked with their religious symbols, Pagans cannot.  See: http://www.circlesanctuary.org/liberty/veteranpentacle/.  When they won’t mark the graves of your veterans, you get less upset over a rubber mask on a six year old. 

[13] The absolute best book on all this is Stephen Nissenbaum’s book The Battle For Christmas, http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Christmas-Stephen-Nissenbaum/dp/0679740384/sr=11-1/ref=sr_11_1/002-9881938-8588059. I’m going to make a hash of most of the history I’m writing because I no longer have this book and am working from memory.   Surprisingly Valentine’s Day and Easter follow similar trajectories as Christmas, coming to the fore during the Victorian era, with Halloween actually being the most recent holiday, really getting going in the 1930’s. 

[14] I admit in all this I have a very decided bias toward the “mischief and mercantile” theme of how the holiday developed.   This comes from my interpretation of the Nissenbaum book. Other approaches include the “cultural traditions” version where people go on about which bit of the holiday came from which culture, and the “religious holiday” theme which emphasizes, well, the religious aspects.  I think if you’re talking ‘merica, you’re talking commerce.   Your mileage may vary. 

[15] For a good summary of all this see the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas

[16] Obviously there are religious celebrations of Christmas that occur in Churches and such places where participation of Pagans might be a bit out of place.  I’m not talking about such events here. 

[17] For some reason Pagans in general seem to be fascinated by etymology.  As if the root of a word will allow you to discern what you are supposed to do. 

[18] Barnhart, Robert K, ed., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, Chambers, 1988

[19] Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book Eight, Chapter 7

 

 

 

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