Read an Excerpt
Yes, friends, the darkness wins, but these
short days so celebrate light:
Today the lemon sunrise lasted a few
hours until sunset, all day the snow
glowed pink and purple in the trees.
This is not a time of black and white,
my friends, outside us. Among us, too,
let's sing what winter forces us to know:
Joy and color bloom despite the night.
We measure warmth by love, not by degrees.
- Patricia Monaghan
1 The History of Yule: How it all Began
As human beings, we are a diverse group of people. We come in many sizes, colors, and shapes. We come from different cultures, speak different languages, and practice different religions. Even the food we like to eat varies. Yet, no matter who we are or where we live, one thing remains constant: We all look forward to the winter holidays. By some, they're called Christmas or Hanukkah. By others, Las Posadas or Ta Chiu. Still others call them Winter Solstice, Yule, and lots of other names most of us can't pronounce. Each celebration is a little different, but the main ideas are the same. These holidays provide us with a time for reflection, resolution, and renewal. A time for gift-giving, good will, and kindness. Most important, though, they provide us with rituals to celebrate the balance of light and dark-rituals for welcoming the healing powers of warmth back into our world-and that gives us a common ground that draws us together as a people.
So where did they come from, these holidays that we all celebrate? Contrary to popular belief, they didn't beginwith Christmas. Rather, they started over four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. The occasion? An extravagant party to celebrate the rebirth of Horus-the god who appeared in the sky as a fiery orb each day-the same orb we know today as the Sun. Because the Egyptians honored Horus with a twelve-month calendar, the festival lasted twelve days with each day symbolizing one month.
Buildings were decorated with greenery of all sorts to honor the Sun. The most valued decorations, however, were palm branches with twelve fronds. The reason for their value was simple: Because palm branches put out one shoot each month, a twelve-fronded branch formed a type of calendar. This made them a great representation of the entire birth, death, and rebirth cycle of the Sun; using them to honor the Sun was believed to speed His growth and strength, and encourage Him to stay in the sky longer.
The Egyptians flourished, and word of their Sun-welcoming ceremonies quickly swept through Mesopotamia. Believing that the rituals were at the heart of their neighbors' prosperity, the Babylonians took up the cause and got in on the act. However, they called it Zagmuk1 and incorporated their own Creator/Sun god, Marduk. The Babylonians believed that Marduk had created the world, and made it one of order, beauty, and peace. It hadn't been an easy task, however-first, he'd had to fight a grueling battle and defeat the monsters of chaos.
Each year, everything went along splendidly until the cooler weather brought winter; then the monsters regained their strength and once again challenged Marduk's reign. The battle was on and lasted for twelve days, but Marduk could no longer defeat the monsters by Himself. He needed the help of the people. It was their job to cheer Him on and help Him win the war. Only then could order be restored, and beauty and peace on Earth be renewed.
The Zagmuk festival began five days before Winter Solstice and lasted six days after, with the peak of the festival falling on the Solstice itself. On the seventh day, the Sun stayed in the sky longer-a sure sign that Marduk was well on his way to victory. This resulted in parades on land and river, good tidings, and the occasional exchange of gifts. The world was renewed for another year, and all was right with the Babylonian people.
Not long after, the Persians caught on and began to help Marduk, too. Called Sacaea, their festival was a little different and involved a temporary state of chaos. Slaves and masters changed places with each other, a mock king was crowned, and law and order flew right out the window. Grudges and debts were forgotten-if only temporarily. A good time was had by all. And why not? It was the one time of the year that folks could do exactly as they pleased without worry of consequence or retribution. As the Sun's light grew stronger, so did the party. During the last few days, things gradually wound down. By the end of the festival, order was restored to the Greek world.
Eventually, word of these Sun-welcoming festivities spilled into the outside world, and other folks- exchanging Marduk and the monsters for their gods-took up the cause as well. In the Greek version of Sacaea, Zeus defeated Kronos and the Titans, but that wasn't the main reason for their festivities. Apparently, the Kallikantzaroi-mischievous imps similar to those defeated by Marduk-roamed the land wreaking havoc during the twelve days of Sacaea. They also had a reputation for stealing the spirits of unsuspecting children, especially those born during that period. Of course, the Greeks did their best to keep them at bay. New babies were wrapped with garlic bundles, and because the monsters supposedly couldn't tolerate fire and smoke, each family kept a large log burning for the duration of the festival. These were fueled with old clothes and shoes, spoiled food, and anything else that might prove offensive to the intruders.
Finally, the ancient Romans-a good many of them practitioners of a Sun-worshipping religion called Mithraism2-decided to participate, and that's when the winter festivities really started to take shape. They combined most of the traditions of their predecessors and added a few of their own. First on the agenda was the exchange of god figures-Jupiter for Zeus and Saturn for Kronos. This gave them the opportunity to honor Saturn-one of their most important gods-if only briefly. To that end, the festival was called Saturnalia.
Why all the hubbub about Saturn? Because the god was not only responsible for the pulse of Nature and its germinating properties, but had gone to great lengths to teach the people about agriculture, fairness, and peaceable living. Commonly known as the Golden Age, His reign allowed fruitful living and the equality of all human beings. With that in mind, it's no wonder that the people jumped at the chance to give Him His due.
The festival began at the Roman temple of Saturn with a ceremony to remove the chains that had bound the god's feet all year long-a sure sign that the Golden Age was alive and well. With that, the whole of Rome was on holiday. Quarrels and arguments were history. Schools were dismissed, and businesses and legal facilities were closed. Because everyone was of equal stature, children ruled families, masters served slaves, and the Lord of Misrule-a mock king-was crowned.
During the week, the Romans decorated their homes and halls with laurel boughs. They lit candles and lamps to chase away evil spirits, and built bonfires on hilltops to encourage the birth of the Sun. The party continued with candlelit processions, singing, masquerade balls, and elaborate feasts. Gift-giving-an occasional practice initiated by the Babylonians-entered the forefront and became a mandatory part of the holiday. The Romans knew how to throw a party, and it was the biggest bash of the year.
As the Sun gained power in the sky, Jupiter once again defeated Saturn. His feet were bound for another year and the order of normal living returned to Rome, but didn't the Romans mind all their fun coming to an end? Not really. After all, Jupiter was the god of success and good health-and one can never have too much of either!
So it went with the popularity of the winter festivals. They spread through Europe, cropping up here and there, taking hold, and gaining power. Eventually, there wasn't a culture, creed, or belief system that couldn't claim their own festival.
Then Christianity-a new religion-sprang to the forefront and swept through the civilized world. A problem was encountered during the conversion efforts, however. No matter how good the new religion sounded to the Pagan world, they were used to the old ways and their unique lifestyle. Most important, though, they knew how their deities reacted to every situation, and they trusted Them. There was no reason to switch to a form of living they didn't understand, or to a god they didn't know.
Taking that into consideration, the Christians (former Pagans, themselves) devised a plan to make them feel more at ease. First, they built their churches on old Pagan worship sites. Their reasoning was that people had always worshipped on the sites, were comfortable there, and would continue to frequent them, church building or not. They incorporated Pagan symbols within the church decor, and added some revised Pagan customs to their rituals. To help matters further, they changed the names of a few Pagan deities ever so slightly, called them saints, and added them to the Christian pantheon.
It was a great plan, but didn't work as well as originally anticipated. In fact, the Romans didn't take well to it at all. Why? Because they felt that the Christians were making a mockery of their gods. As a result, the Christians were unable to practice safely and went into hiding-for a while-until they could figure out what to do.
Finally, around the fourth century, the Christians had a revelation. Unlike the Pagan religions, theirs was based on the workings of their man-god, Jesus, and his death and resurrection. It had never shown much concern for his birth. Because the birth-death-rebirth cycle had always been a large part of the Pagan belief system, ignoring the birth factor constituted a missing link. Another problem was that the Pagans revered goddesses-mother goddesses in particular. Realizing their errors, the Christians put on their thinking caps and returned to the drawing board.
At last they came up with a series of plans to solve their worship problems. First, they dealt with the goddess issue. Admitting a few goddesses to sainthood wasn't a problem, but they needed something stronger. What they needed was a real Mother Goddess in the midst of their patriarchal world. They finally decided on Mary, the mother of their man-god, Jesus. Previously unimportant to the Christian world, she gained new significance as "the Mother of God." To secure their position, they also played upon her ascension role and billed her as "the Queen of Heaven." This gave Christianity a bit of a safety zone because to the outside world it linked them to Isis, the Egyptian Queen of Heaven.
That didn't solve their problems completely. In order to worship safely and gain new members, they needed to meld more evenly with the Pagan practices. Finally, the Christians hit upon a solution: If they couldn't beat the Pagans, they'd simply join them.
Since no one really knew when the Christ-child was born, the Christians set his birthday on December 25.3 This date fell in the middle of the winter holidays, and because some Pagans held a special celebration on December 254 anyway, the new festival would go unnoticed. To ensure smooth sailing, the Christians took an added precaution: They billed the festival as the "Birth of the Son." Because "Son" and "Sun" were pronounced the same, the Pagans would think the new celebration was just an addition to their own festivals. The Pagans were happy, the Christians were comfortable, and Christmas was born unto the world!
1.Because historians disagree over the year-end timeline of the Babylonian calendar, some controversy still exists over whether Zagmuk was actually a winter celebration. To that end, I've drawn my conclusions based on substantial material supplied by various sources, including the New LaRosse Encyclopedia of Mythology (Middlesex, England: Hamlin Publishers, 1968), The Golden Bough (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951), and the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
2.Sir James George Fraser's The Golden Bough (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951).
3.Theologians now agree that Christ could not have been born during the winter. Though viewpoints vary, the most commonly shared has to do with the fact that Bethlehem's winters are brutal-because of this, shepherds only tend flocks at night during the warmer months. During the winter months, they'd have been at home, safely tucked into warm beds.4.In 273, Roman emperer Aurelianus founded a Sun-worshipping religion called the Cult of Sol Invictus. The birthday of the chief god, Sol Invictus, was celebrated on December 25.