Monday, December 21, 2015

European History Highlight: A Synopsis of the Winter Solstice

December 21st, the longest night in the northern hemisphere, represents the tipping point where the days turn from decreasing in length to slowly increasing in length.  It was a day of high celebration for our ancestors coping with their harsh climate of freezing temperatures and inability to farm or forage until Spring. Hunger was not unknown or unexpected.  The Winter Solstice marked the turn of the wheel towards Hope; and looking forward to the renewal of Spring and the bounty that implied.

 Many of our Christmas traditions have their roots in various Pagan Winter Solstice rituals. Pagans mark the "Wheel of the Year" into "4 stations", with the shortest day, and the longest night of the year - December 21st - marking the beginning of the final quarter of the Wheel of the Year.

 One of those ancient traditions was the Norse "Yule Log"  which is where our traditional colors of green and red spring from. Modern Pagans have adopted this tradition into contemporary celebrations, by constructing Yule Logs at home.

Many non-Pagan families still pay homage to the Yule Log by ending their Christmas meal with a Yule Log or bûche de Noël sweet dessert.

Druids also had elaborate rituals, feasts and games to celebrate the Winter Solstice, known as "Alban Arthan".  Our modern adaptation of Holly and Mistletoe as seasonal decorations with mythical powers has its genesis in the Druid importance of these two in their observances.

It is also the traditional time to enjoy Wassail.  The modern Christian tradition of carolling stems from the Wassail:



(traditional with ceremony)

Heat a large container of ale or beer, about 3 or 4 pints. Add:
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup mixed spice (cinnamon sticks and whole cloves are also excellent)
2 or 3 small sweet apples, cut up
1 1/4 cup pineapple juice
1 1/4 cup orange juice
the juice of 2 lemons

Place over a slow flame; then, before it begins to boil, take off the heat and whip up some cream. Let this float on top of the brew like foam.
Put in a suitably large bowl (the more ornate the better)

Now go out to a tree or trees with a few friends (these don't have to be apple trees, since all can benefit from a well-intentioned blessing, but it is traditional to wassail fruit-bearing trees)
Wet the roots liberally with the brew. Pass the rest around and when everyone is thoroughly warmed up sing a wassailing song, for example:

Here's to thee, old apple tree
Whence thou may'st bud and whence tho may'st blow
And whence thou may'st bear apples enow.
Hats full, caps full, bushel, bushel sacks full, And my pockets full too!

In summation, the celebration of Yule marked by the Winter Solstice is a ritual of hope and looking forward; involves bonfires, singing seasonal songs of hope, ritualized sword-fighting, exchanging gifts, feasting, drinking plused-up warm alcoholic beverages, overall merriment and is the genesis of many of the most beloved secular Christmas traditions we enjoy today.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post--thank you!