Santa is a Pagan!
As a Pagan, when Yule rolls around I find myself being asked a number of questions that revolve around, ‘If you don’t believe in Jesus, why do you celebrate his birthday?’ This leads to the long winded explanation of how Pagans celebrated Yule long before it was adopted by Christianity and that historical evidence points to the historic figure of Jesus being born anywhere between June and September and not December.
So what does Yule mean to me as a Pagan? My understanding of the midwinter festival has always been one of hope above all else and a celebration of the unifying nature of the human spirit. In the past, there would have been a lot less work to do in the depth of winter so people would have had more time on their hands to contemplate the world around them and family relationships beyond that of those who lived with them.
What better way to celebrate then than by bringing tribes together and have each bring foods they had prepared during the last harvest to share? Slights of the past year could be put aside to revel in the company of those who lighten one’s heart.
With the marking of Midwinter, it was also a time to rejoice in one’s own survival through the trials of the year that may have seen others die. Like so many Pagan festivals, the meaning has changed as we have become farther removed from nature. It is no longer necessary for us to preserve and store our own food to take us through the stark winter nights when food has become scarce. We no longer need fear stray animals or enemy tribes who have faired less well then ourselves raiding our towns and villages for precious winter reserves.
What should a modern Pagan do to celebrate? Well, I don’t think we need to go too far from the traditional Christmas: Bring in an evergreen tree to decorate. Adorn your home with holly and ivy as symbols of the life that still bears fruit through the sleeping winter.
Lights are also very important for they represent hope and its constant presence in our lives. They might also remind us of the first rays of Lugh as he is reborn to the waiting world (in Celtic legends Lugh was conceived by Dagda and the Morrighan in midwinter to be born in August). The whole spirit of Yule is the very essence of the Pagan spirit. No matter how hard or harsh life may become, there is always life to be found and hope to carry us through.
Not only are the trappings of Christmas rooted in Paganism, but many of the symbols that are displayed are also from roots more ancient than most Christians would care to admit. Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, may well predate the Saint Nicholas whom he is said to represent. From my own point of view, he is startlingly close to the Dagda with his cauldron of life slung over one shoulder and his club/staff gripped in his other hand bringing to his people the gifts that would lighten their lives and give them strength to take on the harshness of winter.
Other Pagan traditions also have Father figures who provide for their tribes through times of hardship, either through the giving of physical gifts, or by the granting of supernatural talents to see them through. In Lapland, it is thought that a shaman in a fresh reindeer skin collects the snow on which reindeer who had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms had urinated in order to share it around the village. The effect of this would be startling; people seeing bright lights and strange images that might bring them insights into the year to come.
This is just an example of why Yule and the Midwinter are seen as magical times. It is also thought to be the season in which we are the closest to the Otherworld and reality wears thinnest. There are many myths that speak of otherworldly beings helping out those troubled on journeys back to their families for the celebration of Yule. These tales range from those of faeries to fey dogs and werewolves and thus providing a hint that during this time, all of nature and supernature come together to aide each other.
For those of us who practice magic, it can also be a time to note how many people a type of magic they may be unaware of through out the rest of the year touches. Being someone who is not renowned for my own jollity through the rest of the year — sometimes being accused of being dour — I will admit that I love Yule and everything that it stands for.
How can one not love the very essence of the human spirit being offered up in the shape of hope, faith and trust — not simply in deities, but in each other — things that we find too difficult during the rest of the year.
In a world in which mistrust and greed are growing by the day, and in which we are becoming more isolated from those around us through the use of technology rather then personal interaction, we cannot afford not to have a festival like Yule. We need a holiday wherein we can offer our hands to those around us and bring them a little closer to our hearts.
I would say this to you all: Offer your hand to a stranger over Yule.
Learn to know them. And that ‘stranger’ may even be someone you thought you already knew, like a parent, aunt or even a grand parent. Listen and talk with them and learn more about who they are beyond the roles they have played in your life. Too often, we take for granted those around us and never really notice how remarkable they are until they are gone. So spend some time with your family and your neighbors and treat them like the friends whom they may actually come to be.
And to all of the friends and kindred children of the Greenwood everywhere:
Eat Drink and Be Merry!
Fair Yule To One and All!