Whether you are made aware of the impending winter solstice by the encroaching cold, the darkening days, the obligatory festive music or the incessant stream of Christmas memes on social media, you will no doubt have an opinion on it.
While neo-pagan acquaintances will be sure to insist on the pagan origin of the seasonal celebration, Christian friends will remind you of the birth of Jesus Christ and its importance to our culture.
Atheists and agnostics may side with the former or latter depending on which they find less irritating. But irreverence aside, it is alarming that many among the Alt-Right allow these admittedly crucial questions about religion to divide us.
At the risk of sounding like a New Labour politician, this article, I hope, will encourage the reader to unite with his fellow Europeans at Yuletide, regardless of their religious beliefs.
For non-believers, the midwinter holiday we now know as Christmas may not have the spiritual significance that it does for Christians and pagans, but it is still a time for reflection and wonder. Our ancestors have survived in the temperate Northern climate for more than 50,000 years and have learned to respect the power of nature. The importance of the midwinter festival to the ancients of the British Isles is evident from the alignment of millennia-old monuments like Maeshowe and Stonehenge. We know little about how the festival was observed 5000 years ago when these were built but in more recent times it was the last feast celebration before deep winter began and therefore played a crucial role both spiritually and socially.
By the time Christmas reached the British people, it was already a complicated fusion of several traditions. Saturnalia, a jovial Roman festival of Saturn involving feasting and drinking, was originally held on the 17th December but may have been moved to the 25th in the 1st century. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD and we have the first reference to Christmas not long after in the Roman Philocalian calendar of 354. But Saturnalia was still celebrated as late as the 5th century so the two festivals may have been mingled.
The same calendar also states that the 25th was a civil holiday honouring the cult of Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun). This, originally Semitic, monotheistic cult has its origins in Syria but was introduced to the Roman Empire in 274 AD by Emperor Aurelian who made it a state religion. The focus on the sun as well as the date make it a likely predecessor of Christmas, particularly when you consider that Emperor Constantine himself was raised in the cult of Sol Invicta.
As a province of the Roman Empire, it is possible that all three of these were celebrated simultaneously in Britain alongside any native midwinter festivals that may have endured. By the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5th century, the native Britons would have celebrated Christmas, although the “Celtic church” had diverged somewhat from Roman Catholicism at this time. The pagan Anglo-Saxons had their own Germanic winter celebrations – most notably Geól (pronounced “yay-ohl”). We know little about this but can assume it resembled the Nordic midwinter festival of Jul (pronounced the same as “Yule”).
If the elite Nordic Varangian guard of Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus are anything to go by, then we can see that Germanic pagans were happy to celebrate Jul with Christians. De Ceremoniis Aulae Byzantinae, written in the 10th century, describes how the Emperor’s guard, dressed in masks and furs, would march around the feasting table beating drums and shouting “Jul, Jul Jul!” before composing poems in clumsy Latin in honour of their Christian Emperor.
But there is also evidence of conflict between pagans and Christians at this time of year. The Old Norse kings’ sagas tell how King Haakon The Good of Norway, who was fostered by a Christian English King, tried to convert his pagan countrymen. He sometimes had to conceal his religion in order to avoid angering his people, so strong was their hatred. In one story he gets in trouble for refusing to eat sacrificial horse meat at a pagan feast. At the following year’s Yule feast he is confronted by the pagan reactionaries and is again encouraged to eat horse meat as part of their counter-attack on Christianity in Norway.
Clearly some pagans thought Christians were threatening to Yule, but what exactly was Yule about? Like Saturnalia and modern British Christmas, it involved drinking and feasting. Haakon preserved these aspects and made a law that Yule had to coincide with Christmas and that “everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.”
We know from the same saga that in Norway the first Yule toast was drunk to Odin but that was more than 300 years after the Anglo-Saxons converted, and they may have had very different traditions. The Venerable Bede wrote that the English held a festival called Mōdraniht (Night of the Mothers) all night on Christmas Eve. There are many theories on what this might have been, but it is probable that a cult of maternity was related to fertility, which is in many cultures connected to the passage of the sun. It is worth mentioning that in Norse mythology, it is the moon that is male and the sun female. Also, when thinking of sacred Mothers, the Virgin Mary obviously comes to mind. One can see how a festival celebrating a sacred Mother and her son (sun) who conquers death, could easily merge with these older traditions.
These distinctly European traditions did not die. They continue in Christmas. Some pagans resisted conversion, others welcomed it, but the idea of the festival stolen from the pagans is a simplification. Every Northern culture in all times has honoured the winter solstice. While Christians will begin the 25th in solemn prayer and pagans may save their prayers for the 21st, all Europeans can feel a marvellous sense of pride in this unbroken chain which is a reflection not only of changing beliefs but of the very fabric and order of our universe. It is the sun that gave life to our race and its annual absence that made our minds keen and our blood strong. During this time the greatest virtues of our race are most evident; we celebrate community, we honour the family, we strengthen friendships, we are charitable to the less fortunate and we celebrate with gratitude the bounty that our Earth provides.
It is not a time for division. It is a time for unity.
Good Yule and Merry Christmas to all true Europeans!