TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — It’s that time of year again. Behind display windows sprayed with fake snow, stores play all our Christmas favorites, endlessly, and bearded men in red suits loiter in grottoes. But as you order your tree and hang up mistletoe, have you ever wondered what any of this has got to do with Christmas?
Around 730 AD the Venerable Bede recorded a custom of the Anglo-Saxons, from whom many modern Britons and Americans are descended. “They began the year,” he wrote, “with 25 December, designated by the heathen term modraniht, that is, the mothers’ night.”
The Anglo-Saxons had another word for it: Geol from Jol in Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, and the origin of our word Yule.
At this time the Vikings would honor the gods Odin, Niord and Freya, as well as departed friends. As the leader of the Wild Hunt, Odin would fly over the countryside bestowing favors on those who honored him best and food would be left out for him. Think of Santa’s elves, sleigh and reindeer.
Today’s decorations derive from these old festivals. One of the most popular customs used to be the Yule Log. A large log was placed on the hearth and lit with the previous year’s log to symbolize the renewal of light and warmth, and ensure good luck. Open fireplaces are scarce today and the Yule Log survives as a simple decoration and a cake. The same symbolism is behind bringing evergreens into the home: Holly and ivy tied in wreaths or decorated fir trees.
Arriving in the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century, the Christmas Tree was formerly a pole erected in the street and festooned with evergreens as a focus for dancing.
Another evergreen, Mistletoe, was sacred to Thor among the Vikings and used in fertility rites by the Celts, which is why we still kiss under it today. As Thor’s plant, it was believed to protect the home from lightning and fire.
But why this time of year? In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, creating a 365 day year in 12 months with regular leap years and the winter solstice on Dec. 25. The winter solstice is an astronomical event when the sun appears to stand still before turning back in its (really the earth’s) orbit. It marks the moment when those lengthening winter nights start to get shorter again and so was seen as the return or ‘rebirth’ of the sun. The Romans celebrated their own festivals — Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — at this time of year.
The Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian and the winter solstice was moved back. The exact moment of solstice can occur between the 20th and the 23rd due to a number of factors. It was only in 354 A.D. that it was decided that Jesus was born on Dec. 25.
So as you hang a bauble on the tree, steal a kiss under the mistletoe and sit down to “Christmas” dinner, drink a toast to Odin and the festival’s real meaning: the return of the sun.
— Dr. Leo Ruickbie has been investigating, writing about and sometimes experiencing the darker side of life — from Black Masses to haunted houses — for most of his professional career. What began as work on re-enchantment (MA with distinction, Lancaster University) led to his being awarded a PhD from King’s College, London, for his research into modern witchcraft and magic. He is the author of “Witchcraft Out of the Shadows,” “Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician” and “A Brief Guide to the Supernatural,” as well as being a frequent contributor to Paranormal magazine. Visit him online at www.witchology.com.