I often smile when I see Christmas trees. I give a wry look to Christmas lights and mistletoe and holly wreaths. Many people have no idea where these symbols come from and what they meant to the people who started them. Though few would dispute that Christmas has become less a religious holiday and more an excuse to get a few days off and spend money, many would be surprised to hear that even the legend of Santa Claus has nothing to do with Christmas itself.
No, you can thank my people for that. The Christmas trees, lights and holly wreaths? Nothing to do with the Christian holiday that has Wal-Mart and radio stations abuzz for more than a month before it comes. Almost all of the symbols and even the timing of Christmas were taken from early pagan traditions to celebrate the winter solstice in a festival known as Yule.
Yule is one of the eight major Sabbats (holidays) in the Wiccan Circle of the Year. It is a celebration of winter coming to an end and spring’s beginning. It is marked by the winter solstice, when the days begin to get longer and the nights get shorter. Wiccans find it symbolic to describe it as the rebirth of the sun god.
Wicca falls under the very broad umbrella of paganism, a set of religions that revere nature or seek the gods through nature. Many religions are considered pagan, and some people, like me, blend some of their beliefs together in what is called Eclectic Paganism. Many Wiccan holidays are celebrated by other pagans simply because Wicca has very defined holidays. [alex1]
Many pagan traditions can be traced back for centuries, although most of the religions are relatively new reconstructions of other religions. The origins of many pagan religions are disputed or unclear. Some may be ancient, some may be only a few hundred years old.
Sabbat Rituals are a way of celebrating a Wiccan holiday and they are usually far more complex than your garden variety full-moon ritual or other celebrations. For one, they usually involve far more extravagant décor. An altar is decorated with seasonal plants like holly, mistletoe and pine. The rituals place an emphasis on fire and earth, since these are the elements coming into power, so colors like green, red and yellow are prominent.
There is no strict protocol for Sabbat Rituals. It is up to the individual pagan to decide what to do during the ritual. But some common practices are singing songs that go along with the season, performing rites that have been passed down by other pagans or that someone thinks up on their own, acting out the birth of the god, reading poetry about Yule.
Not every pagan tradition celebrates Yule. Pagans vary widely in their beliefs. Some celebrate different holidays around the holiday season and some do not celebrate at all. A definition of a pagan has never been completely agreed on, but the term is used to describe many different polytheistic, nature-revering religions. Some pagan traditions are reconstructions of ancient religions and some were made up just a few years ago.
Some pagans accuse Christians of stealing their symbols to celebrate holidays like Christmas. And because some pagans believe that Jesus was not really born on Christmas, they disagree with what Christmas is based on in the first place. But I’m not going to go on a bitter tirade about any of that. Who is to say we did not borrow any of our symbols from someone else? In fact, I love celebrating Christmas because even though I’m not Christian, I was raised in a Christian family and I know how happy Christmas makes people. Yule follows much of what holiday cheer is about. It is a time for celebration, not a time to divide ourselves.
I don’t get offended when people say “Merry Christmas,” either. Pagans have widely different beliefs and learn to tolerate differences very quickly. In fact, I don’t understand why people get offended at all. They’re just passing along good sentiments, and it’s not often that pagans get good sentiments from Christians. We just have to remember that different people celebrating the same things for different reasons is not a bad thing. The key word is celebrate. Who cares why everyone’s partying if it’s one big party? I know I still have a great time at Christmas parties. [alex3]
I get some interesting reactions, though, when people find out I’m not putting out cookies and milk for Santa or celebrating Jesus’s birthday. When they ask about Yule, I just tell them I am celebrating the end of winter and the returning life of spring. I usually just get some kind of blank look and a dismissing “Oh, OK” when I know they really mean “there goes Alex with his crazy pagan stuff again.” I wish I could explain to them that my holiday season deserves more consideration than that. It is about light returning from dark and life springing up from death. It embodies the cycle of nature and the circle of life. That’s what celebrating Yule is all about.
I know hearing the word “pagan” scares people. My religion has long been associated with evil witches and magic spells and devil worshipping. And maybe if I explained that Yule is a celebration of the rebirth of the Sun God so that he can return and re-fertilize the Earth Mother, I’m sure a lot of people would be turned off by it. It sounds so abstract, intangible and something that just does not and cannot happen. But if I said that Yule is a celebration of the end of winter and the coming of spring, it would not sound so crazy.
It takes some work to overcome the scary misconceptions of what paganism and Yule is all about, but I like to think by talking about what I am celebrating and why I choose to do that I am making a dent in dispelling the myths. Yes, we dance around bonfires. Yes, we sometimes do it naked. Yes, we do some strange things that other people may not understand. But we’re not here to hurt anyone and we’re not here to convert you. It will be a good day when all holidays can be celebrated without judgment, but maybe we just have to wait for the light to triumph over that darkness as well.