Last time I wrote a personal essay about how I feel about the holidays. I promised an educated, informative article this time.
Oh stop laughing!
I’ll write a little about Yule and a bit about Winter Solstice.
Modern Christmas is a mix of these two ancient celebrations as well as what happened to honor the god Mithras.
The reasons the Winter Holiday was celebrated differ a bit from why we celebrate today, but not completely.
For example. “The Light of the World” , seen by many Christians today as their god is celebrated.
In days past, lengthening days were celebrated. THE light of the world!
I don’t know about you, but when days get shorter in Fall time, I just want to curl up in a ball and hibernate until April. My body does not react well to cold either. Those two things combined make me miserable. For me, the Winter Solstice, celebrating the fact that the amount of daylight is about to increase is a very big deal. It’s still going to get colder for a bit, but I know I am halfway through winter and it is a huge relief to make it that far.
Like ten percent or more Americans, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I really think this is because we just don’t slow down in Winter time like our ancestors did. We insist we will drive the speed limit in blizzard conditions. We will not cut back on extracurricular activities under any circumstances. We refuse to sleep more even if we feel like we need to. And many have zero tolerance for people who do slow down when Winter comes. I jealously watch my cats sleep sixteen hours a day all winter while I trudge through snow, sleet, freezing rain, and what is seemingly eternal darkness. Sometimes, I wake them up on purpose on my way out the door and laugh maniacally even though I know they slip right off to sleep, calling me all forms of obscene names in their feline language.
I drive 10 MPH in heavy snow, sleet, or icy conditions, myself. I sleep as much as I possibly can, and I tell a lot of people in November that I will see them next June!
I look forward to Winter Solstice and say a hearty “Welcome Back Longer Days!”
Before the days of central heating, electric lights, and automobiles in nearly every household, I can only imagine folks in days long gone felt the “winter blues” and “cabin fever” more than we do today.
And when we get upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, flu, and stomach flu as well as the plethora of viral diseases we all invariably seem to catch come wintertime, we have medications our ancestors did not have. We get paid time off from our jobs. We have doctors offices and hospitals. In some villages and hollers ancient Pagans lived in- there may have been only one village healer. And contrary to what a lot of modern Pagans will tell you, mixing an herbal tincture is not quite as powerful as modern pharmaceuticals for some illnesses. If they were, nobody would ever have stopped plucking plants from their own backyards and started taking healing things in pill and syrup form.
The life expectancy was lower, and accidents based on inclement weather caused more deaths in winter than a summertime shower or a soft spring rain would.
Samhain time, people did a lot of prayers and sacrifices to try and ensure everybody got through wintertime alright. By the time Solstice rolls around, winter has been felt strongly for a while, and the lengthening of days is an indication Spring is on the way.
This is a simple explanation of why those ancient people attached such significance to it all. Something so important takes on religious significance.
How they celebrated and had ritual is an entirely different thing.
How Winter Solstice was first celebrated is unknown to us. We know things people did like light bonfires, and adorn homes with evergreens in later times. Things we still do to this day. To me, this is all relatively new, and I am more interested in what little we do know about structures that still survive although they stopped being used thousands of years ago when I am researching pre Christian Pagan practices. To me, it is these places that hold the most information for us if we want to know about the OLD Old Ways.
Newgrange has a point that lines up with the sunrise and the famous Stonehenge has a point that lines up with sunset of the Solstice. Many of us believe these points were not accidents, but were used as calendars of the seasons. While we keep the dates of our modern Pagan celebrations set on days each year for convenience, if ancient people tracked the seasons based on when the light of the sun or moon struck some stone, it would not be on the exact same day annually. The calenders we use did not even exist at the time the sites were used. But human beings who farmed and had livestock still used the same seasons we use to dictate what is grown and harvested at the time it is. These structures helped track everything to the point they have been considered calendars. They probably were.
Newgrange in particular is in Ireland, near the River Boyne, and was built is approximately 3200 BC. The site was believed to have been a burial site, as human cremains as well as uncremated human remains have been found inside. On the day of the Midwinter sunrise, the light illuminates passageways. It is believed that some of the decorative stones outside of the mound were placed there hundreds of years after burials ceased. The spirals adorning the interior and exterior stones are believed to represent the sun. There were later additions to the site separate from the mound itself, indicating that although it was initially built in Neolithic times, it was used in the Iron Age as well. It has been suggested the mound was used in solar worship to “catch” the sun at Winter Solstice Sunrise, thus ensuring the sun stuck around, and the days would lengthen. This ensured Spring and Summer would indeed happen again.
It never ceases to amaze me that a monument that is older than the Pyramids STILL works. On Winter Solstice, that light still floods the chamber, illuminating the same way it always has.
While it appears the ancient Irish “caught” the light, another group of people our modern celebrations would not happen without are the ancient Heathens, and they celebrated this time of year differently.
To clarify, I separate Heathens, children of Germanic and Scandinavian old gods from Pagans, children of mostly Celtic and pre Celtic British or Greek or Roman gods. Why? Because I have heard so many modern Heathens tell me they feel this is respectful. With the Northmen invading the British Isles, of course there was quite the melting pot of culture, art, and religion. However, the Northerners ancient and modern practices are extremely different than those of the ancient and modern Pagans.
So time to discuss the Heathens. I focus on Yule and one practice in particular. The Wild Hunt. Aside from feasting, sacrifice to the gods, and toasting, it is said the days coincided with the frightening procession of Odin and his hunting party. To witness this was not a good thing. Like to the believers in the British Isles, wary of by being carried off at Samhain by the Sidhe, seeing the Wild Hunt may mean you got carried off. If you did not get carried off, it may portend your death. If it did not portend your death, it may portend a war or other terrible tragedy.
From a practical standpoint, it makes perfect sense they worried about that at this time of year. From January to April was typically time for greater worry of starvation and flu and freezing to death. Sacrifice to the god who might carry you off may convince him to leave you be. Some believed seeing the Wild Hunt was how you were let know you’d be carried off or bad times were to come. Some said you merely heard Odin’s hounds bark. Imagine it being Winter Solstice time and hearing dogs barking from afar and not seeing them and being terrified you’d be claimed.
Fast forward to modern times, and we have a different old man with white beard who will bring rewards if we are good, and punishments if we are bad- Santa Claus. A combination of Christian myth and Odin, he now accepts sacrifices of good deeds done through the year, as opposed to blood offerings expected in days past.
Someplace along the line, old man Yule was separated into the generous Santa/St. Nick and the terrifying Krampus who would whip you. Christianization, of course embraced the the concept of a good god who took care of his followers versus a bad demon king seeking to lead harm the children of god. This pair of godforms replaced the old gods who behaved much more like human beings and both blessed and slaughtered their devotees. Together they processed through the streets in elaborate pageantry after Chrsitianization. For some reason, though, the evil Krampus could bless your house and children as well as whip them for being bad. Perhaps the procession of St, Nick with old Krampus was a modern adaption of the Wild Hunt. It is said Krampus may carry bad kids off, after all.
The fact it is forbidden for children to see Santa Claus get out of his sleigh that flew through the sky whilst leaving gifts is probably left over from the fact nobody WANTED to see or hear Odin and his Wild Hunt. Remember also, Santa had eight reindeer, and Odin’s horse, Slepnir had eight legs.
The parallels to support my belief Odin IS Santa Claus modernized are too numerous to bother you with.
More on celebrating.
Many modern Pagans and Heathens have Sabbat or a gathering or 12 days of celebration that begin on the 21 of December.
For my suggestions, I’ll write a ritual honoring my Father god, Odin, and a separate one in observance of the strengthening sun.
Before you decide to do this ritual, make sure Odin is actually one of your gods. A lot of Pagans and Heathens and groups of them take turns honoring gods they otherwise do not communicate with. Odin, in particular will not recognize people who he does not consider his children. He was a tribal war god. Tribe is family, people who married into the family and were adopted, and honored friends. Contrary to what some may believe, Odin is not the ancestor of every person who has some form or German or Scandinavian blood. He does not care about skin color and DNA is not how he chooses you. Loki was of the Giants, entirely different from the Aesir, and they became brothers despite it. You have to know he is one of your gods. I am sure he would not turn down gifts or sacrifice. But to be a devotee of this particular god means you have to be comfortable with who he was, not who pop culture makes him out to be.
He was the devotional god of an unstoppable legendary group of warriors called Berserkers. Every life they took in battle was a sacrifice for Odin. They were not the only ones who practiced this. He is known as not only the one who gave poetry to humanity, but various forms of his name mean things like “furious”, and ”violent”. He is gathering as many warriors in his hall of the slain for a final battle he knows he will loose. Many warriors wanted to die just so they could fight in that battle. His valkyries pick the souls of the dead off the battlefield and take them to a hall for brawling and drinking where they battle, are killed every day, and are reborn to get up and do it all over again.
This is not a god who is going to be content with a bouquet of flowers every so often. While few of his modern devotees ever march onto a battlefield, he still requires human life. Your life. To be a devotee of his means your life is his. This is not to be entered into lightly and it is not glorious fun.
From personal experience, I have found him to be unsatisfied with paltry offerings as well. A lot of modern folks will sacrifice rabbits to Odin. After I helped with one such rite, the Alfather asked me what I expected him to do with rabbits! He did not like it.
Some claim Pagan gods will take any sacrifice they can get, because they prefer something, anything, to nothing at all. I have not found this to be true. The gods do not need crumbs and scraps. While they understand that times, and culture has drastically changed, they make it entirely clear what their expectations are and if you cannot live up to those expectations, it is wise not to try and substitute. They will not fade away into oblivion if people do not remember them. They do not need us to survive in the way some imagine. If a god horrifies you, that is not the god for you.
Having said that, some of you may think I belong to some weird serial killer cult. Not so. The life I give to Odin is mine. I just understand that he is not a god of compassion that sends positive energy when you are feeling sad and he does not heal every ailment you have. He hung himself from a tree with much pain to find the Runes and he gave his own eye to gain more wisdom. He expects his devotees to do the same.
While feeding with blood like in times past in great temples is not going to happen, many are not aware of how much Odin loves wine. As a matter of fact, some say that is all he “eats”. If you know your history, you know the “wine” used in many of the places Odin was honored was mead. A lot of mead is very expensive, and unlike coffee or tea, it takes a lot of time, money, and space to brew your own. Oliver is a popular brand that has a modern less expensive mead you can use in ritual although I have found Odin to like a good full bodied red wine like Malbec or Merlot also.
If this has not convinced you to head for the hills or that I am just as mean as anything, read on. But pay very very close attention to what I say because this ritual is very very difficult.
Because it is so simple.
Most people want more pageantry for a high day. A lot of people will want long ritual to Odin and reading of Eddas including separate parts for all participants so everybody is included.
If that works for your group, I say do it. But you don’t have to if you prefer something simpler.
In the old days, priests slaughtered animals, and blessed the temple walls, images of gods, and the people with the blood. The meat was then cooked and there was feasting for days, three or even twelve days. There was merriment, eating, and lots of drinking. Toasts were made to the hosts, rulers, the gods, and the people. Everybody brought something. Everybody had a good time.
Butchering meat and blood ritual is practically extinct except in some individual groups. Most people reading this article are not going to sacrifice a live pig or a cow and are not going to sprinkle blood on other people.
That leaves the food, drink, and, fellowship.
Simply said, have a potluck. Have everybody bring something delicious.
Have mead and or red wine and or beer and iced tea and whatnot.
Light bonfires if you can, and light candles if you cannot.
Before the feast begins, have everybody circle round together and have each person have their own drink.
Have the host or officiant thank everybody for coming, and in their own words toast the attendees. One by one, attendees can toast each other and the host.
That is round one.
Round two, everybody toasts the ancestors and people who they love and could not attend.
Round three, everybody refills their cups if needs be and raises their glasses all together and with a mighty shout all together cry “ODIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and drink to the bottom of their cups.
A decided amount of drink, wine or mead will then be poured out into the ground for Odin.
Then feast and be merry. I have found Odin to enjoy seeing his children enjoy time with one another. The spirit of this time of year is the Allfather for me, and he expresses his love for us through us loving one another. We warm each others hearts when the weather is frigid. We are light for one another when it is dark. In this way, we are Odin to one another, and we are the spirit of the high day. In this way he lives through us.
That’s it. I find the Allfather will make the sun come back regardless of what humanity observes in liturgy and I focus more on celebration and spending time with loved ones than literary readings or long rituals.
If you are not a child of Odin, and you prefer Winter Solstice, you can simply light a fire and face the sun. Getting outside even if it is cold is crucial. To feel the sun upon your face and draw it is as some would draw in the moon when it is full and to know in your heart the days will get longer is the number one observance I always had for this. If you are like me, you like to pour wine, beer, or mead into the ground. The sun will come to the earth and soak all that good stuff up. If you want to, say a few words welcoming the sun back, but you don’t have to. This can be done alone or with a group and everybody can take turns saying something they see fit and pouring their own libation into the earth, feeding the sun to give it strength. Potluck and have fun.
Realistically, unless you live with everybody, some friends and family will not have a chance to visit often with you until Spring time. Winter prevents a lot of folks from getting out as much although many try to battle the weather and defy it. Before more hard heavy cold and deeper snows of January and February buries you, this is a great time for gathering with loved ones.
Glad Yule or Blessed Solstice.
May your gods smile upon you and may you not freeze your buns off!