Christmas is a time to feast and make merry, to gather the family and exchange gifts, sing wonky carols, and get so drunk you forget your own name. You decorate an unfortunate tree that’s been dragged inside your centrally heated home, send greetings cards to people you spend the entire year avoiding, lie to your children about a fat man dressed in red who climbs down chimneys, and pursue your colleagues around the office waving mistletoe while wearing a ridiculous jumper.
Oh, and it’s the birthday of Jesus.
What we call Christmas today is a hodgepodge of different traditions or midwinter festivals. These annual celebrations have a long and varied history, predating Christianity by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Indeed, Christians didn’t bother celebrating the birth of Jesus until about the 4th century. Elements of the older midwinter festivals were appropriated by Christianity and the birth date for Jesus was chosen to coincide with the still popular pagan festivals.
Christmas has since been hijacked again by consumerism and turned into an orgy of plastic toys, novelty chocolates, and celebrity perfumes. We haven’t just lost the Christian meaning of Christmas, but the original pagan meaning too.
So what is midwinter all about?
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice was observed and celebrated as far back as neolithic times. Stonehenge (in Britain) and Newgrange (in Ireland) are both aligned to the solstice point and evidence of huge feasts has been found, including the mass slaughter of cattle and vast consumption of beer and wine. The end of year festival was an opportunity for one big party and perhaps a spot of sympathetic magic to usher in hope for the new year and the rebirth of the sun.
Yule is the oldest pagan midwinter festival celebrated throughout northern Europe and is associated with a host of deities, including the Norse gods Odin, Hodr, and Holda, as well as the Holly King, Oak King, and Horned God of modern paganism. Most of our Christmas traditions come from these Scandinavian and Germanic festivals: feasting, drinking, and singing, decorating the home with wreaths of holly, burning Yule logs, and a visit from Santa Claus.
The Germanic goddess Holda is an interesting figure. She’s known by a variety of names, including Mother Night and Frau Holle. (Note the etymological link between the words Holda, Holle, and holly.) Holda has a light and a dark aspect, connected with summer and winter respectively, and appears as either young or old accordingly. As a goddess of winter she brings the first snow and Yule is her festival. In some traditions she travels the world in a carriage dressed in a red or white cape, bestowing joy and good fortune on those who honour her, she knows who has been good or bad and distributes presents. So much for Father Christmas!
Other midwinter festivals include Saturnalia and the Mithraic Mysteries. Saturnalia was a Roman festival held in December to honour Saturn and was another long party. Gifts were given and the rich would provide banquets to feed the poor. Meanwhile, the Mithraic Mysteries were a celebration of the birth of Mithras, the Roman god of Light who was born on December 25th and known as the Unconquerable Sun. This was a Mystery Cult so only certain people would be initiated to take part in the ritual feasts and celebrations.
The Christian story of Jesus’ birth derives from earlier cults such as the Mithraic Mysteries, the Eleusinian Mysteries featuring Demeter and Persephone, and the Orphic Mysteries featuring Dionysus. These mythologies had gods or goddesses who died and were reborn, and more examples can be found all over the world: Attis in Asia Minor, Adonis in Syria, Bacchus in Italy, and Osiris in Egypt. Of these, Osiris is the oldest, around 2,400 BCE, and was born on 25th December to a virgin mother – arguably the first virgin goddess, Isis.
In the Temple of Amun at Luxor there’s a depiction of the nativity of Osiris being reborn as Horus which dates to around 1,390 BCE, although there are older versions elsewhere. In the scenes, Isis is visited by Thoth who tells her she will have a son. She then receives a visit from the god Amun who holds an Ankh (symbol of eternal life) to her head and she becomes pregnant. Horus is born and several men visit to celebrate bearing gifts. Sound familiar?!
What all the midwinter festivals have in common is a celebration of the end of darkness and the return of the light after the longest night. Jesus is just the most recent version in a long chain of Sun Gods or Sun Kings who die and are reborn. The Wiccan version of this involves a ritual battle between the Holly King and the Oak King, who are sometimes seen as two sides of the same Horned God. Holly represents the winter and darkness, while the oak is summer and the light. The Holly and the Oak have a stormy relationship and spend the whole year fighting for supremacy. Midwinter is when the Oak King is reborn after dying at Samhain on October 31st at the hands of the Holly King. He’s reborn on 21st December and grows in strength until he overcomes the Holly King at Beltaine on 1st May. But the Oak King doesn’t reach full power until the summer solstice on 21st June.
Although Osiris is a dying and resurrecting god, he isn’t a sun god. His death and rebirth is associated more with the flooding of the Nile and the growing of wheat, so he isn’t a perfect fit with these other midwinter gods. Except for one thing – the oak tree in pagan mythology is connected with the sun, so the Oak King is a Sun God. The oak tree is also associated with Osiris.
Shortest Day of the Year
Ancient mythology can be seen as the earliest form of astronomy. The myths are dramatisations of the movement of the stars and planets, as well as providing insight into human nature, morality, ethics, and the ultimate questions of life and death. They are celestial metaphors that we can use to understand the purpose of our existence.
The birth of Jesus represents the rebirth of the sun after the darkness of midwinter. All the myths of midwinter tell the same basic story – the death of the sun god, followed by his miraculous rebirth. So how is this reflected in the sky?
As the earth travels around the sun, the sun’s path appears to follow a particular line through the sky, called the ecliptic. The earth also wobbles on its own axis as it revolves which means it tilts away from the sun for part of the year. In June the north pole is tilted towards the sun so the northern hemisphere receives more sunlight and for longer hours. By December the north pole has wobbled around so it points away from the sun and receives less light.
What this means is that the sun appears higher in the sky in the summer and lower in the winter. In the northern hemisphere the sun reaches its highest point at the June solstice and its lowest point at the December solstice. It’s the opposite way round in the southern hemisphere.
Viewed from the ground, it looks like the sun climbs higher in the sky towards midsummer, and then descends towards midwinter. The climb starts after midwinter when the nights are longer than the days. At the vernal equinox in March the days and nights are equal in length, but after that the days grow longer until you reach the summer solstice on 21st June, which is the longest day. From this point the days grow shorter, and at the autumn equinox in September they’re equal again. Finally, the days continue to shrink until you reach the winter solstice on 21st December which is the shortest day.
You can see this progression of changing light in the mythology of the Holly and Oak Kings battling for supremacy. But there’s more.
When the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky at midwinter, it appears to be stationary in the sky for three days. What this means is that the sun rises to the same point in the sky three days in a row, which it never does at any other time – except the summer solstice where it rises to its highest point for three days in a row.
It’s this stationary sun that represents the dying King or Sun God. But it only stands still – it doesn’t disappear altogether like it does every night. In Egyptian mythology the setting sun is often associated with Osiris, and the rising sun with Horus or the rebirth of Osiris. The Sun journeys through the underworld, or Duat, in the night and is reborn in the morning. But this isn’t a midwinter myth.
However, if you were to experience the winter solstice in the far north you would see something very different. You wouldn’t see the sun at all. Above the latitude of 66 degrees in the northern hemisphere, the sun doesn’t rise at the solstice. For three days at midwinter, the sun never makes it over the horizon and remains in the chthonic realm of the dead. In this icy world, the Sun God truly dies.
If we want to understand the true origins of Christmas and the myths of the dying and resurrecting sun gods, we must travel to the far north into the land where these myths began.
The true origins of Christmas can be found not with the Sun Gods, but with the earlier pole star religions of shamanism. This is what we’ll explore in part 2.