The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is one of the oldest Winter celebrations in the world.
The Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year and was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the Yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter (hence the 12 days of Christmas) and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year. Many of these customs are still followed today and have been incorporated into the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas.
Holly was thought to be important because it retains its greenery right through the winter months, and as such is a symbol of Summer life in the Winter starkness. Holly was the male symbol of this greenery, and Ivy was the feminine, the two often placed together as a symbol of fecundity at the dark end of the year. There was also a belief that evergreen plants and trees were refuges for the woodland spirits through the winter months. The Christmas tree may have also been a symbol of the above aspects, although Whistler in his 'English Festivals' suggests that the tree is a carry-over from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when pine trees were decorated with images of Bacchus. The tradition of setting up a Christmas tree within the home is generally traced back to Prince Albert who started the practice in 1841.
The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, Houl, that the word Yule is thought to have come. At mid-Winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale. The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
This year, the Winter Solstice falls on the 21st of December, at 12.04pm.
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