Thursday, 22 December 2011

Cool Yule

Today there is cause to celebrate - it all gets better from here! For this, the Winter Solstice, Midwinter's Day, marks the shortest day of the year.

Solstice on the BBC

Most intelligent people nowadays understand that Christmas is merely a Christianisation of the primeval Winter Solstice celebrations. Customs such as gift-giving, (carol) singing, family feasting, trees and decorations all pre-date the advance of the Middle-Eastern cult of the baby Jesus.

The ancients of northern Europe noticed that the Sun seemed to be dying up to Midwinter's Day. After Midwinter's Day the Sun seemed to be reborn, and this was a great reason to celebrate. With Midwinter's Day comes the promise of better weather and a return to the warmth of spring. They celebrated the Sun's rebirth with a festival that came to be known as Yule - involving a huge roast meal and all the trimmings. Theirs was probably a wild boar that was freshly hunted and ours more likely involves a force-fed turkey and a ham from Tesco, but the principle is similar.

The traditional decoration of the "Yule log" with holly, ivy, ribbons and the robin are throwbacks to ancient Germanic superstitions and belief in the spirits of the "Wild Wood". Traditionally the Yule log from the previous year must be burnt and reduced to ashes by midnight on the previous night. These days the log tends to be made of cake and you eat it, which is a much better option. Incidentally, the extension of the decorated log into what we now know as the "Christmas tree" only dates back to traditions established in Estonia and the Baltic in the fifteenth century.

Admittedly, our tradition of pulling Xmas crackers is a much tamer custom than the Norse hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs with which the blood of ritually sacrificed animals was splattered all over statues of their idols (now represented by the "nativity scene" perhaps?) and up the walls of their temples. I think I might prefer this to wearing a silly paper hat...

Even better, all this "kissing under the mistletoe" business is put into its right and proper context when you realise that in ancient times mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality), possibly due to a resemblance between the berries and semen. My kind of party!

From further south, the impetus for non-stop partying, drinking, the giving of gifts and dreadfully tacky mass entertainment comes from the Roman festival of Saturnalia - Catullus called it "the best of days." These candle-lit orgies went on for weeks, and were probably a damned sight better than your average office "do"! Yet one tradition has been carried over from those far-flung days: the concept of the Boss (the "master") serving his subservients (the "slaves") with food and booze, which has ended up as that awkward first round at the bar before the top brass slope off and let the rest of us slide into oblivion.

As for the jovial "Santa Claus", I wrote a whole blog on that subject last year: read all about it here.

And, to conclude? Who better than Miss Bette Midler?!

Happy Solstice!


  1. Oooh, Bette Midler AND an Icelandic christmas book! You know how to get me into the spirits :)

  2. BTW: a blog about christmas with the word "semen" in it??? Priceless ;)

  3. Hope you get plenty of Bette, spirits AND the other over Xmas, sweetie! Jx

  4. And lest we forget that core of Christians who bristle, ney, grouse about any ties of THEIR Christmas to the rituals of the pagans! Silly people.

    1. In my opinion, that core of Christians deserve to be splattered with hlautteinar... Jx

  5. I love your choice of adjective … “most intelligent people nowadays understand...”

    1. Well, when listening to the pseudo-spiritual bullshit that spews from hypocritical politicians and god-botherers this time of year, it's obvious there's a lot that's lacking... Jx


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