Origins of the Yule Season

A very few people are aware of the origins of the holiday custom celebrated in our modern society during the month of December. In some areas, we are bombarded with the slogan, "Jesus is the reason for the season," and certainly that is true now for many throughout our predominantly Christian society. But it wasn't always the reason. Down through the ages there have been MANY reasons for the season. I'm Pete Pathfinder Davis, a Wiccan priest, and president of the Interfaith Council of Washington State. Let me explain.

In ancient times, long before the advent of writing, before there was any interest in keeping historic records, early mankind marked life by the phases of the moon and the cycles of the sun, because survival depended upon hunting at first, then upon the herding of food animals and the growing seasons of what we now call agriculture. In some early cultures, we know that the sun was seen as so important to life that it was worshipped as a god. The passage of the sun in its annual cycle from high in the summer sky, to low on the winter horizon marked the passage from time of warmth and abundance to the cold and scarcity of winter.

The solstices and equinoxes were important to keep track of. Equinoxes are the times when the daylight and dark come to balance and are equal; the solstices are the times when the daylight and dark periods reach their extreme. Summer solstice, around the 21st or June, is when the daylight lasts the longest, and Winter solstice is when the daylight is at its shortest. To the naked eye, at this season, after the shortest day of the year, the sun seems to stand still for three days, and then begins its' daily climb up from the horizon, with the days once again lengthening until the summer solstice, when the whole process reverses again.

In those ancient times, when little was known about simple scientific phenomena such as this, and superstition prevailed. Its not hard to recognize that there was much fear with the sun growing weaker and weaker, and the nights longer and longer and colder and colder. Fear that the sun would not return, but might go away completely, leaving humanity to freeze to death. And so, the solstice, which signaled the lengthening of the days once again, was a joyous occasion. Virtually every early culture marked the Winter Solstice with a celebration of the Rebirth of the Sun. The calendar date of this annual event has shifted a few days over the centuries, with the corrections made to our calendar system at various times.

We know that the Winter Solstice was considered the birthday of Mithras, an ancient Persian god of goodness and light who had eventually become a patron god of the Roman occupation troops in Judea before the birth of Christ. The Roman populace recognized the Winter solstice as the birth date of their god, Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun. Celebration of the winter solstice is traceable all the way back in prehistory to indo-european origins in the earliest peoples of the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan.

An ancient Chaldean astrological myth from Babylonia has the entire nativity symbolism within it. It was claimed that at nightfall on what is now December 24th, one can see three prominent stars in the sky, the three that make up the belt in the constellation Orion. A line drawn through these three stars in an easterly direction will come to a point on the horizon that the ancients in 2000 BC called Aptah, the cradle or crib. It marks the exact spot that in a few days, the brightest star of the winter skies, Sirius, will emerge from its long hiding below the winter horizon. The place of emergence of Sirius is the same place that the sun will make its appearance at dawn. This place of the emergence of the newborn sun is in the foreground of the constellation Virgo, the virgin, with the constellations Taurus the Bull, and Capricorn the Goat are nearby. They knew this area as the stable, because of the proximity of these constellations represented by herd animals. And do we have the whole story spread out before us - the three wanderers, pointing the way to the brightest star, marking the birthplace of a newborn sun overseen by a virgin and located in a celestial stable. If I am ever in the near east at the winter solstice, I really want to check out this sequence of events myself!

In more recent times, Yule is the name given the holiday by the pre-Christian Norse and Teutonic peoples. It was their principal holiday, marking the passage of the Winter Solstice, signaling the coming end of winter, and was their New Year. The word YULE meant "wheel" and referred to the returning of the "wheel of the year" to its starting point in their religious mythology. Many of the traditional seasonal icons, from the boar's head feast of the English to the Yule Log itself came from this pre-Christian culture. Our modern Santa Claus has his origins there, where Nik was another name used for the god Woden, and in some older stories, St. Nick rode across the skies on Woden's white horse.

The Yule Tree is yet another survival of pre-Christian Teutonic custom and is thought to be connected to mythologies surrounding the Tree of Fire; Yggdrasil, The World Tree upon which the god Odin, giver of runic writing, hung for several days; and the earlier worship of dryads, or tree spirits.

Wassailing, now used to refer to caroling, originally was the custom of offering of cider to a particular tree in each apple orchard, singing songs to it to insure the next season's crop. The modern association of deer with the season comes from the ancient tribal Horn Dance done to expel the winter spirits. The horn dance is done still today as a folk custom in parts of England. The eternal struggle of the Oak King and the Holly King of English mythology represents the struggle between winter and summer, between famine and plenty. The winter solstice celebrates the power of death and the rebirth of life. The forces of creation must inevitably fade into those of death and destruction, to maintain life and allow it to fulfill its purpose. The height of power contains the seeds of destruction, and the darkest night presages the birthday of the sun.

It is a universal acknowledgement of the fact that in nature, something always must die to give life to something else. The decaying debris on the forest floor gives nurture and sustenance to the sprouting acorn. And so with the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun and the promise of spring, hope returns eternally to mankind, as the wheel of the year turns relentlessly onward, around and around, with no beginning, and never ending. Although I have only touched on European and Middle eastern traditions, today, this season carries much meaning for many peoples of widely varying traditions, but in it is contained the same, reassuring truth: that all is not lost, and hope will return to brighten the hearts and lives of everyone, no matter which of this myriad of stories of the season you find to be personally most comforting.

Whether you spell it S-U-N or S-O-N, I wish the Brightest Blessings of the Sun's rebirth to each and every one of you, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Native Americans and Native European Pagans.

Pete Pathfinder Davis,
AP, Aquarian Tabernacle Church