Inside, homes are filled with firelight and candle glow, while outside, the drifting snow covers the fields and rooftops.
Let’s think for a moment, about the Christmas traditions you love to repeat every year. Did you know that many of them are ancient pagan practices?
For example, kissing under the mistletoe is a tradition that has come down to us from the Druids, although radically changed as it passed through the Christian era. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, who gathered it from the high branches of the sacred oaks with golden sickles. White linen cloths were spread beneath so that none of the mistletoe would touch the earth.
In Old Norse the name for mistletoe is Mitel-teinn. The suffix teinn links it to German, Irish, and Cornish words that all mean “sacred tree,” and Hlaut-teinn in Old Norse means pieces of wood upon which sacred runs have been inscribed. One ancient rune inscription reads misel-vel, which has been translated to mean the power over life and death through magic.
The holly tree, resplendent at this time of year with its clusters of red berries and shiny leaves, has long been a sacred Yule plant representing both life and death. The lyrics of the carol, “Holly and Ivy,” although praising the virtues of the god of the modern religion, also hints at the tree’s association with a much older god of death and resurrection in the lines, “Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the crown.”
Holly, mistletoe and fir trees were all considered sacred to the Druids because they never brown or die over the winter. From these beliefs come the custom of decorating a Christmas tree in the heart of winter time. The Celtic Druids decorated their evergreen trees with all the images of the things they wished the waxing year to hold for them: Fruits for a successful harvest, love charms, nuts for fertility, and coins for wealth.
In the Scandinavian traditions, Yule trees and other greenery are brought inside, not only for decoration, but also to provide a welcome resting place for the tree elementals who inhabit their woodlands.
The gift-giving tradition this time of year comes from Roman pagans who called Yule by the name Saturnalia, a festival to honor the god Saturn. It was also a New Year’s festival with gifts given in honor of loved ones who had died during the previous year. Early roman conquerors carried this tradition throughout Europe where it remains a part of the Yule and Christmas celebrations.
Wreaths, symbolizing the Wheel of the Year, has been used for more than 4,000 years. Its circle has no beginning and no end, illustrating that everything in its time comes back to the point of origin, over and over again. Wreaths came to be used a Christmas through the influence of Scandinavian pagans who hung them at Yule (their New Year’s Eve) to commemorate a new beginning of the ever-moving cycle of life.
The full moon nearest the Winter Solstice ( December 22 this year) is the Oak Moon, the moon of the newborn Divine Child. Like the Divine Child who is born to die and dies to be born anew, the ancient oak has its trunk and branches in the material world of the living, while the roots, the branches in reverse, reach deep into the underworld, symbolic land of the Spirit.
As the Oak’s roots probe downward into the gravelike darkness of the Earth, its branches grow ever upward toward the light, to be crowned by the sacred mistletoe.
At this most magical time of year, as the light of the old dying year wanes and the Oak Moon waxes to full, take some time to consider the pagan roots in your family’s past.
Cast your magical circle wearing mistletoe in your hair. Let this token remind you that like the oak, we too exist simultaneously in two worlds—the world of physical and matter and the world of Spirit. As you invoke the Goddess of the Moon, ask that you become ever more aware of the other side of reality and the unseen forces and beings that dwell among us.
To all a happy and peaceful Yule.