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Yule...and Saturnalia Smurf Hats
Article ID: 14863
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Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: December 11th. 2011
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Yule is a Germanic holiday. There is no evidence that the Celts celebrated any of the solstice or equinox celebrations, so the idea that the ‘Wheel of the Year’ is fully Celtic must go out the window here. What we now call The Wheel of the Year is, at best, a marriage of Celtic and Germanic holidays. This is fine, having a nice, even eight-spoke wheel makes sense to me; but I also understand that it did not exist in ancient times. Some cultures had fewer festivals; some had so many that it seemed half the year was composed of feasts. Anyway, back to Yule…
For the Norse, Yule was the New Year (unlike with the Celts, having Samhain as the New Year) . The rebirth of the sun was a very important thing in the frozen North. In some regions, the sun did not rise on Yule and days were spent in suspense waiting to see if it would return. (Another interesting difference from modern Wicca is that in Norse mythology, the sun is a goddess, Sunna, and the moon is a god, Mani- he’s where we get the old tales of “the man in the moon”.) It was said that either Odin or Frau Holle led the Wild Hunt in pursuit of a wolf that sought to devour the sun, its jaws closing in is what caused the sun to disappear.
The Wild Hunt was active for twelve nights, from the Solstice until early January. Women were to have all their spinning for the year completed before the Solstice as it was not to be touched during the twelve nights Frau Holle rode with the Wild Hunt. If she came upon unfinished spinning, she would befoul it as punishment. During this time, there was a danger of being called to ride with the Wild Hunt (meaning death, as only the dead ride with the gods in the Wild Hunt) .
The Yule log as used by the Vikings is somewhat different than today. Often, around this time of year, highly decorated log-like centerpiece candleholders are sold at metaphysical stores and labeled as “Yule logs”. This is fine, because an actual Yule log would not even fit in your house, let alone your fireplace (if you’re lucky enough to have one) .
According to BBC’s “The Worst Jobs in History”, the search for and gathering of the Yule log was no easy task. The Yule log had to be large enough to burn in the feasting hall for the twelve days of feasting (previously mentioned above) . This meant that the largest tree in the forest had to be felled, cleaned (possibly blessed and carved) and dragged all the way back to the feasting hall. Think of it as the Viking equivalent of transporting the tree used at Rockefeller Center. It had to be perfect, and if you messed it up, it would likely mean your head (if the fire dies on say, day eleven, there’s a full day for the darkness to overcome you, not a good thing in the realm of frost giants) .
Logs lead to trees and this leads to what I call the Yule tree and is known elsewhere as the Christmas tree. Apparently, my family does acknowledge its Pagan origins (which is rare, as some like to connect it to Christ, how, I’m not sure) . My grandfather (in the 1930s or 1940s) declared that his house would not have Christmas trees because they were Pagan (he was the son of a very strict minister) ; my grandmother dismissed his declaration and always had a tree, but my mother was always aware of my grandfather’s feelings on the subject.
The Yule/Christmas tree might be an evolution of the Yule log as I have seen many beautiful old pictures of Victorian trees alight with candles (which might make a Yule log of a Yule tree, so don’t try it at home, use electric candles) . More modernly, the evergreen tree is seen as a symbol of life thriving through bitter conditions, and for this reason it is used to get us through the darkest of winters.
Other greenery associated with both Yule and Christmas is holly and mistletoe. Holly is an evergreen plant, as are fir and pine trees. It also has red berries, which symbolize the blood of any sacrifices offered up to the gods so their people would make it through the winter. Blood sacrifices to the Norse gods were called Blots (pronounced bloats) ; the word Blot is cognate with English blood. In most groups of Asatruar, this has changed to a different form of sacrifice, but for those whose hofs (what Wiccans might call their covensteads) are located on farms, ritual animal sacrifice may still be done. (Don’t get squeamish here; there are plenty of modern traditions - both Pagan and otherwise - that adhere to some form of animal sacrifice. Usually, it’s done more humanely than you would find in most slaughterhouses and it is still eaten by those making the offering.)
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees. The white berries are reminiscent of semen and are therefore also deemed as ‘life affirming’. Mistletoe is poisonous. It was with a dart or arrow of mistletoe that Hod killed his brother Baldur. As the legend goes, Baldur was supposed to be invincible. His mother had elicited promises from all things never to harm him, but she had forgotten to ask the ‘lowly mistletoe’. Being blind, Hod needed Loki to help him aim during the “let’s throw stuff at Baldur because he’s invincible” game… (I know…that game sounds like it belongs on reality TV) .
Then there’s Santa. St. Nicholas was a real man but he’s had so much folkloric additions that the real man has all but disappeared and the one whom we call Santa Claus now is a kernel of the toy maker’s goodness wrapped in the skin of Odin. In Holland, St. Nicholas visits children on December 6th. Their tradition says he rides a horse, carries a staff and has two African assistants (traditionally called blackamoors, like Othello) , both named Zwartepiet (Black Peter) . Odin also rides a horse, carries either a staff or a spear (depending if you’re talking about Odin the Wanderer or Odin the Warrior) , and has two ravens, Hugin and Munin, which gather information for him (which fits with Santa always watching children’s behavior) .
In American lore, Santa drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer; the aforementioned horse of Odin, Sleipnir, has eight legs (and is, incidentally, the only horse fast enough to traverse Yggdrasil and travel to all of the nine worlds of Norse cosmology, just as the reindeer are the only creatures capable of traversing the globe in one night) . Odin, while leading the Wild Hunt, is also most active around the Winter solstice and travels the earth at that time.
Does this mean Odin is Santa? Not quite, besides having a lot in common, Odin lacks the over-all loving and giving nature we associate with Santa. Odin was not the loving god of the Norse people; that was usually a job attributed to Thor. However, it is pertinent to note the commonalities and muse upon how much old Pagan lore was not necessarily lost, but was adapted as the new religion took hold.
And now for something completely different: Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a festival celebrated around the Solstice by the Romans. Like old Yule festivals, it was also a feast lasting many days. BBC’s “The Worst Jobs in History” showed a group of Roman re-enactors celebrating Saturnalia. Apparently, the theme for the festival was equality of all. While they thought such equality was unlikely, and slaves and servants still had to be slaves and servants, they at least got to eat the good food from the nobles’ tables. To symbolize this equality, they all wore the same hat, slave and noble alike (though I’m having a hard time picturing Caligula in one) , and if the re-enactors have it right, they really do look like Smurf hats. Saturnalia may be where we get our “good will towards men” attitude at this time of year, even if it was just a token gesture.
So there you have it, Yule (with a sprinkling of Saturnalia for good measure) . I hope you all have a blessed and jolly holiday.
"The Worst Jobs in History" BBC Season 2: Ep. 6
Hedge-Rider by Eric de Vries
Leaves of Yggdrasil by Freya Aswynn
Our Troth Volumes 1 and 2 Compiled by Kveldulf Gundarsson
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