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A Brief History of Modern Traditions


Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated holidays today, but December 25th is part ancient traditions. The time of Yule, as it was once known, is where modern Christmas traditions have roots.

Historically, December holidays are centered around the winter solstice, which usually occurs on or around the 21st. For six days surrounding it, the Sun appears to rise and set in the same place on the horizon, and, in ancient times, this was something worth celebrating.

When in ancient Rome, people called this holiday Saturnalia. According to Judy Nock in her book, The Wiccan Year, it was a time to pay homage to the god Saturn,
whose rule was known for peace and abundance. She writes, “Saturnalia was the feast of the god Saturn, whose Grecian counterpart was Cronos. The rule of Saturn is said to be a golden age and is described…as a time of peace and bounty characterized by an absence of war and work.”

Saturnalia began on the 17th and ended on the 25th, with lots of drinking and debauchery. “The Roman Saturnalia was a carnival in the truest sense, its participants partaking in carnal and carnivorous pleasures. The drinking of alcoholic beverages factored heavily into Saturnalia celebrations, to the point that the holiday became synonymous with lewd behavior,” Nock writes in her book.

She adds, “Saturn is eventually overthrown by Jupiter, as Cronos is by Zeus. The Age of Gold comes to an end. The age of Silver begins and, with it, the cycle of changing seasons.” Hence, the silver and gold references in modern Christmas traditions.

While the Romans ended their celebrations on what we now call Christmas Day, the festivities continued for others until December 31st. This was the lengthy celebration of choice for Celtic Pagans, and not just to ring in the new year, but rather to acknowledge and reflect upon each month of the ending year before it concludes. This time also comprises what is referred to as the 12 days of Christmas.

Most have heard the old holiday song, but it’s about more than just an odd homage to partridges in pear trees, mourning doves, and golden rings. The song represents
each day of Yule, with each having a different celebration or tradition of its own.

Author Gary Cantrell writes in his book, Wiccan Beliefs and Practices, “In actuality, the holiday of Christmas has always been more Pagan than Christian, which is why many early Christians did not recognize it. Yule/Christmas was too closely associated with preexisting stories of Pagan deities possessing histories of divine birth, death, and resurrection that predated the stories of Jesus, sometimes by thousands of years.”

Several of the Celtic Pagan traditions for Yule were eventually adopted by followers of Christianity and are still practiced by many people whether they realize it or not, just under the guise of a different name. This time was and still is for some, a tribute to the year that passed; a time to reflect, feel gratitude, and plan for the year ahead, in tune with the natural cycle of the earth.

On the first day of Yule, what was known as Mother’s Night, was a time to honor the women in the family and honor the divine feminine energy of Mother Earth as a fertile being who provides. On this night, families would clean and declutter their homes in a gesture of removing any negative energy of the previous year and to
make space for the abundant energy intended for the seasons to come.

A Yule log would be procured from the woods, often several feet long, as it would burn in the hearth each night a section at a time until the end of the holiday on December 31st. Pagans would gather evergreen, holly, laurel, pine, and bayberry branches to decorate the log, often adorning it with red, green, silver, and gold ribbons and herbs and flowers like sage, calendula, wormwood, and sunflowers.

Now, we decorate an evergreen tree with silver and gold and associate red and green as the colors of Christmas. Another modern tradition, a Christmas wreath, has its roots in Paganism; the Celts would make wreaths to hang to symbolize
their Wheel of the Year, which concludes with Yule.

On the second day of Yule (the solstice typically falls on or around this day) the focus of celebrating was on saying goodbye to long dark nights and welcoming in the light of longer days ahead. This is why lights were hung and why modern cultures decorate this way still. It is symbolic of Earth’s rhythm.

The following nine days were assigned virtues to contemplate, beginning with courage, then truth, honor, fidelity, hospitality, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance, and finally perseverance. Additionally, the fourth night of Yule was also known as Children’s Night, and that’s when Pagan families would honor the
newer generations with gifts.

While festivities typically subsided during these days, the Pagan tradition was to write an intention on how to develop each virtue in the coming year for every night and burn it in the Yule log fire as a way of symbolically putting that energy into the universe.

After several days of reflection and contemplation, a final celebration was held.

On Twelfth Night, now known as New Year’s Eve, Pagans rang in the new year with resolutions and intentions just like we still do today. The last of the Yule log would be burned with the exception of its charred remains. These would be saved for
a year to ignite the next Yule fire, symbolizing the cycles of death and rebirth.

Over time, the holiday season has lost its meaning for many people and is for others a stressful event led by consumerism. What was once a time to pay tribute to life’s natural cycles and celebrate another year completed has been lost to materialism and the fast pace of modern conveniences. Knowing where our traditions come from can help keep us rooted to why we celebrate in the first place.

Regardless of one’s beliefs, the final days of the year are a good time to slow down and appreciate what we have, what we have achieved, and to set intentions to be more virtuous in the coming year.

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