1. Yule is NOT a minor sabbat.
Whenever I hear a Pagan say that the winter solstice is a “minor Sabbat”, I can’t help but roll my eyes. What exactly makes it “minor”? Because Margaret Murray only listed the cross-quarters as witches’ sabbats? Because Gerald Gardner only added the quarter days as an afterthought and his followers like the way the druids did it?
There are 8 stations on the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. Why would one spoke of a wheel be minor and another major, especially in a tradition that emphasizes balance? And if one is going to be minor, why the winter solstice of all days? After all, it’s the day the light begins to return, the day most of Western civilization is praising the birth of the Son/Sun.
Imbolc is “major”, but Yule is “minor”? Really?! I don’t think so. I suspect that this “minor” stuff is just a way of trying to keep Yule from becoming Christmas. But this Pagan loves Christmas.
2. All religions borrow … at least all the interesting ones do.
Many people seem to think that a religious tradition must be pure of other influences in order to be legitimate. This is a function of a mindset which takes revealed religion as the standard. But in reality, there is no such thing as a “pure” religious tradition.
Even if it there were a pure religious tradition, I prefer those bastardized traditions that are a mix of many influences. Like Hallow’een, Christmas is a sublime mix of Christian, pagan, and secular traditions. And I love it that way. Whether you are Christian, Pagan, or atheist, I say, “Embrace it. And make it your own!”
There’s good precedent for doing this. If anything is true about the history of religions, it’s that nothing is so sacrosanct that it can’t be borrowed, appropriated, stolen, revised, amended, and “reclaimed”. I suspect that Gerald Gardner was a misogynist and maybe a bit of a perv. But did that stop religious feminists in the 1970′s from appropriating Wicca and rendering it “wimmin’s religion”? No! Ancient pagans were patriarchal, tribal, and not always ecologically wise. But did that prevent a bunch of hippies from making it into an earth-centered religion of a Gaia’s children? No! And Jesus most likely intended only to reform Judaism, but did that stop Paul from turning the movement into a universal religion for all Gentiles? No!
So whatever its origins, Christmas is fair game. And we Pagans should own it.
3. Mabon is the “Reason for the Season”.
For me, the winter solstice marks the beginning of the “Twelve Days of Solstice” which encompasses Christmas Eve, Christmas, and the New Year. Really, it’s all the same thing to me, one long celebration of light emerging from the darkness.
In my mythology, the longest night of the year is when the light is symbolically reborn and the days begin to lengthen again. The darkness, in the form of the Holly King (Santa Clause?), still reigns, but it begins its decline, as the light begins its ascendancy. The Goddess returns from the Underworld. She labors and bears her Son, the Sun Child (i.e., Mabon). The Goddess’ ascent from the tomb mirrors the coming forth of the Sun Child from the darkness of her womb. This theme runs through the solstice, Christmas, and the New Year.
4. The eternal birth of the divine Son in me
When I left the Mormon church, I felt like I was leaping into a dark void. I had no belief system to replace the Mormon faith I was rejecting. It was frightening and disorienting. It felt like a little death. I needing something desperately, but I really was not looking for a new religion. In fact, I had a pretty negative attitude about organized religion in general.
Instead, I turned to art. Without really realizing what I was doing, I began looking for artwork that resonated with the deep part of me that was longing for something. One of the first images that really had a profound impact on me was William Adolphe-Bouguereau’s Virgin and Child (1888). I bought a reproduction of the painting, framed it, and hung it in our small apartment.
It may seem strange that I would embrace one of the most archetypal images of Catholicism while simultaneously rejecting organized religion. I had the longing for connection with the Divine Feminine, but the longing remaining unsatisfied while I was Mormon. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think I was drawn to Bouguereau’s painting because of this longing.
Gradually, over time, I came to embrace the dark abyss—the groundlessness, the unknowing—that I had leapt into when I left Mormonism. Or perhaps it embraced me. She embraced me. I came to recognize the darkness as the Goddess—not the cold darkness of hell, but the warm darkness of the womb. She opened to me “the dark soft places deep as between the stars” (D.H. Lawrence), and I found rest in a place like the dark folds of Mary’s robe in Bouguereau’s painting. And in that place, something new was gestating: a new sense of self, a new perspective on the world, and a new religious vision–which I later came to call “Paganism”.
As surely as a part of me died when I left Mormonism, something new was born inside of me, which eventually flowered into my Pagan faith. I realize now that I latched on to Bouguereau’s painting as an unconscious expression of what I was experiencing internally. So as I gather with my family on Christmas morning, I feel no conflict in telling my children that the eternal birth of the divine Son did take place … one long dark night in my own soul.
5. There’s a reason why Pagan Yule looks a lot like Christmas.
The reason why there are so few original winter solstice songs for Pagans and the reason why the winter solstice is treated as a minor holiday by Pagans is probably one and the same: Pagans have an aversion to all things Christian. It’s true that Christians stole the solstice to make their Christmas. But more recently we returned the favor and stole a lot of it back. Consider the following:
- The father of Pagan witchcraft, Gerald Gardner, did not himself see any necessary contradiction between Christianity and witchcraft.
- The Pagan Wheel of the Year actually began with Jesus, specifically with James Frazer’s intent to discredit Christianity by suggesting that the figure of Christ had been an outgrowth of the pagan belief in a dying and reviving vegetation spirit.
- The Neo-Pagan Great Goddess owes a historical debt to Mary. If there had not been a Virgin Mary, perhaps there would not have been a Great Goddess—at least not as we now know her.
- On the corporate level, Neo-Paganism as a movement grew out of and in reaction to Christianity. On a personal level, probably most Pagans came from a Christian background. And even those who didn’t probably came from a culture with is predominately Christian.
Coming to terms with our Christian origins is, I believe, necessary to the maturation of the Pagan movement. I wonder what might happen in our movement if we began to understand Paganism, not as a rejection of our Christian past, but as building upon that Christian past.
6. “Yule” is cool.
Unlike some of the other names for the sabbats (don’t get me started on Mabon), I like the name “Yule”. It’s Anglo-Saxon, which corresponds with the other Anglo-Saxon names for the summer solstices and spring equinox. It is also useful from an interfaith perspective, in that it is not completely foreign to Christians (“Yule-tide cheer”). The only problem is that no one knows the origin of the word ‘yule’. I’ve seen etymologies to “wheel” and to “jolly” to “sacrifice”.
I do have a problem with the name “Midwinter” though, which is the second most popular Neo-Pagan name for the date. Here in the Midwest, late December is the beginning, not the middle, of winter. The middle of winter actually comes in early February, halfway to the Spring Equinox.
There are plenty of other good names for the date, though. “Winter Nights”, which is already used by Heathens, and “Mother Night” (or Modranicht), which comes from Bede, both aptly characterize the seasonal theme. Another possibility is “Sol Invicti” from the Roman festival, “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (Birth Day of the Unconquered Sun), which Christmas replaced. I like to think of the night preceding the solstice as “Modranicht” and the day after as “Sol Invicti”
7. It can be dark.
The only bone I have to pick with the solstice season (aside from how it has been co-opted by capitalism) is its overemphasis on the light. Light all the candles you want—the more the better But remember that what makes those candles really shine is the darkness in the background.
After all, this is the season of the Holly King, the dark twin of the Oak King who is born at the summer solstice and grows in power as the Sun’s strength weakens. I think there should be a little of the feeling of the Wild Hunt left over from All Hallows. And there’s plenty of dark material we could draw on. Sorry Megyn Kelly, there is a black Santa. No, I’m not talking about Billy Bob Thornton. I’m talking about characters like Black Peter and the Krampus.
I wouldn’t mind a little sinister with my jolly. That’s why I love the picture of the Holly King to the right. I don’t know if that look is protective…or hungry. I mean, can we really call ourselves Pagan if we’re not scaring some Christians a little bit?