I haven’t gotten to do much for Christmas this year. Between college finals, my jobs, and leasing my first apartment (which, by the way, is a thing that happened!), the last month of my life has been a whirlwind. I’ve barely had time to sleep between study sessions, work, and home inspections, let alone bake Christmas cookies or watch The Polar Express in my pajamas. Which is a bummer, because Christmas is one of my favorite holidays (second only to Halloween) and has always been one of the focal points of my year.
I come from a Catholic family, so Christmas/Advent has always been a Really Big Deal for us. For those who aren’t familiar, Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter. Advent is the liturgical season of waiting in expectation of the birth of Christ. Whereas Lent focuses more on sin and suffering, in preparation for remembering Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, Advent is a season filled with hope for a brighter future. It’s a very joyful time in most churches, and is usually either the very end or very beginning of the liturgical year, depending on the denomination. Christmas comes as the culmination of this hopeful expectation, the birth of new light into the world.
Like with Halloween, a lot of modern Christmas traditions are shared with pagan holidays that predate the spread of Christianity to Western Europe. (And like with Halloween, there’s a big controversy over which religious group these traditions “belong” to.) Hanging wreaths, decorating trees, feasting, and giving gifts are all traditions derived from pre-Christian European celebrations of the Winter Solstice, or Yule.
Yule, like Samhain (the holiday with which Halloween shares some of its roots) is celebrated by Wiccans as one of the eight sabbats that mark the “wheel of the year,” or the turning of the seasons. Like Christmas in Christianity, Yule for Wiccans marks the spark of life returning to the world, bringing hope and light with it. Some Wiccans view this as the beginning of an “expansion,” a growth outward of energies that continues until the Summer Solstice, when the cycle of life reaches its peak and moves into a “retraction,” or turning inward. Most interestingly, Yule is celebrated as the rebirth of the God who previously descended to the underworld (either at Mabon or Samhain, depending on the Wiccan).
Yule is also a major holy day in Heathenry, a modern pagan reconstructionist faith based on pre-Christian Norse and Germanic religion. Heathen Yule celebrations last for twelve nights, similar to the traditional twelve days of Christmas. For Heathens, Yule is less about ushering in new birth and more about strengthening community and family during the bleakest part of the year. It beings with Mother’s Night, a festival dedicated to reconnecting with ancestral spirits and deceased loved ones, and for many Heathens the twelve day celebration includes an all-night vigil to honor Sunna, the sun goddess. In some cases, this vigil is seen as a symbolic wait for the rebirth of the sun after the longest night of the year.
I’m not really concerned with which of these holidays came first, or with who “stole” what traditions from who. I’m more interested in the common themes that they share.
The most obvious of these themes is rebirth. In Christianity, Advent is a time of awaiting the arrival of Christ, and Christmas marks the birth of the Savior who brings the light of God into the world. Wiccans celebrate Yule as the rebirth of the solar God, who represents the spark of life and who will meet with the lunar Goddess to bring new life to the barren earth. Heathens hold a vigil for Sunna, the personification of the sun, who returns after the longest night of the year to bring new life and light. Birth. Rebirth. New life. Light.
We often associate life with light, as life cannot exist without light and heat. For this reason, both Christmas and Yule have strong associations with light and fire. Christians will often keep an Advent wreath, a circle of four candles, and will light one candle for each of the four weeks leading up to Christmas, with special prayers and scripture readings associated with each candle. Many Christmas vigil services (held on Christmas Eve) heavily feature candles and incense. Both Wiccans and Heathens will often burn Yule logs, or Yule candles if a log is not practical. To me, it seems that these traditions are a way for us to physically bring light and warmth into the darkest part of the year. As we wait and hope for new life, we gather with our loved ones around the fire to share in love and warmth.
This year has been one of spiritual journey for me, of figuring out what I believe and on what terms I want to build my relationship with the Divine. By necessity, this has meant figuring out new ways to relate to religious holidays. With Christmas, Yule, and other winter holy days (seriously, I haven’t even touched on Hanukkah, which is the literal “Festival of Lights”), I think the essence of our celebrations lies in our hope for life and warmth in the future. These holidays remind us that, no matter how dark or cold the winter, spring is always around the corner. We bring our light into the darkness, and in doing so we embrace the cycle of dark and light, death and life, and we put our trust in the coming dawn. It’s a time for embracing change as a necessary part of life, for preparing for new beginnings, and for celebrating the death that allows for rebirth.
I’m starting to think that maybe what matters isn’t so much the name that we put on this light that we long for, but the fact that we long for it. We believe in a spirit of life who will breathe new life into our world and our lives. We long for reunion with this spirit, and yet we carry some of its light within us in times of darkness and cold. While we recognize the winter as a necessary part of the cycle of life, we rest in the hope that spring will come. Even the longest night of the year ends with the rising of a new sun.
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