Modern Date : December 21st
Ante Diem XII Kalendas January
Twelfth Day to the Kalends of January
This day is for special religious observance.
This day is the true Winter Solstice, though it was always celebrated a few days later. This is likely because of the difficulty the ancients had with precisely defining when the sun had begun its return to a higher azimuth, as well as the inaccuracies of pre-Julian calendars, which tended to slip back a few days a year.
This day is sacred to Dia, the goddess venerated by the Arval brothers. This day was also sacred to Angerona, and she was worshipped at the altar of the goddess Volusia, as was Dia. She is the goddess of silence and is pictured holding her finger to her lips. Her sealed lips represent a warning not to reveal the secret name (or taboo) name of Rome, which some claim is Amor (Love, Roma backwards).
This is also the fifth day of the Saturnalia. The Saturnalia is one of the most festive and uninhibited that the ancient Romans celebrated. It went on for seven days and encompassed the Winter Solstice, a time of religious observance for cultures the world over. Feasts were provided by the temples and were open to the public, the poor and the homeless. Servants and masters were met on equal terms. Unable to prevent the people's festive inclinations at this time of year, the early Christian leaders moved Christmas to December and claimed the celebration for their own. During the Saturnalia, rules were set aside, schools were closed, and slaves could meet their masters on equal terms. Human kindness was the theme and war and the punishment of criminals was halted. The exchange of gifts was universally practiced. Strenae, which were boughs to which were attached cakes or sweetmeats, were exchanged by visitors and guests. Other common gifts included wax candles (cerei) and sigillaria, which were doll-like clay figures, a particular favorite of children.
In Greece, Hercules and Ceres were honored this day (as Heracles and Demeter).
Decima, the middle Fate in charge of the present, presides over December, but the month may have received its name as the tenth month of the Roman calendar. Vesta, patroness of fire also laid claim to the month of December.
The Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice, a celebration of the sun, called Yule (from Jol in honor of Jolnir, another name for Odin), Midwinter, and Alban Arthuan (Druidic) is celebrated today. This is the oldest of all sabbats, 12000 to 20000 years old. Many sun gods were honored today, Horus, Helios, Dionysus, and Mithras. Yule ends with 12th Night when all the decorations are cleared away. The poor were traditionally given money or presents during Yule. The needy could ask for money, a practice known as "mumping" or "thomasing" in honor of St. Thomas. Fresh food and drink was laid out as a feast for roaming Yuletide ghosts. Holy and ivy, traditional Yuletide decorative plants were adopted from Odin and Dionysus. The Christmas tree may have been adopted from Yggdrasil.
The Winter Solstice is the last of the year's four Cardinal Festivals. Sun enters Capricorn and Winter begins as the Sun reaches the 270° point on the zodiac wheel, and begins his homeward swing toward the 0° point, at the Spring Equinox. The Solstice is traditionally the most important festival of the year as it marks the birth of the Solar Child at the time of receding Winter light, and is thus the moment of affirming faith in the re-emergence of earthly life in the Spring, and also, symbolically, in the soul's survival beyond death. In the Tarot, this relationship is signified by the contrast between the Hermit, a Saturnian figure who wears a black robe and carries the lantern of esoteric wisdom; and the exuberant child of the Sun card.
The Winter Solstice is unique among days of the year — the time of the longest night and the shortest day. The dark triumphs but only briefly. For the Solstice is also a turning point. From now on (until the Summer Solstice, at any rate), the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer, the dark wanes and the Sun waxes in power. From the dark womb of the night, the light is born.
Many of the customs associated with the Winter Solstice (and therefore with other midwinter festivals such as St Lucy’s Day, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, New Years and Twelfth Night) derive from stories of a mighty battle between the dark and the light, which is won, naturally, by the light. Other traditions record this as the time a savior (the Sun-Child) is born to a virgin mother.
The Battle Between Old and New, Dark and Light
The Romans celebrated from December 17th to December 23rd with the festival Saturnalia, during which all work was put aside in favor of feasting and gambling. The social order was reversed, with masters waiting on their slaves. The Saturnalia is named after Saturn, who is often depicted with a sickle like the figures of Death or Old Father Time. Astrologically speaking, Saturn is saturnine: gloomy, old, dutiful and heavy. He was the god who ate his own children rather than let them surpass him. For new life to flourish, for the sun to rise again, it is necessary to vanquish this gloomy old fellow. Therefore, the feasting and merriment of the midwinter season are religiously mandated in order to combat the forces of gloom.
The day following the Saturnalia, was the Juvenalia, according to Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time, a holiday in honor of children who were entertained, feasted and given good luck talismans. This makes sense. After vanquishing the Old King, it’s time to celebrate the new in the form of children, the New Year's Baby, the Son of Man.
The Birth of the Sun
Christ’s birthday was not celebrated on December 25th until the 4th century. Before then, December 25th was best known as the birthday of the Persian hero and sun-god, Mithras. The myth tells that he sprang up full-grown from a rock, armed with a knife and carrying a torch. Shepherds watched his miraculous appearance and hurried to greet him with the first fruits of their flocks and their harvests. The cult of Mithra spread all over the Roman empire. In 274 AD, the Roman emperor Valerian declared December 25th the Birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun.
Christ was also not the first miraculous child born to a virgin mother. As Marina Warner points out, “the virgin birth of heroes and sages was a widespread formula in the Hellenistic world: Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of woman by the power of a holy spirit.”
The union of a virgin and a supernatural force, like the couplings between Zeus and various nymphs, was shorthand indicating the presence of a miraculous child, a child with the powers of both worlds. Dionysus is such a child, born of a union between Zeus and Semele. One of the many male solar figures who are celebrated now, at the onset of the winter solstice, is the famous British warrior hero King Arthur, whose birthday is Dec. 21.
Parke in Festivals of the Athenians describes a women-only midwinter festival, the Lenaia, which honored Dionysos. On this night, Greek women “held their ecstatic dances in winter — fully clothed in Greek dress, with castanets or the thyrsus, dancing together with no male companions, human or satyr.” Graves calls it the Lenaea, the Festival of Wild Women (a nice companion for the Festival of Merry Women on Dec 14). He says a bull, representing Dionysus, was cut into nine pieces, with one piece being burned and the rest consumed raw by the worshippers. Dionysus was born in winter, crowned with serpents, became a lion in the spring and was sacrificed as a bull (stag or goat) in the summer because these were calendar emblems of the old tripartite year. Marija Gimbutas in Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe calls Dionysus a Year God. Mithra was also associated with the bull (his initates were baptized with the blood of a sacrificed bull) and shown with the emblems of the zodiac surrounding him, suggesting that he is also a Year God.
The Lenaia occurred on the twelfth day of the Greek lunar month, Gamelion, which falls in early winter. The twelfth day of a lunar month (which begins with the new moon) always falls on a full moon night. If we move this lunar festival to the solar calendar and count from the winter solstice, the festival would occur on January 5th or 6th.
Until the fourth century, Christ’s birthday was celebrated on January 6th, on the same date when the Virgin Kore gave birth to the year god celebrated in Alexandria with a festival called the Koreion. St. Epiphanius complains about the hideous mockery of this rite but it preceded the story of Christ’s birth. In the original ritual, the image of the goddess, decorated with gold stars, was carried seven times around her temple as the priests cried, “The Virgin has brought forth the new Aeon!”
Although Aeon, or Eon, is now defined as “an indefinitely long period of time; an age, eternity,” its Indo-European root aiw conveyed “vital force, life, long life, eternity,” and the Greek form Aion meant specifically “vital force.”
This description recalls the Egyptian ceremony re-enacting the birth of Horus, the sun-god to Isis. All lights in the city were doused while Isis circled the sarcophagus seven times, then brought forth Horus who was called “the Light of the World.” Statues of Isis holding the newly born sun god on her lap, presenting him to the world, are similar to pose to later statues representing Mary and Jesus.
The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals. In Sweden on St. Lucy’s Day, young girls don white dresses and a wreath of candles and awaken their families with cakes and song. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by lighting candles over a span of eight days. The Christian custom of the Advent wreath, with its four candles, one lit each of the Sundays before Christmas, is another way of re-kindling the light.
The Christmas candle, a large candle of red or some other bright color decorated with holly or other evergreens, was at one time a popular custom throughout Great Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. One person, usually the eldest or the head of the household, is designated as the lightbringer. She lights the candle for the first time on Christmas Eve before the festive supper and during each of the remaining evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas. To extinguish the candle, she snuffs it with tongs rather than blowing it out, since that would blow the luck away. The candle sheds a blessing on the household and so is protected from accidental quenching. It seems likely that the candle also represented the coming year, just as the weather of each of the twelve days of Christmas foretell the weather of the corresponding month. It had protective or fertilizing powers and was kept as a charm. In Denmark, during a lightning storm, the remnant would be brought out and lit to protect the household.
Similar customs once surrounded the Yule log. The Yule log must never be bought but should be received as a gift, found or taken from you own property. Often the log to be burned at midwinter was chosen early in the year and set aside.
Tradition varies about the type of wood to be used. Oak logs were popular in the north of England, birch in Scotland and ash in Cornwall and Devon. Ash is the only wood that burns freely when green and the world-tree, Yggdrasil, in the Nordic tradition was an ash-tree. It is important that the Yule log be the biggest and greenest log available since the Christmas festivities will last only as long as the Yule log burns.
In some parts of the Scottish highlands, the head of the household finds a withered stump and carves it into the likeness of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich or Christmas Old Wife, a sinister being representing the evils of winter and death. She's the goddess of winter, the hag of night, the old one who brings death. Burning her drives away the winter and protects the occupants of the household from death.
The Yule log is first brought into the house with great ceremony on the eve of solstice, Mother Night. Usually it is decorated with holly and ivy and other evergreens of the season. Some people prefer to use the Yule log as a decoration and place candles on it instead, thus transforming it into a candleabra like the menorah or the kinara. It is lit with a piece of last year's log as described in Herrick’s poem, “Hesperides:”
Come bring with a noise
My merry, merry boys
The Christmas log to the firing
With the last year's brand.
Light the new block,
And for good success in his spending
On your psalteries play:
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teendling.
In Italy, the Yule log is called the Ceppo. Boccaccio in the fourteenth century described a Florentine family gathering about the hearth and pouring a libation of wine upon the glowing wood, then sharing the remaining wine, thus linking the Yule log with the custom of wassailing, pouring out libations to the trees in the orchard.
The Yule log is left to burn all night, and, if possible, through the next twelve without going out, although it may be extinguished with water. The ashes are kept for good luck. They have magical properties and can be scattered in the field to fertilize the soil or sprinkled around the house for protection.
The Solstice Evergreen
Another ancient midwinter custom is decorating with greens. The Romans decorated with rosemary, bay, laurel, holly, ivy and mistletoe. The holly and ivy were both important midwinter plants in Great Britain and Ireland, as seen in the mysterious medieval carol which mentions the rivalry between them. Matthews in The Winter Solstice provides the lyrics of a 15th century carol which refers to an ancient battle between the two, with the Ivy representing the cold gloominess of winter and the Holly King, the jolly spirit of the season.
The Christmas tree is of more recent origin. In her book, The Solstice Evergreen, Sheryl Ann Karas says that the earliest record of an evergreen being decorated comes from Riga in Latvia in 1519, when a group of local merchants carried an evergreen bedecked with flowers to the marketplace, where they danced around it and then burned it. Another possible source is the custom in 15th and 16th century Germany of hanging apples on a fir tree as a prop for the miracle play performed on Christmas eve depicting Adam and Eve being driven out of Paradise
Feast of Isis
In the Egyptian calendar, the same five days are the feast of Isis, Queen of Heaven and Earth, wife and sister of Osiris (Mechir, day 6). In west Mediterranean countries and now all over the Earth, Isis is perhaps the most widely revered deity since the ancient Western world, worshipped in various forms for some 4,000 years until her power was rivaled by Christianity's Isis counterpart, the Virgin Mary, and was ultimately suppressed by Islam. The rites of her revival are best acted this year on the perfectly positioned weekend of Friday the 24th and Saturday the 25th.
Among the Hopi and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest, this day begins the 20-day feast of Soyala, the annual festival of human purification and renewal, counterpart to the rites of cleansing the kivas and kachina images in the Shalako festival of Dec. 1-14.
According to Hottes(1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies), the early Germans considered the Norse goddess Hertha or Bertha, the goddess of Domesticity and the home. They baked yeast cakes shaped like slippers, which were called the slippers of Hertha, and filled with gifts. Hottes writes:
"During the Winter Solstice houses were decked with fir and evergreens to welcome her coming. When the family and serfs were gathered to dine, a great altar of flat stones was erected and here a fire of fir boughs was laid. Hertha descended through the smoke, guiding those who were wise in saga lore to foretell the fortunes of those persons at the feast. Hertha's altar stones became the hearthstones of the home. We learn from this story why Santa Claus comes down the chimney instead of at the door. It is a survival of the coming of Hertha…"
Feast of St. Thomas, the famous doubting apostle who has been, ever since he asked to check the wounds of Jesus just to be sure, the patron saint and clown role of those who refuse to consider the premise that once we believe it, we can see it. One of those early saints given a feast day on or near the solstice for no apparent historical reason, undoubtedly to divert attention from the pagan rites associated with that date.
St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey
The longest night and the shortest day
St Thomas divine,
Brewing, baking, and killing of fat swine
On this day in England, poor women and children went "a-Thomassing" for the ingredients for the Christmas feast, particularly wheat for frumenty and flour for Yule bread. Ghosts were permitted to walk abroad from now until Christmas Eve.
Recent theories surround Thomas and his true role in Christianity. Thomas in Greek means Twin, and it is thought that Thomas is the twin brother of Joshua ben Joseph known as the Christ. Given that this is his feast day it makes perfect sense to place it during this time to preserve his memory. Gnostic scholars contend that Thomas also known as James ben Joseph and Joshua ben Joseph were the rightful Priest-Kings of Judea in the mode of Moses and Aaron. The revolt of the brothers against Rome, the Maccabite dynasty of Herod and the Pharisees of the Temple has come down to us distorted by the Christian Mythos.
Beiwe is the sun-goddess worshipped by the Saami, the indigenous people of Finland. She travels with her daughter, Beiwe-Neia, through the sky in an enclosure of reindeer bones, bringing back the green plants for the reindeer to feed upon. On the Winter Solstice, her worshippers sacrifice white female animals and thread the meat on sticks which they bend into rings and tied with bright ribbons. They also smear their doorposts with butter so Beiwe can eat the rich food and begin her recovery.
Another Winter Goddess of the north is the Russian goddess, Rozhnitsa. In the twelfth century, the eastern Slavs worshipped her as an ancestor, offering her honey, bread and cheese — all bloodless sacrifices, like those offered at the Haloa. In the 19th and early 20th century, Russian women still embroidered and wove bright linens, usually red on white, which depict the Goddesses of the seasons.
Although she does not mention the exact date of Rohanitsa's festival, Mary Kelly (Goddesses and Their Offspring) writes about her connection with the Winter season:
"Winter embroideries were made to honor the feast of Rohanitsa, the Mother Goddess, held in late December. These cloths depict [her] together with her daughter goddess, or with children who may or may not be divine….[She] was often shown with deer horns sprouting from her head or headdress….The horns are a sign that--as tales and rock carvings confirm--in ancient times the Mother Goddess gave birth to deer as well as children. For her feast, small, white-iced cookies shaped like deer were given as presents or good luck tokens."