For many people in the northern and western world, it’s about Christmas, the anniversary of Jesus’ birth. You might have heard that the bible actually gives very little clue about the actual date of Jesus’ birth, and this is true. The establishment of 25th December as Christmas was only settled by the pope in Rome in 354 CE, a good three-and-a-half centuries after the event.
Rome was used to big celebrations on 25th December. Fifty-ish years before the birth of Jesus, Julius Caesar set the official date of the winter solstice (shortest day) on this day. But even before that, Romans had celebrated Brumalia, an ancient festival – possibly going back as far as 800 BCE – dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine and celebration, for a whole month culminating in a big feast on 25th December. And Saturnalia, a week-long festival involving presents, feasts and general jollity, ran from 17th – 23rd December. And Roman followers of the Persian-inspired god, Mithras, celebrated their god’s birthday on… yes, you guessed it, 25th December.
As Christianity spread across Europe, Christmas developed a distinctly northern flavour. A principal deity in Viking and Germanic paganism is Odin, or Woden. He’s a clever god, with power over words, who wields a spear, is accompanied by a raven and was believed by the Romans to be a northern version of their god, Mercury; he seems an awful lot like our very own ‘Celtic’ god Lugus, after whom Carlisle is named. We don’t have much idea of what Lugus looked like other than his spear, but Odin/Woden is depicted as an old, bearded man, with a fur-lined cloak. At midwinter, Odin rides his horse, Sleipnir and delivers gifts to his followers. Remind you of anyone?
By the high medieval period, writers were nostalgic about a lost spirit of Christmas (who said the ‘good old days’ was a new concept?) and wrote about ‘Sir Christemas’.1 By the 17th century, he became ‘Captain Christmas’2, ‘the Christmas Lord’, ‘Prince Christmas’3 and, finally,
‘In comes I, old Father Christmas,
Be I welcome or not?
I hope old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.’4
This Father Christmas always dressed in green, not red, and wore a holly crown. An excellent depiction of this Father Christmas is the original illustration for the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. I hope that sees off any theories that Father Christmas was invented by Coca Cola.5
The medieval personification of Christmas was an effort to re-conjure a lost, golden, midwinter. And if we go back a few hundred years we bump into Viking and Anglo-Saxon celebrations around a central fire in a wooden longhouse. As midwinter approached, early medieval farmers decided which of their cattle and pigs were worth keeping over the winter, and which should be slaughtered. Some meat was eaten immediately and a lot was salted down to eat in the spring; not much fresh meat was eaten in spring and summer as this was when animals were needed for breeding and for milk. So, midwinter was pretty much the only time of year that they ate fresh beef and fresh pork, roasted on a spit over that roaring communal fire. As an added bonus the beer that was made at harvest time was ready to drink at midwinter, too.
But northern midwinter festivals go back even further than that. When the archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson was working at Durrington Walls, a prehistoric site very near to Stonehenge, he found an enormous quantity of animal bones. They knew from the dig that people didn’t live here all year round, or farm here, so this meant that the animals had been walked here from some distance away. When the pig bones were analysed it was established that the pigs died at midwinter; it seems that we were feasting together at the midwinter solstice as long as 5,000 years ago.6
We’ve known for some time that stone circles are often aligned with significant astronomical events. Modern-day pagans often celebrate midsummer solstice at stone circles – you’ll have seen the TV pictures of midsummer dawn at Stonehenge, and, for Cumbrians, Castlerigg – but it seems that the circles were probably intended to be used at the opposite alignment, midwinter sunset. Stonehenge itself has its most polished stone faces facing towards the midwinter sunset, not the midsummer sunrise.
I marvel at the psychological wisdom of our ancient ancestors in celebrating midwinter sunset. It was critical that the whole population fully understood that at this, the darkest point of year, the earth had turned and was starting to tip its face back towards the sun, and warmth and fertility would soon return to the land.
The nearest Cumbrian stone circle to me, Long Meg and her Sisters, is aligned to the midwinter sunset. If you stand at the centre of the circle at sunset tomorrow (22nd December), you will see the sun set behind the outlying pillar, Long Meg herself. If the clouds clear, I’ll take a picture for you.
Finally, in the words of my favourite carol:
Love and Joy come to you
And to you your wassail too
And god* bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year
And god* send you a Happy New Year. 7
- A carol attributed to Richard Smart, rector of Plymtree, dated to c.1435-1477 (see p119 of The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (2000).
- Ben Johnson, Christmas and his Masque (1616).
- See The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (2000)
- From a traditional mummer’s play. See The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Rood (2000).
- This urban myth is based on an advertising illustration of Santa Claus (whose roots are, of course, the Dutch St. Nicholas rather than Father Christmas), of a bearded chap in a red and white outfit, red and white, of course, being Coca-Cola’s brand colours. In fact, Santa (as opposed to Father Christmas) had often been pictured in red before Coke used it. But I should add that once upon a time I used to deal with Coca Cola’s UK marketing department, and I was told that their winter brand strategy was ‘to own Christmas’. Fortunately, they seem not to have succeeded.
- As recorded in Francis Pryor’s Britain BC (2003).
- The Wassail Song, a traditional carol with very strange lyrics and ancient roots. A wassail at midwinter is a special hot, boozy drink, which may or may not be the cider-based beverage linked to apple tree customs in the southwest of England.
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green!
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen
Love and joy come to you
And to you your wassail too
And god* bless you and send you
A Happy New Year
And god* send you a Happy New Year.
*Please insert the deity or good force of your choice.