In December, the days grow colder and the nights grow longer for those of us in Northern hemisphere. This is a time for the cold and barren; the quiet and calm. Many of us choose to stay in the warmth of our homes to stay out of the cold and there is much focus on family and togetherness. There are several holidays during this time that are observed among members of the Pagan community. We will discuss a few of them to help provide a better understanding and means to understand the celebrations. Holidays celebrated include: Yule (the Winter Solstice), The Feast of St. Nicholas, and Krampus traditions, which are just a few of the holidays that will be covered throughout this article. Many of the holidays observed and celebrated during this time are centered around the Winter Solstice.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is an annual occurrence that results from the positioning of both the Earth and the Sun, and will occur regardless of whether or not one chooses to celebrate a holiday around it. However, many of the Pagan holidays are centered around natural and environmental occurrences. Therefore, December festivities would be generally be centered around the shortest day of the year. For many, this time is called Yule. It occurs on or around the 21st of December, depending on the year’s cycle. There are many different ways to celebrate this time, but before we focus on the actual celebrating, we will discuss some of the peoples and cultures that had fostered such celebrations.
The Viking and Germanic peoples held momentus celebrations, lasting twelve days, during this time. They held feasts to honor and pay homage to their deities; they decorated pine trees and made wreaths, similar to present day wreaths, to honor the Sun. The Germanic peoples and Vikings also had a traditional yule log, which was decorated and burned at this time of year. It was a time for all to be merry and a time to enjoy themselves. This tradition often included a sacrificial offering of a wild boar to Freyr, the God of fertility. This offering was made to ensure that the coming seasons of growth would be fruitful.
The ancient Romans celebrate a holiday early in December called Saturnalia. This was one of the happiest of all Roman holidays, during which there were games and feasts to honor the God Saturn. This was known as a time of great happiness where all were invited to take part in the gaming and drinking – even the slaves.
Shab-e Yalda is a winter holiday celebrated by Iranians. The festivities focus on Mithra, the Sun God, winning the battle over darkness. This holiday is celebrated as families gather together and light a fire, staying together throughout the longest night to keep evil at bay.
The ancient Celts celebrated Alban Arthyun (also known as Yule). During this time they gathered mistletoe and gathered yule logs to burn on the darkest night of the year. They decorated with holly and ivy as a means of bringing luck. The Celts thought the Sun stood still at this time so they decorated and feasted to pay homage. There is a legend of the Holly King and Oak King that is said to come from this tradition. The legend illustrates the Oak King conquering the Holly King, after which he reigns until Mid-Summer. According to the legend, this is the reason that the days begin to grow longer and nights, in turn, become shorter.
The Dutch have a tradition of their children setting out their shoes on the 6th of December in hopes that Saint Nicholas would leave them a gift. Saint Nicholas was a real person, a Christian bishop, and was known for helping the poor and those in need. It has been reported from several sources that he lost his parents at a young age, and used his money to help those who were poorly. There are no definitive records, but some stories suggest that he would enter homes and leave money to help pay for daughters of poor families to marry, as at the time dowries were often a requirement of marriage contracts. In one such story, he entered a home three times for three different daughters, and on the final time, the father of the daughters spotted him and thanked him. There are also stories of him saving men from being wrongfully imprisoned. There are many other stories pertaining to Saint Nicholas that we recommend you read about as well – personal research on them is recommended.
Up until now, we have talked about happier celebrations around the December holidays. However, it is important to note that all things have a shadow side, there is a darker side to the light, and we shall explore that a bit as well. One tradition including the acknowledgement of Krampus: the dark counterpart to the jolly old fella with a bowl full of jelly, known in the more Christian based practices as Santa or St. Nick. Krampus is essentially the “yin to St. Nick’s yang” (Billock, J. The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa). Approximately four years ago, it was said that celebrating this aspect of the holiday festivities was gaining popularity again. The much more cheerful perspectives of the season are portrayed as candy in stockings for the “good” girls and boys, and coal for the “naughty” ones. The legends of Krampus say you might actually get birch twigs (instead of, or in addition to coal), which have been said to be for beating the naughty behaviors and tendencies out of the “bad” children. Dear, Gods. In the article, The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa, it is noted that Krampus, and the traditions that go with his name today were not originally tied to Christmas or Yule celebrations of any sort. In some forms, he’s simply a son of Hel, the Norse Goddess of the Underworld. His roots may be from before a time that German Paganism was established and mainstream, yet acknowledged first there and certainly nonetheless. Etymology says his name translates to “claw,” and his resemblance to the Catholic reference of ‘the devil’ was a reason his name and image had attempts of eradication. The Catholic Church likely replaced Krampus Day, which was held on the 5th of December, with St. Nicholas Day that occurred the next day on the 6th of December. As with many of the Pagan traditions and the deities that were honored in Pagan festivities, the image of Krampus was perverted and then simultaneously evolved. However, legend has it: Krampus never truly “went away,” and in fact, he is still watching.
There are many different traditions that one can celebrate during the December holiday season. However, we are only able to discuss a few of them in this article. Picking one can sometimes difficult as a Pagan and/or a Practitioner, with respect to knowing which path to follow. So, how does one find the best path? The answer is simple, you often don’t have to, the right path finds you. Through research and learning about different cultures, one can discern which path he or she connects with best. Some Pagans may choose to center their holiday practice around one tradition, while others may choose a more eclectic path, and more or less, mix and match concepts from different belief systems. This is actually how today’s view of Krampus, as well as other traditions, evolved to represent what they currently do. Simply put, do what resonates with you. Many Pagans in this day and age choose to center their practice of Yule around the longest night/shortest day of the year, and focus on letting go of the old and starting something new. This holiday is close to the physical New Year, and is a good time to practice the tradition of letting go of the old, letting go of what no longer serves you, and bringing in and embracing the new.
So, how do Pagan people celebrate in this day and age? This widely depends on who you ask, as each individual has his or her own practice(s). I can, however, tell you how I celebrate. I wake up in the morning and make breakfast and cookies with my children. I make sure my outside altar is all prim and pretty. I spend time with my family and I prepare a grand feast for us to eat in the evening. We gather the children around and we tell the story of the Holly and Oak Kings. We talk about how it is the longest night of the year and each night after will be a little shorter and the days will be a little longer. We talk about the things we did throughout the year and the things we plan to do the following year. We reminisce and we remember, we spend time together and we care for one another. We sleep with the lights on to welcome back the Sun and warmer seasons to come. The children hope that the Holly King leaves gifts for them to open in the morning. This is our family time. After the children go to bed, my husband and I spend time together. We cast circle and call quarters. We spend time together talking about what we did and what we shall do. We pay tribute to both the dark of night and the day to come. We know both the dark and the light are important and equally serve a purpose. We stay up until dawn and put those gifts under the tree. We greet our children with warm arms in the morning, for Yule has passed and the light and warmth has once again returned.
We hope that this article has provided you with a basic understanding of several different beliefs and traditions that are acknowledged and observed throughout the month of December. With this basic understanding, hopefully you are able to understand where others are coming from in their belief structure, and are able to be tolerant of their beliefs. If you are uncertain of what your roots are and what traditions you wish to start with your own family, perhaps this article has given you some inspiration, or a starting point of where to look.
Eight Winter Solstice Celebrations Around the World
Yule – A Merry Viking Christmas
Viking Yule: How the Vikings Celebrate Their Christmas
The Celtic Roots of Christmas Traditions
The Legend of the Holly King and the Oak King
The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa
Billock, J. The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa. Smithsonian.com. 12/04/2015. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/krampus-could-come-you-holiday-season-180957438/#EOimclkaDggtUfCz.99
~ Sara Lynn & Jewel AnnaLysa