The 14 Words

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Light in the Darkness

By Frederick Dixon:

The winter solstice is upon us, the shortest day in the depths of the coldest, darkest, wettest time. With what dread our ancestors would have watched the slow decline of their living God, the sun. With what joy they would have welcomed his return to life and health as the days began to lengthen after the solstice! A joy breaking out in feasting, drinking, merrymaking, in the lighting of fires to reach out and strengthen the greater fire with warmth and light. The name our ancestors gave to this great festival – the first day of the ancient Germanic year – was Yule, a name so old that no-one knows its original meaning, “ultimate origin unknown” is all the dictionaries say.

All societies mark the solstice in some way, but it was of particular significance in the north of Europe where the days grow shorter than anywhere else. So it was that in the last days of the pagan Roman Empire, when the Roman Army had filled its ranks with Germanic recruits, that Yule was marked with a special dedication as the “Dies Natalis Sol Invicta” – the “Day of the Birth of the Invincible Sun.” It was then very easy, when the Empire became Christian under Constantine, to rededicate the day to the birth of a very different Invincible Son; so Yule – the 25th December in the Roman calendar – became Christmas, the actual birthday of Christ being unknown. Despite its Christianization, almost all of the trappings and customs of Christmas remain pagan, often rather obviously so. Take the practice of bringing greenery into the house as a symbol of life continuing through the darkest days; holly and ivy are still not permitted in churches because of their pagan associations and the famous carol (despite the attempt to Christianize it by pretending that Christ’s crown of thorns was a crown of holly) has only slowly and reluctantly been accepted as suitable for singing in church. Another evergreen plant always associated with Christmas is mistletoe, but its association has a dark past for it was with a spear of mistletoe that the fair god of the waxing year (from Yule to Midsummer) is slain by his dark twin, the god of the waning year. Anyone who knows what a mistletoe bush looks like might wonder how it was possible to make a spear out of it, but gods move in a different reality from we mere mortals!

The centrepiece of the great fires which were lit to welcome and strengthen the returning sun was the Yule Log, not a chocolate swiss roll but a huge block of wood, or even an entire tree trunk. The Yule fires had their own spirit so when the log had largely burned away, the last unburned fragment in which the Yule spirit had taken refuge, was carefully put away until next year and used to kindle the new Yule Log and release the spirit to do his work of bringing light and warmth to the dark days.

Solstice at Stonehenge

An animal closely associated with Yule is the pig. Until turkey began to appear on British tables in the nineteenth century, the usual Christmas dish was pork, and many families (my own included) still have a pork or gammon dinner at some time during the twelve days. This tradition is very ancient – a few years ago a bronze age feasting place was excavated near Stonehenge and a great many animal bones were found, overwhelmingly from pigs; thanks to the wonders of science it was possible to show that these pigs had all been slaughtered in mid-winter. So, for centuries our ancestors celebrated Yule at Stonehenge and while there they ate pork. This would have had a ritual significance; the pig was a sacred animal in prehistoric Britain and its flesh was taboo except once a year when the people entered into communion with the god by eating it. This is universally true of all religions which preserve a taboo on certain animals, it is because they were once sacred and were once sacrificed and eaten on one day in the year.

As patriots we have a particular interest in the beliefs and practices of our ancestors and at this time of year in particular we take heart, as they did, from the knowledge that light follows darkness as it always has and always will.

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