J. G. Frazer in The Golden Bough notes the pagan origin of Christmas: “It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the 25th December the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day … Augustine exhorts his Christian brethren not to celebrate that solemn day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on account of him who made the sun.” (p. 472). Frazer argues (pp. 833 & 842) “If the heathen of ancient Europe celebrated, as we have good reason to believe, the season of Midsummer with a great festival of fire, of which the traces have survived in many places, it is natural to suppose that they should also have observed with similar rites the corresponding season of Midwinter; for Midsummer and Midwinter, the summer solstice and the winter solstice, are the two great turning points in the sun’s apparent course through the sky, and from the standpoint of primitive man nothing might seem more appropriate than to kindle fires on earth at the two moments when the fire and heat of the great luminary in heaven begin to wane or to wax … Indeed with respect to Midwinter celebration of Christmas we are left to conjecture; we know from the express testimony of the ancients that it was instituted by the church to supersede an old heathen festival of the birth of the sun, which was apparently conceived to be born again on the shortest day of the year, after which his light and heat were seen to grow till they attained their full maturity at Midsummer … In modern Christendom the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive, or to have survived down to recent years, in the old custom of the Yule log.”
But there are other elements to this pagan festival which are not fully drawn out by Frazer who mentions the general and widespread worship of the sacred oak but fails to pursue the question of why the Yule log is invariably oak. Robert Graves in The White Goddess explores the question further and provides much evidence of the tree cult through out all religions (e.g. sacred groves) and even in Christianity there is the tree of knowledge and the tree of life and death (the cross). The oak is associated with many different deities: the Greek god Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, the Egyptian Osiris, the Bronze Age Llyr (coming to the Britons between 1600–1400 BC) and his Anglo-Saxon counterpart [several words illegible]*, and the Arthurian legends. The holly appears in the Romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the words of Graves “The Green Knight is an immortal giant whose club is a holly bush. He and Sir Gawain … make a compact to behead one another at alternate New Years – meaning Midsummer and Midwinter.” The same theme appears in many places: two rival kings pledged to kill each other, each to reign for half the year, the holly at Midwinter and the oak at Midsummer. The important element is that the rivals are the two faces of the one figure – Janus with a dark side and a light side.(Something Christianity has forgotten in separating God and Satan into two warring opposites rather than two aspects of the same deity. Indeed Saturnalia according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is an ‘Ancient-Roman festival of Saturn in December observed as a time of unrestrained merrymaking with temporary release of slaves, predecessor of modern Christmastide.’)
Thus, putting the sun and the trees together we have the waxing and the waning of the sun ritualized as death and rebirth (resurrection) of the tree god/king. In Midsummer the sun has reached its peak and now wanes, losing its strength as winter (death) tightens its grip on the land. So the green knight/holly king of the waxing year, spring and summer, is beheaded to rise again as the dark god/oak king of the dying half of the year. The king is dead, long live the king. Yet this festival is one of gaiety and bonfires because out of the death of the spring and summer flowers will come the fruits of autumn. Death is only the other face of life.
Correspondingly, Yule or Midwinter marks the end of the reign of the waning sun. The oak king is ritually killed, the holly king is born – the star child – Yule is therefore a nativity celebration. But because the holly king is a baby the twelve nights of his youth are presided over by the spirit of the oak symbolized by the mistletoe (which grows on oak) wand of the Christmas Fool, the Lord of Misrule or the Lord of the Dance. Who leads the merrymaking, the dancing, and who turns the world upside down, permits all rules to be broken, makes slaves the master and calls on all to forget their cares and be joyful. The fool is jester, wizard (Merlin) and Father Christmas all in one character.
Over all this presides the Lady – the triple goddess of so many religions – maid, mother and crone. She is variously called Mary, Diana, Kali, Isis, Cerridwen, the Muse. In the words of Graves: “She has a son who is also her lover and her victim, the star-son of the waxing year. He alternates in her favour with (her lover) of the waning year, his darker self.” At Yule she is worshipped as mother who brings out of the underworld the promise of light in the darkness, the star child conceived of the dark lord but who will become her lover and bring life, hope and fertility to the land again.
All this is simply given as background to the Christmas play which can be very simple without any need for the above lengthy and complex set of ideas. The following suggested format contains all the essential elements.
© The Estate of Ronald M. White