This is very much a festival of the Northern Hemisphere where it makes seasonal sense. For us it is an occasion of enormous significance, for it is the feast of the Star Child, whose coming was foretold at the Reading of the Festivals.
Most of the ritual observances take place before the 25th. On the 21st. and 22nd. December no wine or meat should be taken. These days are ‘The Deep of The Year’. The very weather at this time often has a solemn stillness about it, as if everything were keeping vigil, waiting for the Birth of the Sun Child: it is the pause before the Creation of the world. In Anglo-Saxon times this part of the Yuletide observances was called ‘Modranicht’, or night of the Mothers. On a more mundane level it is the time to put final touches to the preparations for the feast; the making of special foods, and the cleaning and readying of the house.
Yule for many has became a personal festival and this is as it should be, a making of one’s own magic atmosphere through a wide variety of personal rituals and customs.
In my description of the rites, I have only therefore indicated a framework which we can flesh out with our own observances.
These commence on the night of the 23rd/24th. Where possible, and weather permitting as it so often is, the celebrants can gather in the open around a holly tree. However, as is more likely, a spruce tree (Christmas Tree) will be the chosen symbol, a tradition imported into, England by the Prince Consort who brought the idea from Germany, where incidentally the peak of the celebrations was more often on the evening and night of the 24th.
The tree should be set up in the garden or the entrance to the dwelling. Red wine is poured into a libation bowl and each person present comes forward to pour a libation to the tree, sprinkling some of the wine over it. Each may say as much or as little as he or she pleases in the form of prayer. Candles should be set up in the form of a five pointed star, each of the celebrants taking it in turn to place a candle. A short prayer follows invoking the Goddess as Mother of all and particularly at this time as Mother of the Star Child and the Promise:
‘To the Great Goddess, mother and Maker of all things, we call for a light to lead us, that light of promise held in our hopes when we waited in the shadowed lands, on the plains of ashes and in the places of darkness. Bring us, we pray, once more that Light in our darkness to comfort us against cold death, to warm us with new life, new strength, and so to set the brilliance of new day and day-growth once again upon our lands. Bring us, we beg, Your Star Child and the Promise of the Sun.’
At the conclusion of the ceremony each attender is given to drink of red wine and to eat of spiced cake or mince pie. On some occasions hot punch has been provided. All are enjoined to a few moments of quiet thought on the theme of gratitude for the coming of the light and the fulfilment of the Promise. If possible the celebrants can then process the tree, going round it at least 8 times sunwise in honour of the Star Child. Suitable dancing music, some carols (for carolling means to dance round in a circle making music), can be played or sung. More wine, cake or pie is served. At Midnight the leader, or one so nominated by the group, will declare with a joyful shout: ‘Welcome Yule.’ This cry is taken up and repeated at least three times in honour of the Goddess. When the candles have burnt down the tree can be taken into the house. Its decoration must wait until the 24th.
The tree having been brought into the house, it, with the house itself, can be decorated on the afternoon and evening of the 24th. Appropriate greenery, holly and ivy can be used. Holly represents the male principle, as Ivy does the female. Mistletoe, that most mysterious of trees, is hung up so that all visitors may receive the kiss of love and peace from members of the opposite sex. In some places the door of the house is closed on the evening being only opened to admit visitors, Master or Mistress not venturing out until the 26th. The significance of the door is that it stands for another tree, oak, and closed it paradoxically denies entrance to the new King until He has found His strength. The oak is the tree of Arthur, Lord of the Dead, and at this moment, though Robin’s holly is in the ascendant, it is not yet master. In some traditions the children are sent early to bed, the tree is decorated, and at midnight the children are woken, gathered round the tree, given their presents and a meal of pork is served.
There are so many rituals past and present that it would be a mammoth task to list and trace them. One book that is very informative about this time and its historical observances is J. A. R. Pimlott’s The Englishman’s Christmas.
From now on most rituals and remembrances are personal, traditional and familial. It is the season of gathering together and of open handed hospitality. Before retiring for the night a libation should be poured to the Goddess and Her Gods.
As everyone knows the 25th is a family festival. We meet to celebrate the Star Child and pass the time in jollity, games and feasting. Presents are given. One of the simplest customs is that the youngest is the first to receive the bounty. Traditional games are played and special foods eaten. Arthur could be said to make a reappearance as Old Father Christmas, the spirit who was much celebrated in Old England before being subsumed into his Dutch/American counterpart, Santa Claus.
Despite the fun and games there is always a strong ritual element to Yule. Even the Yuletide Ghost Story is an acknowledgement that there is a place for the departed spirits beside our fires, and the still popular toast, ‘Absent friends’ brings a note of sadness in the memory, of past friends, and past Yuletides when they were there, for Yule looks backwards as well as forwards, again a reminder that our God has two aspects and is Janus faced. Joy and sorrow therefore mingle in the festivity and can give it the most poignant beauty.
If Yuletide has any duties they are to be sociable, hospitable and generous, both in pocket and, more importantly, in soul. It is too easy for cynics to talk about the secular Christmas, but surely its games, amusements, jollity, feasting, drinking and generosity are no subjects for disdain, rather the reverse. To set aside for a while our mundane cares and to make merry is a noble aim. To ease the hearts of others and spend the time in mirth and good-fellowship is ritual enough at this most magic season: and as we know this goes for Christians as well as pagans.
‘Old customs that good be let no man despise.’
Custom makes merry on ‘Boxing Day’. Charades and pantomimes derive from the old ‘Mummers’ and the Yuletide play, which in itself is a seasonal ritual of death and rebirth, the struggle between light and dark. There is still ‘The Hunting of the Wren’ (Arthur’s Spirit) which has some survival in The Isle of Man, and in Southern Ireland. Much overlaid with later matter and accretions is ‘The Wranning’ or wrenning of Dingle. The ceremonies attendant on this last over the Twelve Days, finishing with a ball. The basic idea behind such survivals is to hunt a goldcrest wren in ivy trees and to beat it with a holly club. Again we have a remembrance of this custom in nursery rhymes, which are a repository of ancient customs. Iona and Peter Opie in their book The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes list a large number of Robin and Wren rhymes, and the curious will find much matter to research in these simple but significant survivals.
There is still a general custom of putting a lump of coal outside the front door for the first dark man to bring in. In Scotland this is a New Year feature. The significance of the coal, or charcoal as it was, is that it brings fire and warmth, as does the new sun. The dark man was indeed the ‘Coleman’ who, despite, or because of his dusky visage, brings light. He was considered lucky. In the past the ‘Coleman’ kept the beacons, his face black from his fires. By an understandable conversion he was the bringer of brightness. Indeed a new penny, old style, was sometimes called a cole, because it was bright and shining like the sun. I always had a bright new penny in my stocking at Yule, as well as that other sun symbol, an orange.
Other customs still not entirely ignored at this period are the wassailing of fruit trees. These libations are often kept up at Twelfth Night. Those of us who have gardens and fruit trees could include this ceremony with its carols and dances in our own Yuletide festivities. The orange again is a New Year custom, it being this time presented by a lady. The fruit is held up on a tripod of forks. The sun with its three supports, and its presentation by a lady, makes a profound statement of the Triple Nature of the Goddess.
Many years ago the twelve days were something of a reality, but at present nothing much remains except a few odd customs and folk memories. The wassailing of fruit trees has already been mentioned, and Twelfth Night parties are still held. For us therefore it is sufficient to remember that this day celebrates the coming to power of the new Sun God and the final departure of the old, who as Father Christmas or the Fool, had presided over the festivities. In one place he was dressed in paper streamers which were then set alight. This rather ruffianly ceremony was known as ‘Smoking the Fool’.
The party element, however truncated, is still with us in some measure, and a special cake is often baked for the occasion, sometimes containing beans or small silver coins. The finders of the tokens become King and Queen of the Feast, and are toasted as such. Games like forfeits used to be popular at this time. The King and Queen lead the revelry, after which the decorations are taken down and the tree taken out. Whether one wishes to revive these ceremonies and others of the Yuletide period must depend on how much we feel they fit the scenery of the times and our present lifestyles.
At the Time of the Promise a candle was lit as an earnest that the dark days would not reign for ever and that our part of the world would turn to increasing light. Also in that promise was implicit new life and peace. Our themes are therefore the old ones of Life, Light, Peace. This is symbolised by the three colours, Red, White, Blue, and the thumb and two first fingers raised in the so-called ‘Phrygian Blessing’, whose pagan origin has led to it not being used in some churches.
At Yuletide we celebrate the redemption of the Promise in the Birth of the Star Child. And that birth is symbol of a greater birth; the coming into being of the Universe itself. Yule is the festival of Creation, and our year begins here with its memories of a ‘Golden Age’ that maybe never was, but is a state to be striven for.
It is a festival of good cheer. This is not only true of good things to eat and drink but of good thoughts and joyful ones. There should be generosity both of pocket and more importantly soul; and our warm and cheerful considerations should extend beyond what is ours and kin to us to take in the bodily, spiritual and mental comfort of others.
As we cleared and cleaned our rooms for the festival, so clear and cleanse our hearts in our relationships with others. It is an outward looking and outward going time; friendships are strengthened and new friendships made. It both anticipates and includes the New Year, which is traditionally a time for the burial of ancient animosities; and it is also a time to prepare with good courage and a stout heart for whatever fortune and future sends.
One of the beauties of Yuletide is that its celebrations. are totally unprofessional in the restrictive sense that this term is used today. Freshness and freedom of mind, spontaneity and laughter, invention and wit charm the atmosphere with magic. There are some solemn rituals but these only act as a necessary counterpoint to the fun and games. It is the fun and frolic of the time that bred the Yuletide Fool and the related Father Christmas, who, though traditions themselves, mock at tradition and stiff thoughts, and through mockery and fooling cast clear light on the sad and solemn buffooneries, the pretensions and hypocrisies that so riddle our unthinking lives. And the fool and fooling are of even greater magical significance. Without them everything would run down. They are the enemies of stasis and sterility. We must never forget them, or not give them their due. They are in every riddle, every irrational number. In every situation, every problem, they lurk unsuspected. The fool makes the reel of coincidence unroll, tripping the unwary again and again. The fool and his fooling are the unquantifiable element of the Universe, and, of course, at the heart of the last problems of science, which are probably ultimately insoluble by scientific method. Only the maverick Fool comes near the answers to the Cosmos.
We shall meet the fool, not as a prime figure in festival, but as an element, an Ariel, a Puck attendant at every ceremony. And it is in fooling that lies the treasured quality of Yule, and makes it pre-eminently a Festival of Children as well as Mothers. For truly it is a festival of innocence, the innocence we find not only in children, but often in the true wisdom of old age; for though we celebrate the child, we also applaud Old Father Christmas, whose own innocence comes from a golden age that is there inside us waiting to be rediscovered every Yule. In this context it can be noted that there is often a great affinity between the very young and the very old, sharing as they may that same innocence, and both being very close in the cycle of life, one ending, one beginning.
Throughout all the jollity, inevitably, as a balance, come quiet periods that occur in all festivities. During them we should go apart with ourselves a little and try to become receptive to the harmonies in the world about us, and to make ourselves open to the Goddess and Her Mystery Of Birth. The ancient notion of the Music of the Spheres has truth in it, for these are the harmonies of creation and the greatest nativity of all, that of the Universe itself. And that Universe, whether invisible or seen, is the Goddess Herself who in a greater sense made it a virgin birth by being born from nothing and by no other agent than Herself. This view, strange as it may seem, is gaining wide support from cosmologists and their theories of the singularity that bred the Universe.
So not only do we celebrate the Star Child, but celebrate the greater birth of all things. And in this context we can celebrate our own births and beings, for we are part of the Mystery. And in this understanding growing within us we can begin to find peace of mind and soul, and laughter of great joy in the nativity of our world and ourselves. The great poet William Blake put it perfectly, ‘He who touches a joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.’ And in this Sunrise Yuletime who more privy to the Mystery but the babe, the Fool, and Old Father Christmas himself.
© The Estate of Ronald M. White
No comments yet.