December 17th 2017
At this time of the year, you will probably speak to Pagans who are celebrating Yule on or around 22nd December. That doesn't preclude us from celebrating Christmas on December 25th with most of the Western World, but what's the difference?
Yule is a celebration of the longest night. We have gone through the growing darkness since the days started to grow shorter and shorter from the Autumn Equinox. On Yule, or Midwinter, we mark the shortest day, the longest night, and the re-birth of the sun as it begins its yearly movement pattern once more. For us, the Sun represents the God figure, so we are celbrating the re-birth of the God as a spark of light is born in the darkness. We often cellebrate with ceremonies that take us into absolute darkness, before a match is struck and the god is re-born once more, to grow in strength between now and Midsummer.
DID THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH APPROPRIATE A PAGAN FESTIVAL?
Probably. By its very nature, Christianity is a religion of Evangelism, i.e. Christian Missionaries would set out seeking to convert people to their own path. The Christian Church came to England as early as the 1st Century C.E. with the Roman Empire, but it wasn't until much later, when Constantine was the emporor of Rome and actually converted to Christianity himself, that the Church's own push towards evangelism really started to take off. It had to be accepted within the Roman Empire first, and then once Constantine was on board, things started to change.
During the 4th Century, Christianity became more visible, but it had not yet become the accepted religion of the people, who were still practicing their own pagan forms of faith. One of the ways of making Christianity more attractive to the general population was to incorporate many of the Pagan festivals into the new Chrsitianity. That way it was less of a cultural leap for people to make in converting, and it eased their transition.
THE ANCIENT PAGAN ORIGINS OF YULE
Yule really ties us to our European cousins. The traditions of the Yule Log and decorating the Christmas tree can be traced back to our Norse cousins, while the Druid Celts would sacrifice a white bull and decorate with mistletoe. A lot of the traditions are shrouded in mystery, as they were based on oral tradition, and were not written down, so we can only guess at the meaning of some of them. For example, many of the standing stones around the UK are alligned with the setting sun on Midwinter, but we don't really know how or why.
If you want to know more about the specific traditions associated with Christmas or Yule, the recommended reading would be Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun, as it charts the history of each tradition in more detail.
There is also a really good edition of Radio 4's Beyond Belief, in which Ernie Rea explores the pagan origins of Christmas with Ronald Hutton, professor of History at Bristol University; JJ Middleway, a celebrant and ritualist based in the Druid tradition; and the reverend Steve Hollinghurst, a Church of England vicar and author of 'New Age Paganism and Christian Mission'.
OTHER MID-WINTER FESTIVALS
However, the UK is not the first place to celebrate the festival of Midwinter. Most cultures have a Mid-winter festival. For example, in Ancient Egypt, it was celebrated as the point in which the sun God Ra or Horus began life anew. For example, the Temple of Abu Simbel which was built in Nubia by Rameses the Great and completed in 1265 B.C.E. is dedicated to Ra-Horachty (amongst others). On Mid-Winter point, the sun comes through the opening in the temple, and falls directly on the statue of Ra.
While in Ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated at this time, celebrating Saturn in his agricultural context. At Saturnalia, the people generally te, got drunk and made merry, exchanging gifts and generally being debauched for a period of about a week.
All around the world, people need to have a point of hope in the darkest time of the year, so most traditions and religions will have some form of festival at the Mid-winter point. Their common themes are hope in times of darkness, the rebirth of the child of promise, or the divine spark of light in the darkest time of the year. For example, in Judaism, Channukah celebrates the miracle of the temple light, which stayed alight for eight days when a siege meant there was only enough oil to last one day.