The wonderful thing about the winter solstice is the supremacy of light over darkness.
I do not mean this spiritually; I mean this literally. Midwinter descends into its nadir in the days prior to the celebration of Yule. It is a universal human desire to feel the sun on our faces; nothing creates a stronger desire for warmth than the chill of winter, which we feel most strongly around the darkest, longest days of the year. In response to this need, numerous mid-winter celebrations sprang up across the darkest parts of the world, including places as far-flung from the expected Celtic and Norse countries as Japan and Viet Nam.
Like rivers flowing to the sea, many traditions have converged together to celebrate one day of the year, which those in the West typically (but reductively) think of as Christmas. Christmas, however, is only one of many mid-winter celebrations anticipating the resurgence of the sun. The common thread that connects these traditions is the desire to banish the cold winter nights, hoping for spring to reemerge. To this end, most cultures evolved a worship of light, which meant candles, burning the ‘jul,’ or yule log, and large bonfires.
Most of these traditions, which, at one time, meant animal and/or human sacrifice, were incorporated and made less bloody by Christianity as it spread its influence. We have therefore inherited an amalgam of beliefs and behaviors, which is why we often have no idea why we do what we do (go to church and notice the pagan yule tree standing next to the altar, for example).
The traditions that most of us celebrate in the Northern climes involve some form of Germanic paganism, for example. We usually sit down to a groaning table of food while burning a yule log in the fireplace (or, we used to; now that fireplaces are increasingly out of fashion, this happens less and less often, sadly).
Yule or Yule-tide (“Yule-time”) is a winter festival that was initially celebrated by the historical Germanic people as a pagan religious festival, though it was later absorbed into, and equated with, the Christian festival of Christmas. The festival was originally celebrated from late December to early January on a date determined by the lunar Germanic calendar. The festival was placed on December 25 when the Christian calendar (Julian calendar) was adopted.
Terms with an etymological equivalent to “Yule” are still used in the Nordic Countries for the Christian Christmas, but also for other religious holidays of the season. In modern times this has gradually led to a more secular tradition under the same name as Christmas. Yule is also used to a lesser extent in English-speaking countries to refer to Christmas. Customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule. In modern times, Yule is observed as a cultural festival and also with religious rites by some Christians and by some Neopagans.
Although nowadays many people like to reach back to the Greeks and Romans for the inception of what have become celebrations at Christmas-time, in fact, those of us in the West celebrate more like Pagan Germanic tribes than the Greeks or the Romans. Roman Saturnalia, held in the weeks prior to December 23rd, deriving from Greek Kronia, the festival of Kronos, which became Roman Saturnus, or Saturn (Satan, once Christians got their hands on him) holds less sway over our imaginations now than the yule log or the ‘Christmas’ tree, brought in from the cold forest and bedecked with candles.
I don’t think you want to engage in this practice on Christmas day, for example:
In the Aegean civilizations, the exclusively female midwinter ritual, Lenaea or Lenaia, was the Festival of the Wild Women. In the forest, a man or bull representing the god Dionysus was torn to pieces and eaten by Maenads. Later in the ritual a baby, representing Dionysus reborn, was presented. Lenaion, the first month of the Delian calendar, derived its name from the festival’s name. By classical times, the human sacrifice had been replaced by that of a goat, and the women’s role had changed to that of funeral mourners and observers of the birth.
Wine miracles were performed by the priests, in which priests would seal water or juice in a room overnight and the next day they would have turned into wine. The miracle was said to have been performed by Dionysus and the Lenaians. By the 5th century BC the ritual had become a Gamelion festival for theatrical competitions, often held in Athens in the Lenaion theater. The festival influenced the ancient Roman Brumalia.
And I doubt this has much influence in your household:
Originally celebrated by the ancient Greeks as Kronia, the festival of Cronus, Saturnalia was the feast at which the Romans commemorated the dedication of the temple of Saturn, which originally took place on 17 December, but expanded to a whole week, up to 23 December. A large and important public festival in Rome, it involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch set in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately.
The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves during this period. The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e., colorful, informal “dinner clothes” and the pileus (freedman’s hat) was worn by everyone. Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with disrespect.
The slaves celebrated a banquet before, with, or served by the masters. Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals which led to more tomfoolery, marked chiefly by having masters and slaves ostensibly switch places, temporarily reversing the social order. In Greek and Cypriot folklore it was believed that children born during the festival were in danger of turning into Kallikantzaroi which come out of the Earth after the solstice to cause trouble for mortals. Some would leave colanders on their doorsteps to distract them until the sun returned.
This seems like a nice ritual, although, as with most traditions at mid-winter, there is a dark overtone, a fear of ghosts and spirits who must be banished along with the night:
Early Germans (c.500–1000) considered the Norse goddess, Hertha or Bertha to be the goddess of light, domesticity and the home. They baked yeast cakes shaped like shoes, which were called Hertha’s slippers, and filled with gifts. “During the Winter Solstice houses were decked with fir and evergreens to welcome her coming. When the family and serfs were gathered to dine, a great altar of flat stones was erected and here a fire of fir boughs was laid.
Hertha descended through the smoke, guiding those who were wise in saga lore to foretell the fortunes of those persons at the feast”.There are also darker versions of Perchta which terrorize children along with Krampus. Many cities had practices of dramatizing the gods as characters roaming the streets. These traditions have continued in the rural regions of the Alps, and various similar traditions, such as Wren day, survived in the Celtic nations until recently. This is commonly used in Holland.
Wren day looks like this, by the way:
For an unknown period, Lá an Dreoilín or Wren day has been celebrated in Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales on December 26. Crowds of people, called wrenboys, take to the roads in various parts of Ireland, dressed in motley clothing, wearing masks or straw suits and accompanied by musicians supposedly in remembrance of the festival that was celebrated by the Druids. Previously the practice involved the killing of a wren, and singing songs while carrying the bird from house to house, stopping in for food and merriment.
Speaking of animals at mid-winter, one of the more interesting conflations of Santa Claus with animals involves the Swedish tradition of Jultomte (Father Christmas) being borne by a goat.
Jultomte, being carried by his jul goat
Its origins might go as far back as pre-Christian days, when the Norse god Thor rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats. During the 19th century the goats’ role shifted towards becoming the giver of Christmas gifts, in Finland as well as the rest of Scandinavia, with one of the men in the family dressing up as the Yule Goat. The goat was replaced by jultomte or julenisse (Father Christmas/Santa Claus) at the end of the century. Nowadays, all that remains of this tradition is the construction of the Yule Goat, made of straw.
The julbock, made of straw and hanging from the tree
Gävle goat, in the same town that makes Gevalia, the world's best coffee