The River Reporter
Thursday, December 26, 1991

Gimme that oldtime
Yuletide religion


            The common slogan that urges "put Christ back into Christmas" might more justly ask that the Hebrew mother-goddess Asherah and the Persian sun god Mithra be put back into the winter festival that is rightly theirs.
            During the Middle Ages, Yule -- the Norse name for the winter solstice festival -- was assimilated into the Christmas festival along with many of its pagan trappings, such as mistletoe, holly, ivy, pine boughs, lighted trees, wassail bowls, suckling pigs, Yule logs, carols, gifts and feasting. Around the end of the fourth century the Christian fathers appropropriated the December 25th holiday to mark the birth of the Jewish carpenter in whose name the new religion was founded. It was more than coincidence that this precise date, under the Julian calendar, was regarded as the winter solstice, when the nativity of the sun was celebrated.
            Only by shedding the blood of countless pagan martyrs did the holy armies of the emperor Constantine succeed in superimposing a patriarchal system onto much of Europe and Asia.
            Pure religion initially arose from the sense of awe humanity naturally felt before the wonders of heaven and earth, the planet's life force, and the process of reproduction. In the earliest religions, before males were known to have a role in reproduction all creative deities were portrayed as women, or, at least, a goddess figure was included for worship. Sometimes, a paired lady and lord -- Ashtaroth and Elohim in the Hebrew/Canaanite pantheon, for example -- were worshipped together.
            Over the next milennia, however, such pairs were split and the feminine aspect of the divine principle dropped. Goddesses that inspired deep and sacred feelings in hearts of the ancients were represented in later sculptures as the personifications of evil, abominations, or the "mother of harlots."

"The virgin has brought forth"
            Ancient Persians, with later variations among the Greeks and Romans, regarded Mithra as the ruler of the universe. At this time of year the birth of Mithra's holy child was celebrated. Egyptians observed the occasion by retiring to private sanctuaries and emerging at midnight with the loud shout, "The virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!" The Egyptians' representation of the newborn sun god, Horus, son of Isis, was a male infant, who was brought froth and displayed to the worshippers on his birthday, the winter solstice.
            The virgin who bore a son on the 25th of December was none other than Ashtaroth, Asherah or Astarte -- the goddess whom ancient Canaanites and Hebrews called the Queen of Heaven (Jer. 7:17-18) or Lady of the Sea. She is mentioned more than 40 times, usually in a negative sense, in the Old Testament as we know it.
            The virgin mother was a chief diety of western Asia. She was regarded sometimes as wife, sometimes as sister, of the Hebrew god El (Elohim). Her image, a pregnant virgin, is represented in ancient temples which have been unearthed by archaeologists. Aspects of the Ashtaroth myth bear remarkable similarities to the Virgin Mary story, except that the Christian Madonna has been domesticated and subjegated by the Father figure.
Birth celebrations in fire and light
            Winter solstice, this year [1991] at 3:54 EST on December 22, marks the start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. At this moment the sun, which has reached its southernmost point, begins its northward trek.
            Fire always has been the key element in ritual celebrations of the sun's rebirth. Heath fires, bonfires, burning candles and lanterns have long been the earthly source of light, warmth and life-giving energy used to symbolize the power of the sun. Today electricity is also used to kindle light in observance of the holiday season.
            For three days in mid-December (the 17th to 19th) the ancient Romans honored Saturn, god of agricultural fertility, with feasting, revelery, decorations of berries and evergreens, a moratorium on war and interpersonal strife, and the suspension of workday obligations. On this holiday masters customarily served their slaves, which symbolized reversal or renewal. People gave candles as presents because light was believed to offer a magical boost to the failing powers of the winter sun.
            St. Lucia's Day on December 13, which marked the winter solstice until the revision of the calendar by Pope Gregory in 1582, is still observed in Sicily, Sweden, and some other places. St. Lucia, whose name is derived from "lux," meaning light, symbolizes the return lof light to the world. During her festival a girl representing Lucia rides through the village before dawn dressed in white garments with a red sash and wearing in her hair a crown of wortleberry twigs set with nine lighted candles.
            People called witches by the church apparently remembered St. Lucia as the pagan goddess Lucina. As late as 1890 witches in Tuscany used Lucina's charm, a wreath of rue tied with red ribbon, to heal patients, who were instructed to spit three times through the wreath while calling on the saint for protection from evil.
            Evergreen and holly wreats displayed during Yuletide combine both solar and tree-god elements. The circular shape of the wreath illustrates the path of the sun, the cycle of birth and death, the cycle of the seasons, the beginningless, endless cycle of eternity, and the crown of kings.
            Another solstice tradition borrowed by Christians and still practiced in parts of Germany is rolling "St. Catherine's Wheel" to herald the turning of the year. A large cartwheel with a human straw figure tied to the center is ignited and rolled downhill to symbolize the sun. Among Gostic Christians based in the Sinai desert in the 8th century CE, the Asiatic goddess was portrayed as the Dancer on the Fiery Wheel as the Hub of the Universe. Priestess-nuns of a Greek convent that still stands in the Sinai called themselves kathari, or "pure ones," a term reminiscent of the Kathakali temple dancers of India who performed the Dance of Time in honor of Kali, goddess of the karmic wheel. In the 15th and 16th centuries, after the kathari were exterminated, Catholic prelates tried to have St. Catharine decanonized.
            Burning the Yule log is a better-known custom and a vestige of god sacrifice. In native European religions, including those of the Celts, Norse and Teutons, trees were venerated as earthly representatives of the gods. The tradition of sacrificing a mighty tree god was a plea for the sun god to take pity on his children and return once more. Dragging in the Yule log was a grand occasion. Passers-by would tip their hats in salutation and call out greetings. Songs were sung to the great log, which often was decorated with evergreens and ribbons. The youngest child poured a libation of wine over the log.
            Fire rituals associated with Yule season include exploding firecrackers and feasing on the traditional flaming plum pudding. In west England people drink cans of cider containing lighted candles. In the game of "snapdragon," popular until relatively recently, a large flaming dish of raisins immersed in brandy was ceremonially carried into a darkened room. Players would plunge their hands into the flames to retrieve the fruit.
Oh, Tannenbaum
            During the winter solstice in prehistoric times, Celtic priests trimmed sacred oak trees with apples and burning candles to offer thanks to the gods who gave them sunlight and fruit.
            According to another legend combining pagan and Christian elements, Joseph of Aramathea (who, the New Testament states, took Jesus down from the cross and placed him in his tomb) brought the gospel to Britain. Joseph reportedly grew tired as he climbed a steep hill on Christmas Eve. Stopping to rest he pushed the end of his hawthorn walking stick into the ground. The stick burst into leaf and bloom, giving him courage to go on. (Like fir trees, hawthorn is alwo an important pagan symbol of fertility and eternal life.) Reputed descendants of this sacred hawthorn are displayed at Glastonbury Abbey in England.
            The Yule tree as we know it may be related to a representation of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, commonly used as a prop in Midieval mystery plays. These re-enactments of the expulsion of Adam and Eve included a fir tree within a circle of lighted candles. The evergreen tree, called the Paradise Tree, was hung with apples and symbolized the temptation and fall of humanity. By the end of the 15th century the Western church banned performances of these mystery plays, but the only prop in the Paradise Play -- the tree -- began to appear in private homes and came to symbolize redemption and eternal life.
By any name
            Countless myths and legends surround this magical time of year. They seem to thread around and through each other and are often difficult to untwine. Most relgions have some special celebration or festival -- usually related to light -- around the time of the winter solstice. Many also recognize the season as a time to make an extra effort at interpersonal -- or international -- harmony by recognizing the spiritual light that burns in every person.


Letter to the Editor
January 16, 1992, p. 4

To the Editor:

You may just as well have printed "Bah Humbug in your Christmas issue (Dec. 26) as you did Tom Rue's column. It was inappropriate and offensive.

His tirade against Christmas and "all its trappings of holly, ivy, lighted tres, etc." conveyed a contempt that was evident throughout despite his well and carefully camouflaged guise behind all that mythological data. What was his motivation in writing that? Surely it must have puzzled other readers beside myself. Is Christmas a threat to him? Will public creches and caroling and prayer in the schools be next on his list?

To be sure, many symbols and customs of the celebration may and do coincide with the Middle Ages and the Old Testament, Winter Solstice and the like, but therein lies the very core of our faith, all-embracing, so to speak, both the old and new. We believe the Messiah has come as predicted by the Hebrew prophets, hence, and I quote "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us."

In the Old Testament, God was angry at the Jews for worshiping these pagan Gods (Rue refers to s often) and gave to Moses the Ten Commandments for his people, the first of which clearly states, "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not place false gods before Me, thou shalt not make of thyself a graven thing or the likeness of anything in the Heavens above or the earth beneath thou shalt not adore them nor serve them."

Finally, to me its the last straw, his article goes on to attack the beloved Crusades of my childhood epics, who went on to victory bearing The Sign Of The Cross after this very sign was so emblazoned across the heavens in Latin it read "In Hoc Signo Vinces."

Tom Rue writes, "Gimme that old time, yuletide religion." I say gladly, whatever that is. What it may stand for is unclear to me, but I do not dispute it if he wants to dance around the Hebrew goddess Asherah and other pagan deities, let him. Far be it from me to denigrate his or anyone's religion but neither should he denigrate mine.

I am writing this hopefully to enlighten some of your other puzzled readers, hopefully you will print it.

A disgruntled reader
[Name withheld upon request]


The Spiral Dance

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