Sunset at the Winter Solstice at Gors Fawr, Wales
Yuletide or Saturnalia as it was known took place over the 7 days before Christmas day as the sun entered the zodiacal sign of Capricorn (21st Dec), the sea-goat, but unfortunately there was no Father Christmas or Santa Claus in Shakespeare’s time. If you take into account that SANTA is an anagram of SATAN, who is represented in astrology as the planet Saturn or that the curious belief in Santa Claus was an invention or custom of the late 19th century and for Christians derived from the European saint St. Nicholas. However, this was a period when these days before the Winter Solstice were known as the “halcyon days”. It was a time of tranquillity and joy derived from a legend that the Kingfisher was breeding, and at this time the sea was calm and navigable by the mariner. Essentially, celebrations, festivities and customs as well as occasions for drama, focussed on the end of the “Old Year” and the beginning of the new around St. Lucia’s Day (December 13th). These notions were later transposed to the 1st January by the 15th and 16th century, largely because of persistent Scottish influences. For Catholics Christmas Eve became St. Thomas’s Day, conjoined with the “9 Lessons” festival drama followed by St. Stephen’s Feast Day (28th) or Almsgiving day, the Feast of Innocents (29th) and then into New Year’s Eve.
Moreover Saturnalia was celebrated by Mummer’s plays. Usually, a presenter, such as “Auld Nick” (ie: Father Xmas) would introduce the characters and announce their intent, for example the first warrior knight would appear boasting of his formidable strength, courage or accomplishments, then another (The Turk) would appear to take him on. A slashing sword combat would take place, and one would fall dead and soon after a Doctor would be called to revive him, and if this failed a minister with attendants (Beelzebub) would arrive to administer the last rites. Therefore within elements of the Mystery plays, Miracle plays and Morality plays we will find vestiges or correspondences to these earlier ritualistic masques or traditions that had taken place prior to the conversion of the British populace to Christianity. For example among the Celtic peoples the time of Christmas was celebrated in honour of the dead with Odin, who was thought to ride his horse across the heavens leading the hunt. Today that task is performed by Santa Claus, alias Old Nick or Father Christmas with a team of reindeer and a bag of presents for children. However, the clergy were keen to sanitise and censor much of what they considered to be inappropriate pantheism or idolatry in any respect to the old pagan ways. Mummer’s plays were often considered a threat by the Church Fathers partly because of their satirical innuendos and symbolic or allegorical content, where for example they were critical of the lies and hypocrisy of the Orthodox Church.
Chambers Book of Days, a compendium of annual and regional pagan and Christian festivities and customs, wrote in 1864:
“To investigate the origin of many of our Christmas customs, it becomes necessary to wander far back into the regions of past time…We have frequently, in the course of this work, had occasion to remark on the numerous traces still visible in popular customs of the old pagan rites and ceremonies. These, it is needless here to repeat, were extensively retained after the conversion of Britain to Christianity, partly because the Christian teachers found it impossible to wean their converts from their cherished superstitions and observances, and partly because they themselves, as a matter of expediency, engrafted the rites of the Christian religion onto their old heathen ceremonies, believing that thereby the cause of the Cross would be rendered more acceptable to the generality of the populace, and thus be more effectually promoted.”
Christmas Eve or Candlemass, as it was sometimes called, (often confused with Candlemass which takes place in February) was celebrated by the recitation of hymns and carols both in church and in the local community. Boughs of holly, mistletoe, and fir would be collected to decorate door thresholds and beams in the homes and churches. More especially Mummer’s Plays were usually performed at this time. Pagan customs such as burning of the Yule log and candle, or sharing of the Loving Cup would be drunk, love divination was entertained because evil or mischievous spirits were thought to have little influence at this time. Another magical custom was the “Wooden” (after Wodin) or “Hooden Horse” visits from place to place knocking at doors, the horse being a pagan symbol of the new Sun. The word “Yule” is actually of Nordic origin and refers to the month of July, although the actual feast was originally held in midwinter (Dec 21st) and transferred later to the 25th December.
The customary feast was in honour of the Teutonic gods Odin, Thor and Freya and consisted of three symbolic elements. Firstly, it was intended as a revival of the dead, the renewal of the life-force in nature, and as a commemoration of the end of the old year. The hunting rite of Odin, who hailed the souls of the dead warriors is now celebrated as Santa Claus riding his sleigh over the rooftops and the Christian Midnight Mass. For Catholics, New Year’s Day was associated with the circumcision of the infant Jesus. The associations with boar, duck, goat and deer reflect the primal fertility of nature. Evergreen trees featured strongly and a ritual log placed on a fire, usually oak or pine to commemorate the spirit of the new year as in the case of the Greek Dionysus, Phoenician Attis, or Celtic Balder. It was thought that ill-fortune or lightning would not strike a house where the Yule log was burning, it therefore acted as a pagan prophylactic charm. A grand feast was held accompanied by drinking bouts, with a meal of roasted Boar’s head intended to symbolise the Sun and in honour of Freya or Odin. The giving of Christmas presents originates from Germany as does the decoration of the traditional Christmas tree which symbolises the World Tree (Ygdrassil) of Germanic and Nordic myth. In fact tree worship at Christmas time is extensive and a vestige of earlier pagan practices. For example, the mistletoe, ivy, the holly and the oak all feature symbolically at this sacred time of the year.