These are the darkest days of the year. Insofar as we today — and polytheists of the past — felt that it is important to celebrate the return of the sun, we have celebrated, feasted, and made offerings around this time.
The word solstice comes from the Latin words meaning “sun” and “to stand still” because the sun seems to stand still in the sky for a time on the Solstices. It is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. As some food for thought, in New York City on the Winter Solstice, we get about 9 hours of daylight, compared to 15 hours of daylight on the Summer Solstice.
The time around the Winter Solstice was also a common time for important rituals and feasts in the polytheist cultures of Europe. The hearth cultures I’ll be discussing here are Germanic, Roman, Celtic, and Slavic.
Germanic pagans today celebrate Yule around the Winter Solstice, although not always on the solstice. There are only a few things we know for certain about how Norse and Anglo-Saxon polytheists celebrated midwinter, which I describe in more detail here. To sum up: we know there was a sacrificial boar, especially sacred oaths, three days of feasting and drinking, and probably rituals for the ancestors. Certainly ham and New Year’s resolutions are similar modern customs. Even Christmas trees originated from Germany.
There are also several similarities between modern Christmastime traditions from the Roman polytheists. The Romans famously celebrated Saturnalia, which was celebrated on December 17th. It became one of the most important festivals of the year. Gambling was legal. Freemen served meals to their slaves. Overall everything was “topsy turvy.” Notably, gifts were given to children and between friends. It is likely this custom was the source of our Christmastime gift-giving. Saturnalia was very popular at the time the Roman Empire came under the control of Christian emperors. Several scholars argue that Saturnalia influenced early Christian practices.
The Romans also celebrated a “sun child” or the Sol Invictus. From 375 CE the celebratory date of Sol Invictus had been on December 25th. Unfortunately, scholars and pagans disagree about who Sol Invictus was and whether this holiday was the reason Christmas was set to December 25th.
And now I come to the Celts and Wiccans among us pagans. I do sympathize. The modern Wheel of the Year has very Celtic names and then all of a sudden…Yule. What? The problem is, we don’t seem to have a lot of information on how Celts celebrated midwinter.
Chris Godwin‘s article on the Celtic Winter Solstice is both insightful and useful. Some of the important themes of the winter and the Winter Solstice are similar to what we’ve already seen here. First, there was a midwinter feast. Second, the lore has a “battle” over the light half and dark half of the year. And finally, the lore also has a miraculous child that is attested in several Celtic cultures.
Slavic polytheism is difficult to find source material for in English, and Slavic is an umbrella term that encompasses a vast regional area. However, in an attempt to find some common Slavic traditions for the Winter Solstice, I have gathered this information.
Koliada is a common name for a midwinter festival in Slavic countries, which is still a part of modern Christmas traditions. The Eastern Orthodox calendar has their Christmas in January, and possibly Koliada was also celebrated after the Winter Solstice. Koliada is considered the beginning of the new year.
The holiday was possibly related to the god Koliada, who has an association with the sun. There is also the winter goddess Marzanna, who is banished after winter is over, similar to the Cailleach. There is also evidence that Slavic polytheists sacrificed horses, cows, bears, and other animals at this time, so possibly this holiday was associated with fertility like the Scandinavian Yule.
Other Slavic pagans focus on Veles during the winter, as he is considered a deity of the forests, animals (including cows and bears), death, and wintertime. Some also focus on their ancestors, which is a common Indo-European theme for a culture’s new year.
Some Final Thoughts for New Pagans
As a final note, however you want to practice, calendars have changed throughout time; polytheists have lived in different regions with different climate and environment; very little happened on the exact days of the neo pagan wheel of the year. Don’t stress about having to do it “right”, simply focus on the meaning of the season and the numinous beings – deities, spirits, and ancestors – who you want to honor/worship at this time of year.
There are two specifically modern ways to celebrate the Winter Solstice that I personally love. First, there is the heathen tradition of Sunwait. This is a take on the Christian Advent for us to wait for the Sun’s return. Every week up to Yule, you light six candles one at a time. It’s really a lovely tradition.
Secondly, there is a druid way to celebrate the coming of the Solstice, much like the Christmas Advent calendars people may be used to. Reverend Jan Avende wrote this book on Winter Solstice Spirals, sold at The Magical Druid. The intention is to light a candle in the three weeks prior to the Solstice, and there is a short ritual for each day’s candle. Many of the themes for each night revolve around Indo-European concepts that any pagan could adapt to a specific practice.
All websites accessed December 2020.
- “Christmas Tree.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_tree
- M. Sentia Figula “Calendar.” Roman Pagan. https://romanpagan.wordpress.com/calendar/
- R. M. Ogilvie. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus. W. W. Norton and Company. 1969. Page 98.
- M. Sentia Figula. “The Invincible Sun.” neo polytheist. http://romanpagan.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-unconquered-sun-sol-invictus.html
- Gene Veith. “Christmas is NOT based on the feast of Sol Invictus.” Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2012/12/christmas-is-not-based-on-the-feast-of-sol-invictus/
- “Sol Invictus.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sol_Invictus
- “Saturnalia.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
- Chris Godwin. “22 Celtic Winter Solstice Customs and Traditions.” Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/fromacommonwell/2017/12/22-celtic-winter-solstice-customs-traditions/
- “Koliada.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koliada
- “Koliada (deity).” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koliada_(deity)
- Emily. “Winter Gods.” The Slavic Polytheist. https://slavicpolytheist.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/winter-gods/
- Kseniia S. “Slavic Pagan Holidays Throughout The Year.” Slavorum. https://www.slavorum.org/slavic-pagan-holidays-throughout-the-year/
- “Velesa Den (Feb 12).” Solntsa Roshcha. https://solntsaroshcha.wordpress.com/velesa-den-feb-12/
- Rev. Jan Avende. “Winter Solstice Spiral: Overview.” Mist to Open. Mists to Bind. https://hellenicdruid.com/2017/11/29/winter-solstice-spiral-liturgy-overview/
- The Magical Druid Listing for The Spiraling Sun: https://www.magicaldruid.com/product/spiraling-sun-a-winter-solstice-liturgy-the/1500