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Saturday, December 20, 1997 Published at 08:19 GMT

Special Report

Whose Christmas is it anyway?
image: [ Pagans celebrate the winter solstice, on December 21 ]
Pagans celebrate the winter solstice, on December 21

Apparently, the season of good cheer did not start out as exclusively a Christian festival. According to Pagans, the early Christian church hijacked December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus because they saw that everyone was already having a good time and decided to take advantage of it.

Historical debate has been raging for a long time over the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ, with estimates ranging from sometime in September to much later in February.

But the most important date in the festive season for Pagans is the winter solstice which always takes place around December 21. Called Yule, it is one of the traditional Celtic fire festivals and marks the return of the light after the longest night of the year.

The Pagan Federation, an umbrella group for Pagan organisations, describes Paganism as a spiritual nature-venerating belief system rooted in the ancient nature religions of the world.

The term of Pagan covers Wiccans, better known as witches, followers of the Northern Tradition who base their beliefs on Norse and old northern European beliefs, and also Druidism.

Christians and the more secular Christmas revellers may be relieved to learn that Pagans in Britain do not tend to cavort around holly bushes stark naked, or "skyclad", to celebrate their version of Christmas.

High Priestess

" We celebrate the rebirth of the sun, not the son," said Kate West, High Priestess of a Wiccan coven in Cheshire.

[ image: The oak tree symbolises the summer]
The oak tree symbolises the summer
On the night before the solstice she meets with the members of her coven, which number anywhere between 12 and 20, at a local beauty spot, to "enact the battle of the oak and the holly king."

The holly and the oak tree represent the two opposites of winter and summer respectively. Two male members of the coven wear crowns of either oak or holly and perform a ceremonial fight.

"Then we drum and chant to bring up the sun" said Ms West, whose coven, called the Hearth of Hecate, wears black robes for the occasion "because they don't show the dirt as much as white ones."

[ image: The holly bush represents the winter, it battles with the oak tree twice a year]
The holly bush represents the winter, it battles with the oak tree twice a year
Ms West said that the winter solstice was not the most important Pagan ceremony for Wiccans, that distinction goes to their new year at Hallowe'en.

She said that many Pagans do celebrate Christmas, but mainly for the children and "you are unlikely to see a nativity scene in a witches house".

Ms West, who is also an author on the subject of witchcraft, estimates that there are roughly 20,000 Pagans in Britain today and says it was a rapidly growing religion: "It's is the thinking person's religion ... with nobody to intercede between you and your god and no one to tell you what to think" she said.

"It's certainly too cold at this time of year to run about with no clothes on," said Dhyan Sargam, a witch from Berkshire.

He and his circle of about 20 warmly-dressed Pagans celebrate the festival of "light and healing" by holding a torchlit procession around a maze near Winchester.

They picked this area in particular because it is close to Twyford Down, the site of a contentious road bypass which some activists argued was environmentally damaging. When they get to the middle of the maze, they say a few healing prayers and go home and have a big party.

"For us we decided to have fireworks to mark the return of light. We took advice from the police because obviously people don't expect fireworks at this time of year ... we've done this now for years," he said.

"I'm not a Pagan because I'm anti-Christian, I'm a Pagan because I believe in a variety of Pagan deities." he said.

But, in common with many Christians, Mr Sargam said: "The commercialisation is not something we like ... to make this time of year an overtly commercial affair is inappropriate."

Eat, drink and be merry

[ image: Pagans light candles to welcome back the light]
Pagans light candles to welcome back the light
Seasonal rites vary among different sorts of Pagans from full-scale services with special robes, chalices and the lighting of candles to a little light meditation.

Many Pagans say that Christmas was superimposed over their great year-end festivals which were very popular in the Graeco-Roman world.

Firstly, the customs of giving presents, eating too much and generally having fun comes from the Roman festival Saturnalia which used to be celebrated around December 17.

Saturn was the Roman God of agriculture and plenty, and gift giving symbolised the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor during the season of greatest hardship. Big feasts were generally laid on by the rich to feed their poorer neighbours.

The next big ancient festival was the solstice feast of Mithras, the Roman God of light on December 25. This was the one adopted by Christians sometime around the 4th century as the birthday of Jesus. Traditionally, this festival marked the renewal of hope.

For modern Pagans, the solstice is the most important time. It is often called Yule, after the Scandinavian tradition, or Mother-Night from the Anglo-Saxon tradition. On this, the longest night of the year, they celebrate the return of light and an end to darkness.

The third celebration is New Year's Eve, originally dedicated to the two-faced Roman god Janus, who looked both forward and back. At this festival there were torchlit processions, lots of songs, present giving, fortune telling and people would decorate their houses with all sorts of greenery to symbolise new life.

Much of the ancient new year celebrations, such as gathering greenery in the form of a fir tree or holly, have now moved back to start at what is the beginning of the modern Christmas season.

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