A summary of traditions from European cultures is presented here in the hope that something will “click” and help make some of your memories less confusing.
Some of the old pagan customs, such as Christmas trees and feasting, were subsumed by Christianity and live on today. Satanic cults pervert both Christian and pagan holidays and so pagan customs are also preserved in their rituals. Since cults observe both the Winter Solstice and Christmas, some pagan traditions may appear twice within a few days. Outside of Neo-Pagan groups, the solstice generally goes by without notice in the larger society.
The solstice is the end of lengthening nights and the beginning of shorter nights and longer days. In many cultures it was a time of hope, even though warm days were far in the future. Symbolically, the solstice was connected with the death and rebirth of the sun.
In England, the solstice was always very important. Stonehenge, dating from about 2000 BC, was built to bring in the light of the solstice sunset. There is a structure in Ireland, Newgrange, which is even older (about 3000 BC) and a similar structure in Scotland which were designed to let in the solstice sunrise.
The word Yule comes from The old Norse jol; geola in Old English. These days it is Jul in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Jol in Iceland, Joulu in Finland, and Jõulud in Estonia. It was the name of a mid-winter festival lasting twelve days and has come to mean Christmas in England.
In Scandinavia, bonfires were lit to symbolize the heat and light of the returning sun. A Yule log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the god Thor. The tradition of the Yule log spread through Europe. In some countries, a piece of the log was kept for good luck and to light the next year’s log. In others, it was completely burned and the ashes were added to the animal’s feed, used to fertilizer fruit trees, kept for luck, or used as medicine. In England, bonfires were lit and the hearth fires were extinguished and relit from the bonfires, signifying new beginnings.
Even though people were not sure they could make it through the winter without starving, the solstice was universally celebrated with a feast. Cattle and pigs were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed through the winter and meat was, for once, plentiful. (Today roast beef and ham are traditional Christmas meals.) The wine, beer, and cider made in the fall was ready to drink. In some parts of England people wore disguises and danced, in others they went from house to house wassailing (drinking), or gave each other presents.
The Christmas tree goes back to pre-Christian times. Evergreens were sacred to many peoples, including the ancient Greeks, Celts, and Germans. In Rome, priests cut a sacred pine and brought it into the temples. The Celts brought offerings to pine and firs in the forest because their green needles represented life enduring through the long, cold winter. Decorating the trees with dried fruit and berries was both an offering and a way to hasten the return of spring.
Evergreen boughs and branches of holly and ivy — both were considered magical — were cut and made into wreathes. The shape of the wreath symbolized the cycle of the year; holly represented the Goddess and ivy the God. Sometimes whole trees were cut and brought into the houses.
Mistletoe comes from the Druids, not the Celts. It was revered because it grew in oak trees, which were sacred, and because it had berries in mid-winter. It had many properties; it protected against illness and misfortune and spread good will, even between enemies. The berries made women fertile. Thus kissing under the mistletoe meant that the couple promised themselves to each other.
The Vikings also used mistletoe in the winter solstice celebration. Frigga, the mother of Balder, god of truth and light, personification of the Sun, dreamed that he would die. She begged all the plants and animals on earth not to kill him. Loki, god of mischief and chaos, personification of darkness, told the mistletoe that because it didn’t have its own roots it wasn’t obligated to refrain from killing. Loki then shot Balder with an arrow poisoned by the mistletoe. Frigga cried so hard that her tears turned the red berries of the mistletoe white and brought Balder back to life. She was so happy she went around kissing everyone while holding the mistletoe.
In Rome, one winter festival was called Brumalia (from bruma, the shortest day) and lasted a whole month, from November 24 to December 25. It was celebrated as late as the 6th century AD. Brumalia was in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine, and culminated in a big feast on the eve of December 24.
Another festival, called Saturnalia, commemorated the building of the temple to Saturn in Rome. (Saturn was the god of agricultural plenty.) It usually started December 17 and could last from three to seven days. Social hierarchies were reversed and slaves were allowed to act as masters, while their owners waited on them. Candles were lit, gambling was permitted, schools were closed, and no work took place. Gifts, some modest, some expensive, were exchanged. There was a public banquet on December 17 and feasts and lots of drinking continued through the festival period.
Ancient Greece didn’t seem to have a solstice festival per se. But in February, they celebrated Lenaea, when women danced in the mountains in honor of Dionysus (Bacchus’ counterpart.) A man or a bull, representing Dionysus, was torn to pieces and eaten, and then a baby, representing the reborn Dionysus, was presented to the women and nurtured. In later years, a goat was sacrificed instead of a man or bull. Several centuries later, plays and poetry were entered into competition, though it is not clear what meaning this held.
Most of these customs seem harmless, even beautiful. But remember that cults are very good at finding ways to reverse ideas and customs to make them torturous. Death is substituted for birth, starvation for feasting. If you ask yourself, “How could they have perverted this?” you may find that you trigger a memory or a feeling.
The days preceding Christmas and lasting through New Year’s are very difficult for almost all ritual abuse survivors. Take some time now, if you haven’t already done so, to think ahead and plan ways to take care of yourself. Have written plans to keep yourself safe from others who may be dangerous and from your own self-destructive impulses, if needed. Think of ways to soothe yourself when you become upset and try to create some healthy, joyous activities to replace the sick ones forced on you by the cult. You, all of you, deserve to be treated with gentleness and understanding.