Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Winter myths

and the links to Christmas.

In Celtic mythology the Oak (Summer) King and the Holly (Winter) King were twins, pitted against each other in a never-ending fight for supremacy. Oak trees, sacred to the Celts, lose their leaves, while the  holly trees are evergreen. The Holly King is now known as Santa Claus. He wears red and bears holly leaves and berries in his hat. He drives a team of eight deer (or reindeer) because deer were highly sacred to the Celtic Gods. The number eight represents the eight sabbats of the solar calendar.

As cold weather approached, the Celts marvelled at how the evergreen holly trees, hidden amongst the leafy oaks during the rest of the year, now stood out prominently, with their red fruits, on an otherwise barren landscape. The Holly King had won the battle, as the incarnations of his twin brother had shed all their oak leaves and stood naked in defeat.

By the time the winter solstice arrives, the tide has turned. The Oak King’s flow in power is the Holly King’s ebb. The deciduous twin takes his first baby steps towards re-establishing his supremacy. The battle between the two Kings takes place; the Oak King kills the Holly King and takes his place. The Oak King is the modern-day New Year, the fresh and young child-god that beckons mother nature to re-new herself as he brings the warm rays of the sun back.

Dancing the Night Away weaves this Celtic myth into a piece of fanfiction.

Winter Solstice, the time of the year when the days get longer and the sun begins to return was truly a cause for celebration among our ancestors in Scandinavia. Their Midwinter Feast lasted at least twelve days. So there are the twelve days of Christmas.

At Midwinter, or Solstice, the Vikings honored their Asa Gods with religious rituals and feasting. They sacrificed a wild boar to Frey, the God of fertility and farming, to assure a good growing season in the coming year. The meat was then cooked and eaten at the feast. This is the origin of today's Christmas ham in Scandinavia.

 Another Viking tradition was the Yulelog, a large oak log decorated with sprigs of fir, holly or yew. They carved runes on it, asking the Gods to protect them from misfortune. A piece of the log was saved to protect the home during the coming year and light next year's fire.

During the festivities they burned a giant Sunwheel, which was put on fire and rolled down a hill to entice the Sun to return. According to one theory, this is the origin of the Christmas wreath.

Even the Christmas tree goes back to pre-Christian times. The Vikings decorated evergreen trees with pieces of food and clothes, small statues of the Gods, carved runes, etc., to entice the tree spirits to come back in the spring.

 Ancient myths surround the Mistletoe. The Vikings believed it could resurrect the dead, a belief based on a legend about the resurrection of Balder, God of Light and Goodness, who was killed by a mistletoe arrow but resurrected when tears of his mother Frigga turned the red mistletoe berries white.

The Yule Goat, (Swedish julbock, Finnish joulupukki, Norwegian julebukk) is one of the oldest Scandinavian Christmas symbols. Its origin is the legend about the Thundergod Thor who rode in the sky in a wagon pulled by two goats. An old custom was for young people to dress up in goat skins and go from house to house and sing and perform simple plays. They were rewarded with food and drink. The Yule Goat at one time also brought Yule gifts.

Old Man Winter was welcomed into homes to join the festivities. Dressed in a hooded fur coat, Father Christmas traveled either by foot or on a giant white horse. Some think that this horse may have been Odin's horse Sleipnir and that Father Christmas was originally Odin, who was often depicted with a long beard. When the Vikings conquered Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries, he was introduced there and became the English Father Christmas.

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