As Yule approaches…..thoughts and folklore

YULE the time of the year when Jesus was supposed to have been born is not recorded in the New Testament. However the fact that the shepherds who first received the news of his birth from angelic beings were, according to the popular carol, ‘tending their flocks by night’ suggests that it may have been in the early spring rather than midwinter. In fact December 25th seems to have been selected as the Christian messiah’s birthday in the 4th century CE to replace pagan rites of sun worship at the winter solstice (‘sun standstill’ or the shortest day) that falls either on the 21st or 22nd of the month. It is known from archaeological evidence that this time of the year was important to the megalithic culture of prehistoric Europe because of the number of stone circles, standing stones and burial chambers aligned to the solstice sunrise or sunset. Although it was not so significant to the people of the Iron Age, midwinter or Yule (from Yol or ‘wheel’) was important to the Germanic and Nordic tribes of northern Europe and possibly also to their Bronze Age predecessors. At this time, temples, shrines and houses were decorated with evergreen foliage such as holly, yew, laurel and ivy to represent longevity and eternal life. Although the traditional Christmas tree was a 19th century innovation introduced into Britain either by immigrants from Germany or Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert, decorating fir trees at midwinter was a common pagan practice in Northern Europe. ‘There is a story that the missionary St Boniface ordered the cutting down of the sacred trees revered by the Germans. He replaced them with the Christmas tree, and allegedly then the pagan tribes quite happily converted to the new religion. In fact there is a reference in the 15th century to a tree decorated with holly and ivy set up at Cornhill in the City of London to celebrate Christmas. It was considered noteworthy at the time because it was destroyed in a thunderstorm on Candlemas Day, the traditional day when Yuletide greenery was taken down and burnt.


Yule Another midwinter custom that probably dates back to the old days of paganism was the Yule Log. This was a relic of the balefires lit at dawn on the winter solstice to greet the rebirth of the sun. Traditionally a large branch of oak or ash was collected by children and dragged home, or sometimes horses were used to pull it. Passers-by who encountered the log on its journey were obliged to raise their hats or bow. If they neglected to do so it was said bad luck or misfortune would soon follow. Once safely in the house a libation of cider or ale was poured over the Yule Log before it was placed in the hearth and lit from a remnant of the branch from the previous year. It was expected to be large enough to be relit each evening, and burn during the Twelve Days of Christmas. After Twelfth Night (January 5th) the ashes from the log were scattered in the newly ploughed fields as a fertility charm. In Scotland the branch was carved into a representation of an elderly female and called the Cailleach, the hag goddess of winter, and in Wales it was similarly known as the ‘Old Wife’ or ‘Old Woman’. In urban districts the Yule Log was substituted by the Yule Candle, made of pure beeswax and decorated with gold and silver paint or lacquer and holly leaves. This was lit at dusk on Christmas Eve and burnt until dawn. If it went out during this period then the household would be cursed with bad luck for the next twelve months. The remnants of the Yule Candle were kept because it was regarded as a potent charm. On Plough Monday it was melted and the wax was smeared on the blade of the plough to bring healthy and plentiful crops. Despite the general atmosphere of celebration, merrymaking, fun and games and good living at Christmas, there was a darker side to the festival, associated with supernatural happenings and the telling of ghost stories around a blazing fire. While it has been suggested this was largely due to the publication in 1843 of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in fact he was drawing on a pre-existing folk tradition long before his novel was written. Since ancient times, midnight on Christmas Eve was regarded as a spooky and sinister time when the gates of the Otherworld opened and the dead communicated with the living. In Anglo-Saxon times the Venerable Bede said it was still observed in the pagan way as the ‘Night of the Mothers’ when people attempted to communicate with the ancestral dead. In more modern times, as in Dickens’ novels A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, Christmas Eve was when restless ghosts wandered abroad as ‘night walkers’ and haunted the living. However, the novelist turned this theme into a tale of redemption based on his own views about the social conditions and treatment of the poor in Victorian England.


This belief in wandering spirits on the night might be one of the reasons the Church decided to hold a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In West Wales until the outbreak of the Second World War, young men holding blazing torches formed a bodyguard to escort the vicar through the dark lanes to the church for the service. A late 19th century writer commenting on this custom claimed it was a survival of ‘the superstitious rites of the heathen Britons.’ In Shetland, lights were burnt in the houses throughout the long night of the winter solstice when the powers of darkness were at their strongest. An iron blade was also left on the threshold to ward off the trolls and other supernatural creatures that were believed to be abroad just prior to the birth of Jesus. Midwinter was also a time when all over Europe people called guisers dressed up in animal costumes or ragged clothes and masks to represent the spirits of the winter and darkness. Again this is a throwback to pagan times, and in the 7th century, Theodore, the Greek archbishop of Canterbury, condemned superstitious and heathen English people who still dressed up in animal skins and impersonated beasts at midwinter. Mumming plays with a theme of death and resurrection were also performed, and still are today. These featured folk characters such as St George the dragon slayer who fights and kills a Turkish knight, Old Father Christmas (not to be confused with the modern Santa Claus) and a shamanic doctor figure who has the necromantic power to revive the dead. One of the overtly pagan midwinter practices of animal masking that seemed to have survived as folk customs was the Christmas Bull, found mostly in the West Country counties of Wiltshire and Dorset. The most famous example of these was the Dorset Ooser. This was a wooden mask depicting a bearded human face with bulging eyes and real bull’s horns. This ritual mask was in use until the end of the 19th century when it mysteriously vanished from the local family who were its guardians. Many years later the mask was found stored in an attic but unfortunately it was in such a dilapidated condition it could no longer be used. In recent years a new Dorset Ooser has been made and the custom has been revived by Morris dancers in the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, famous for its hill figure of an ithyphallic giant holding a club. In South and West Wales the equivalent to the Christmas Bull was the Mari Lywd, or ‘Grey Mare’, which may be a relic of pagan horse goddess worship, or associated with the legend of the Wild Hunt as the steed of Woden. This was a real horse’s skull with pieces of coloured glass for eyes and a hinged jaw that could open and snap shut. The skull was mounted on a pole held by its operator who was concealed from sight beneath a white sheet. The Mari travelled around the parish bringing good luck and fortune to the houses it visited. The horse’s attendants were rewarded with mince pies and mulled wine while it was invited in to play the trickster by chasing the women of the household and playfolly biting their bottoms. In England the similar hoden or hooden (hooded) horses were sometimes referred to as ‘Robin Hood’s steed’. Animal masking features in modern traditional witchcraft, and can be associated with most of the seasonal festivals of the Wheel of the Year. The animals and birds can include totemic beasts of the coven, clan or tradition, those associated with the Lord and Lady, and with witchcraft in general. Popular examples, as we have seen previously, include the hare, cat, badger, owl, raven, boar, fox, goose, stag, ram, goat, bull, mare and hound. In practice the use of such masks connects the wearer with the group soul of the animal concerned. Also their symbolism and its attributes may have significance to the person who chooses to wear a mask representing a specific totem animal. The wearing of spirit masks is a universal way in many cultures worldwide of representing or impersonating or connecting with Otherworldly beings, and as such is a useful aid for trance work and spirit ingress or possession. Of the animals listed above used in masking and guising, the hare is a popular form taken by the fetch or spirit double of the witch when it leaves her physical body and is ‘out and about’. As we have seen, it is an animal associated with the spring equinox and Lady Day representing fertility, physical activity, sexuality and ‘divine madness’ e.g. the Mad March Hare. It is also a lunar animal, and in East Anglia the new moon is known as the ‘owd [old] hare’. The poet Robert Graves affirmed that the animal was the special totem of the ‘White Goddess’ of the moon and witchcraft. The cat is a lunar animal, although some ‘big cats’ like lions can have a solar attribution. In the Middle East cats were said to originate from the moon and were regarded as sacred in Ancient Egypt, where wild African cats were probably first domesticated, and associated with such feline goddesses as Bast and Sekhmet. Ancient people may have revered cats because they were the natural predators of mice and rats, who threatened granaries. In the Middle Ages it was said that black cats were the familiars of witches, although the real traditional witch’s cat is a brindle. Because of this association and the common belief they were creatures of the Devil, in medieval France cats were burnt on pyres. In Britain many old houses have been found to contain mummified cats ritually deposited in walls so their spirits either ward off malefic witchcraft or protect from infestations of vermin. In traditional witchcraft the cat is sacred to the witch-mother Lilith and Hecate, the goddess of death and the underworld. The badger, although a legally protected species, is currently under threat in England from a government cull because it is believed to be a carrier for bovine tuberculosis. Country people called it the ‘earth bear’ although it belongs to the same family as weasels, and Brock, from the Celtic word broc believed to mean ‘grey’. In Scotland, old-time witches boiled up badger fat to use in their flying ointments and the animal’s foot was carried as a lucky charm. Their bones and tufts of hair were worn in small leather bags as a protective amulet against malefic witches, although they were also said to take badger form when they shape-shifted, so this might have been sympathetic magic. To change, the witch had to acquire the skin of a badger and wear it. A popular country belief was that badgers and owls were linked, and hunt together. The owl is also sacred to the witch-goddess, especially in her lunar forms, and is connected to the acquisition of wisdom, awareness and clear-sightedness. It is often regarded in folklore as a bird of ill-omen or doom, misfortune and death. In Scotland the bird is sometimes called the Cailleach and it belongs to the hag goddess representing the winter and death. The owl is supposed to be a bird that protects the faery folk when they are out at night, and for that reason they wear costumes made from its feathers. Cornish people claim that the owl can be a baby killer. It also takes infants from their cots and replaces them with faery changelings. However, it is also one of the shapes taken by the witch when she is ‘out and about’ in her astral form. In those streams of modern witchcraft that follow a Luciferian tradition the sinister and frightening ‘Owl Lady’ is associated with Lilith.

The raven was also a bird of ill-repute, a trickster and an omen of death, sacred to the Cailleach and the sinister Washer at the Ford. However it was also a bird of prophecy, foresight, and intelligence and is also associated with battlefields and the fallen dead. A raven’s tongue kept in a leather bag around the neck with hagstones and dried gorse flowers was said to grant the wearer the power of the Second Sight. In its protective or guardian role it is associated with the old Welsh god and mythical king Bran the Blessed. The boar or wild pig was sometimes an animal that was associated with the moon because of its crescent-shaped tusks. However, it was also an animal that was sacred to the witch-god in his sacrificial role. A popular custom at Christmastide was the Ceremony of the Boar’s Head. In medieval times in large country houses the severed head of a boar was carried to the dining table on a large platter garlanded with sprigs of bay, rosemary and holly. In Scandinavia the last sheaf from the harvest was baked into a loaf in the shape of the animal called the Yule Boar. It was kept until it was time to sow the fields, then was broken up and the crumbs were mixed with the seed in the furrows. Female pigs were associated with the Welsh witch Ceridwen, who was called the sow-goddess, and the role of Merlin as a swineherd has already been mentioned. Prohibitions against eating pork are known from Ancient Egyptian religion and appear in Judaism and Islam. This taboo may be for health reasons but possibly it has something to do with its pagan role as a symbol and sacred animal of both the sacrificed god and the Great Goddess. In one Arthurian legend the king and his knights went out from Camelot to hunt a giant enchanted boar, called Twrch Trwyth in Welsh. This beast had once been human and was a man who had been transformed into a pig for unknown sins. The fox is an animal of the master Cain and the Devil or Horned God and associated with the Magister, Man in Black or witch-master as his human representative. Its attributes include cunning, craftiness and trickery. In Finland the Northern Lights are known as ‘fox fire’. The sacred bird of the winter goddess Dame Holda, as the female leader of the Wild Hunt, is the goose. In the old nursery rhyme she is Old Mother Goose and snow falls from her wings as she flies through the sky on the first real day of winter. Geese were once kept as watchdogs to guard property and warn their inhabitants of intruders. For that reason the bird is associated with protection, both physical and psychic, and the guardianship of secrets or forbidden knowledge. In Cornwall, witches were sometimes called ‘geese women’, possibly because they took this form when spirit travelling, and the magical symbol of the pentagram used in traditional witchcraft is sometimes known as the ‘goose foot’. Goats, rams, bulls and stags are obvious animal forms taken by Old Nick or the Devil. Stags, as we have seen, are messengers from – or guides to – the Otherworld, and the sacred animal of the sun god. In the Arthurian legends the king and his knights went on a hunt for a rare white stag. When it was killed its decapitated head was offered as a special gift to ‘the fairest lady in the land’, which was Queen Guinevere as Sovereignty or the Queen of Elfhame. Today albino stags are still highly prized by poachers. The hound is represented by the phantom Black Dog of folklore, the black dogs that were owned by Cain, Crom Dubh and Merlin, the white-coated, red-eared faery dogs and the canine pack that accompanies the Wild Hunt. Finally the (night) mare is another sacred animal of the Goddess in her underworld role as the Old Queen or ruler of the realm of the dead. It is associated with equine goddesses such as Epona and Rhiannon. According to Robert Graves in The White Goddess, the ‘night mare’ made her nest from the bones of dead poets. Of course the most famous folk figure associated with the Christmas festivities is Santa Claus or St Nicholas, named after an early saint who gave gifts out to children. His popular image is very much a modern invention based on a series of famous advertisements in the 1930’s for the Coca-Cola drink company and featuring its corporate colours of white and red in his costume. However, in the 17th century he was a far more uncanny and eldritch figure known as Old Father Christmas. As the spirit personification of the midwinter season he wore a green robe and a holly wreath on his head. In 1809 the American writer Washington Irving represented Father Christmas or Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a fur robe and cap, riding through the night sky on a sleigh drawn by reindeer and distributing presents to children. In this way he represented the leaders of the Wild Hunt, like Woden or Holda, who also rode through the sky as midwinter gift-bringers to their followers. In European countries, Santa Claus’ pagan origin is preserved in his dwarf assistant, known in Dutch as Swart Peit or Black Peter. He appears in the form of a black-coloured demon and punishes young children who have been naughty during the year and do not deserve presents from the jolly white-bearded gentleman. Another pagan hangover is the popular belief in elves associated with Father Christmas, who toil in his workshops at the North Pole making toys.

At Christmas 2013 a Danish priest hanged an image of an elf on a gallows outside his church, allegedly because elves “belong to Satan”. ‘The feast day of St Stephen on December 26th is now secularised in Britain as Boxing Day, when people carrying wooden boxes used to go from house to house begging for alms. The day used to feature a cruel folk custom of killing a wren, which has been identified with druidic rites, the sacrificial god and the summer king and winter king. The ancient druids regarded the bird as a symbol of the human soul and its survival in the afterlife. Despite its small size, the wren is known as the ‘king of the birds’. It gained this title because it flew higher in the sky than all the other birds in the woods. It did this by an act of trickery, riding on the back of a soaring eagle. ‘This Boxing Day custom was known as the Hunting of the Wren and was mostly found in the Celtic fringe regions of Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man. In the ritual a wren was hunted down, killed and then given a mock funeral during which the dead bird was processed through the streets in a specially made ‘wren’s house’. ‘This was a box with glass windows, surmounted by a wheel whose spokes were decorated with coloured ribbons, possibly representing the ritual Wheel of the Year. At the end of the procession the wren was solemnly buried, but before interment its feathers were removed and kept by the so-called ‘wren boys’ as good luck charms. When the cruelty of wren-hunting was criticised, public opinion forced the participants to capture the bird, imprison it in a cage for the street procession and then release it back into the wild. © Michael Howard.