We’re a few days after the winter solstice now, and the days are getting longer. It’s not yet at any level I can perceive, but I know it’s happening. We move from the darkness towards the light. Outside the window, the snow lies thick, and the temperature barely gets above freezing, but the year has turned and the spring will eventually come.
The cycle of the seasons teaches us that change is the only constant. There are dark times and light times, all things pass, and all things come again. Mediaeval Europeans believed in the wheel of fate, the inevitable turn from good to bad, and back again. To me that seems a tad simplistic. Different people get radically different experiences. For some the balance towards wellness, or woe, is dramatic. But most of us can expect a bit of both.
In harder times, during dark nights of the soul it is difficult to keep believing that things will change. I hit one of those last week, with yet another thing going wrong, and wondering how I had dared to imagine that anything could ever go right for me. Despair begets despair. Equally, during the wild highs, only the most pessimistic will anticipate some plummet into gloom. But we can’t stay in wild states of ecstasy all the time – we’d go mad, or burn out. The comedown can feel like everything falling apart even when it isn’t. The seasons of our lives bring change just as surely as the cycle of the sun will.
There are few things that can be improved by pretending they aren’t happening. Fighting against the fact of a process is pointless, and it’s easy to spend a lot of time trying to resist the inevitable. With all due reference to death, taxes and aging. I can’t fight the winter – it’s happening out there, it won’t go away if I pretend it isn’t. Engaging with the realities equips me to cope better. I’ve yet to find something that isn’t true of. Engage with the reality, know that the reality will change, because everything does. Know that you will probably change with it, or because of it. These are not things to struggle with. Life is happier if you co-operate with your own existence a bit.
The light returns, a few extra minutes a day. It’s such a small difference that only the most attentive will spot it as a daily occurrence, but in a week or two it’ll be more apparent. Life changes from day to day in the same small increments, and with sudden bursts of drama. Nothing changes. Everything changes, and round we go again. I aspire at the very least to make new and interesting mistakes rather than tired, old ones. I aim to find myself in new places, caught out by things I’ve not seen before. It’s all too easy to get into cycles of the same things, but where would be the fun in that? At least let me learn enough from my mistakes not to repeat them.
One of the big things in the western world at this season of Sun-Return is Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus which is derived from St Nicholas.
An advertising campaign by the Coca Cola Company in the 1930s made our current image of Father Christmas almost universal although it was fairly ubiquitous by the late 19th Century. With an expansion of global exploration in Victorian times, travellers returned home from visiting the Sami of Lapland with the story of flying reindeer, spread the tale all over central Europe. We had long forgotten our own British traditions and no longer did reindeer roam the land as they had. They are back again though now.
As is the wont of Christianity, our pagan customs have pragmatically been adapted and integrated into their Christmas traditions and so hidden from their true origins and meanings.
The Pagan Shaman
Father Christmas is an ancient pagan figure, coming from the shaman who is also the gift-bringer for the season of Sun-Return … the time of the solstice when the sun appears to stand still for 3 days and then move on again. What happens is that the sun, for the three days, appears to rise at the same point on the horizon for the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th of December and then, on the 25th, appears to move on to the next place on the horizon. Our ancestors, all over the world, observed this, along with the fact that from the solstice on the days again begin to get lighter heralding the spring. They rightly celebrated this season, as we still do. It’s good to know the origins of the celebration which are as old as humankind, perhaps some 600,000 years.
Father Christmas is special to many folk, especially children. The traditions which he is about come largely from the European shamans and wise-folk. For instance …
In the Nordic tradition, the red-and-white dressed Father Christmas is a knowing-one shaman-figure carrying Wotan’s energy. The word shaman – from the Turkic word šamán, also used in the wider Turko-Mongol and Tungusic cultures in ancient Siberia – mean “one who knows”. I use it because it’s currently reasonably well understood all around the world. One of the words for it in my own Celtic tradition is Awenydd, but that is very unknown to most so I tend to stick with shaman.
The red-white-black costume of Father Christmas goes way back in the Celtic tradition to the triplicity represented by the 3 Cups …
The Red cup of Lordship
The White cup of Fostering
The Black cup of Self-Forgetfulness (i.e. ego-restraint)
It also relates to the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria. This is “fairy mushroom” we all know from many beautiful drawings and paintings, the characteristic red mushroom with its white dots. It is a vision and dream-making mushroom but needs to be eaten very carefully and the best way to take it is one which probably turns the stomachs of many modern folk. You watch the reindeer eat the mushroom and then collect their pee … then you drink reindeer pee! The reindeer changes the constitution of the mushroom so that it is no longer so poisonous but still retains it’s magical, journeying qualities.
Siberian Reindeer have a particuar prediliction for the fungi in question and can behave very odl under their influence. The Sami actually feed the reindeer the mushrooms, then collect the Reindeer’s urine as this not only contains the full hallucinogenic strength of the Fly Agaric but much of the mushroom’s toxicity is removed by the Reindeer’s digestive processes.
So there is one connection between Father Christmas and the reindeer … and flying.
Most shamans of the Northern Hemisphere ate it ritually. Its shamanic use can be traced to the Lapps, the Siberian nomadic peoples (Samojeden, Ostjaken, Tungusen, and Jakuten), and the North American Indians. In many mythologies, storm and thunderstorm gods are associated with the fly agaric mushroom. The thunder and lightning can be how it appears as you begin a fly agaric journey through the spirit worlds.
The Germanic thunder and fertility god, Donar or Thor, drives his goat cart through the air, bringing thunder and lightning as he throws his hammer in the clouds. Thunderstones (meteorites) fall to earth where they inseminate the ground and make mushrooms grow, especially fly agarics.
The fly agaric journey is one ecstasy, knowing and knowledge. The Nordic tradition says the fly agaric mushroom grows where Wotan rides on his horse through the clouds with other members of the wild hunt, at the time of the winter solstice. Wherever the froth of Wotan’s horse fell to the ground, the ground would become “pregnant” and nine months later would sprout fly agaric mushrooms, at the time of the autumn equinox. The story sometimes says that the fly agaric mushrooms grow from a mixture of the blood (red) and froth (white) of Wotan’s white horse. The wild hunt is drawn to the mushroom, calmed and put in a good mood with incense. Wherever it finds nourishment, the wild hunt becomes guardian of house and farm. For us in the Celtic tradition this is Gwyn ap Nudd and his white fairy hounds with their red eyes and ears. He rides at solstice, through to 12th Night – The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is wonderful story that tells of this ride and what it’s about.
Reindeer, Sleighs, and Shamans
The idea of a great variety of reindeer sleighs flying through the air at Christmastime is common, carrying a laughing, red-and-white Father Christmas in the sleigh with his sack, his rod, and the presents. Every year this ancient shaman comes to Earth in his reindeer sleigh and lands on numerous roofs to descend down chimneys. Where does this come from?
Father Christmas is a pagan shaman from the distant European past – and the current pagan present. British. Gaelic, European and Siberian mythology all have a “heavenly wild hunt”. The Siberian ones are the most quoted now because we seem to have forgotten or mislaid our own ancient shamanic traditions. The Siberian shamans ride on reindeer sleighs through the air, up to the clouds. The world tree is their goal; this is where the magic reindeer are. The Siberian Tschutschuken say that the moon is a man on a sleigh that is pulled by two reindeer to Earth and can fly back up to the Upperworld like the modern Father Christmas figure. The Celtic tradition also revolves around the world tree, the source of wisdom.
The association of reindeer and shamanism is seen in the caves of the Ardèche, where wall paintings of reindeer, some thirty thousand years old, show our connection. As early as the Old Stone Age, reindeer were sunk in moors as sacrificial offerings – for example, in the Hamburg steppe of Meiendorf and Stellmoor and in Magdalénien (Pohlhausen 1953). This is the ritual context of cultic poles or stakes crowned with anthropomorphic mushrooms with dwarf caps. Sometimes, even reindeer skulls were placed on top of such sacrificial stakes. These often-neglected details show our association of reindeer with the mushrooms.
Yurt burried in snow
Down the Chimney …
Many shamanic peoples are nomads and live in portable homes such as yurts supported by a large beam of wood which stretches up to the smoke hole. At the Midwinter Festival, the Shaman wanting to enter a yurt buried in the snow would find the smoke-hole the only way in!
Siberian yurts have a roof supported by a birch pole with a smoke hole at the top. At the midwinter festivals of annual renewal, the shaman gathers the fly agaric from under sacred trees. Whilst harvesting the toadstools, she or he wears a costume of red and white fur-trimmed coat with long black boots – so carrying the colours of all three cups. This costume is very like the modern day Santa Claus. She or he then enters the yurt through the smoke hole, carrying a sack full of dried fly agaric, and descends the birch pole to the floor. Once inside, the shaman performs ceremonies and shares out the toadstool’s gifts with those gathered inside. After the ceremony is over the shaman leaves up the pole and back through the smoke hole.
Saint Nicholas is a legendary figure who supposedly lived during the 4th Century and known as the patron saint of children. He is said to brings presents on the eve of his feast day, 6th December – somewhat earlier than the solstice!
Most religious historians now agree that St Nicholas never actually existed, but was instead a Christianized amalgam of the historical bishops, Nicholas of Myra (4th Century) and Nicholas of Sion (d. 564) together with a number of pagan gods including the Teutonic god, Hold Nickar. Legend tells that Hold Nickar galloped through the sky during the winter solstice, granting favours to his worshippers below.
St Nicholas is associated with a number of miracles and stories to do with giving presents which integrate him into the legend of Santa Claus:
Green Man – Lord of the Forest
Bringing the forest into the home – like many of Christmas traditions – has its roots in the days when we all were pagans. At the solstice it’s traditional to bring armfuls of greenery into the home; put fir trees in a bucket and decorate them with baubles; hang holly and ivy over mantelpieces and picture frames, and mistletoe over doorways.
Note again that triplicity of colours – red holly berries, black ivy berries and white mistletoe, carrying the energy of the 3 Cups in a different way but always reminding us of our tradition, symbols of eternal life and renewal.
Dr Brian Bates, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the shaman research programme at Sussex University (author of the Way of Wyrd), said: “In the early tribal cultures of Europe there were huge midwinter parties, involving an entire tribal group, with a shaman taking centre stage wearing a crown of holly and ivy, representing the eternal life of ‘evergreen’ nature.” The Druids gathered mistletoe and hung it in their homes because of its miraculous powers. Even carol singing had its precursors in shamanic festivals. If you listen to the words and stories of the old carols you see the old myths carried forward in them. A myth is not a made up story, by the way, but a word for “belief system”. En-chanting, singing up the gods and goddess, is as hold as human voices. Older perhaps, I’m thinking of wolves howling here but some of you may find that too much to handle.
However, you celebrate the solstice do think of the ancient ways of humanity, where we have all come from. The old ways that celebrate the realities of the turning Earth, the patterns and rhythms of the Sun which enables Life, the seasons that give us food, beauty, challenge and delight. Whatever modern religion you currently profess, spend a moment with the Old Ones, who are the ancestors of us all. That way, we really do bring love and peace and understanding across the whole world.