The REAL Reason for the Season
© 1998-2000 Ingeborg S. Nordén
(This article is expanded from an older version originally published in The Marklander and in Full Moon e-zine.)
Most educated people, regardless of their religion, know that December 25 is not really the birthday of the Christian messiah--and that a number of "Christmas" traditions are actually borrowed from older pagan midwinter festivals. However, pagans themselves have distorted some of the myths and symbols related to Yule; most of these distortions arise from the idea that every culture has the same myths and theological concepts. On closer inspection, it becomes obvious that the foreign myths have no connection with Germanic beliefs or practices.
One such misconception is that Yule commemorates the birth of a sun-child to a Great Mother goddess. This motif does appear in some other religions, but contradicts Norse lore directly. First, the Eddas never use childbirth to symbolize the regular return of the sun; this image appears only once, when the entire universe is re-created after its destruction at Ragnarok. (The Swedish text below is from Erik Brate's translation of Vafþrúðnismál; I have provided my own literal English version.)
»Mycket for jag,
mycket jag frestade,
mycket jag makterna prövat.
Vadan kommer sol
på den släta himlen,
när ulven denna sol hunnit upp?»
en fager dotter,
innan henne ulven hunnit upp;
hon skall gå,
när gudarne dö,
en mö på sin moders vägar.»
"I traveled much,
I tested much,
I have put the powers to many a test.
From where will the sun come
in the smooth heavens,
when the wolf has caught up to this sun?"
"Alfrodull will bear
a beautiful daughter,
before the wolf has caught up to her;
she [the new sun] will go,
when the gods die,
a maiden on her mother's path."
This rebirth is apparently a unique event, not repeated as one would expect if the story did describe the returning sun after Midwinter night.
Nonetheless, some people insist that the childbirth image is consistent with a Germanic seasonal myth. They point out that the winter solstice was called "Mothers' Night" in pagan England, but conveniently ignore that the word "Mothers" was plural even in the original Anglo-Saxon (and thus probably refers to the spirits of dead ancestors, not a single mother goddess bearing a sun-child). Or they claim that the Ragnarok story itself is an exaggerated seasonal myth, ignoring the detail that both fire and ice are responsible for the destruction of the world. (Surely the weather would not fluctuate like that during the same season--not in Scandinavia at least!) The Ragnarok-as-seasonal idea is illogical for another reason: why would such a myth include a near-total destruction of the pantheon, when no other culture's seasonal stories have this detail? Clearly, then, ancient Germanic Yule celebrations had nothing to do with a Great Mother bearing a solar child; modern Heathens should not see it in those terms either, at least if they want to stay consistent with tradition.
Another distorted interpretation centers on the story of Baldr's death (which some pagans associate with both Midsummer and Yule). Baldr is supposedly a god of summer sunlight; his blind twin Hodr supposedly represents the darkness of winter. The fact that Hodr uses a dart of mistletoe to kill Baldr, these people say, explains the custom of kissing under the mistletoe at Yuletide: the gods turn the instrument of destruction into a symbol of love.
Although this story is charming and sounds believable at first, there are several inconsistencies with other Germanic lore. First, not all versions of the myth give the same details. Saxo Grammaticus, for instance, disagrees with the Eddas on these points:
1. Baldr and Hodr are not deities at all, but mortal heroes favored by the gods.
2. Hodr is not blind and not related to Baldr in any way.
3. The death is not part of an innocent game; the two are battling over a woman (Nanna) whom they both love.
4. The murder weapon is a sword, not a mistletoe dart.
5. Neither Hodr nor Baldr is freed from the underworld later.
More such differences exist, but those alone should prove that not all Norsemen viewed Baldr in the same way--and that they were probably not the central characters of a seasonal myth.
Even if we ignore Saxo's version entirely, the return of Baldr from the underworld cannot logically be connected with a solar rebirth. Like the new sun, he appears only after Ragnarok has passed. More importantly, Hodr is resurrected and rules the new universe together with his brother. (The text below is from Erik Brate's translation of Völuspá; the literal English translation is mine.)
allt ont sig bättra;
Balder skall komma.
I Ropts segersalar
sitta Balder och Höder,
Veten I än mer och vad?
all evil become better;
Baldr shall come.
In Hroptr's halls of victory
sit Baldr and Hodr,
gods of the battlefield.
Do you know still more, or what?
If Baldr and Hodr represented summer/light and winter/darkness respectively, it would make no sense for them to be resurrected at the same time or to rule side by side in Odin's former hall. This myth, then, cannot logically be about the returning sun; associating the solstices with Baldr is inconsistent with the lore.
Some neo-pagans, knowing that Freyr is associated with both fertility and fair weather, claim that Yule celebrates his birth or resurrection--and use customs related to the "Yule boar" (in England and Scandinavia) to support their claim. However, the lore proves them wrong as well. No deity's birthday (or even birth season) is specified in the Eddas: they even say that Freyr will be killed by a fire giant (very illogical for a sun-god!) and not return to life after Ragnarok. His boar, though it certainly has sun-like golden bristles and glows as it travels through the air, is never called a deity in its own right--and is forged by dwarves, not born of a mother. The boar is never described as dying and returning to life, either: those who use either Freyr or his companion to force Yule into neo-pagan stereotypes are terribly misguided.
Even more telling than the Eddas themselves, however, is the complete lack of Nordic folk tradition that would support a sun-child or resurrected-god myth associated with Yuletide. When the sun is symbolized in winter rituals, it appears as an abstract object (the flaming wheel rolled down a hill) or a full-grown woman. The candle-crowned Lucia of Swedish tradition probably derived from German processions in honor of the Christ Child; yet the change in gender and age could be influenced by lingering folk beliefs about the sun goddess.
Two versions of a song performed on her feast-day, in fact, suggest that Swedes were more interested in the sun's return than in the life of Lucia as a real human saint. The first, less popular text actually invokes Lucia's aid against "trollsejd och mörkermakt" (troll-seiðr and the power of darkness); this sounds much more appropriate for a Heathen sun-goddess than for a Christian figure, whose enemy would probably be explicitly connected with Satan or sin. The second, better-known version (too long to reproduce here) mentions Lucia only as a name in the refrain: the remaining text speaks only of brooding darkness and the return of light to the world. Significantly, neither version of the song implies that the returning light is a newborn child or a resurrected god at all--let alone that the "light" is Jesus or a saint, and the "darkness" is sin!
Despite the Lucia celebration, Scandinavian folk traditions seem to indicate that people associated Yule with the spirit world as well as the returning sun. Processions on horseback, sometimes in disguise, suggest a connection with Odin's cult. Consider these lines from a traditional Swedish carol for St. Stephen's Day (which falls immediately after Christmas on the church calendar). I am omitting the refrain--which alternates with the rhyming lines given here--for brevity's sake:
Bästa fålen apelgrå,
den rider Staffan själv uppå
[The best steed, dappled-gray, Stephen himself rides upon.]
den fula ulvens spår
raskt och oförskräckt han går
[In the tracks of the ugly wolf, quickly and unafraid he goes.]
björnen i sitt bo
ej får vara uti ro
[The old bear in his den is not left in peace.]
These three consecutive stanzas suggest Odin much more strongly than they would a Christian saint: a figure riding a gray horse, followed closely by wolves which he does not fear, and rousing the bear from its sleep (perhaps an allusion to berserkers?). In other Germanic folklore connected with Yuletide, Odin is attended by spirits of the restless dead as he rides--which feels inconsistent with a feast of rejoicing over the sun, but very consistent with a time associated with ghosts and the otherworld.
After a second look at this lore, however, I would hesitate to say that St. Stephen (even in his "popular" Swedish incarnation) and Odin are the same being. Several of my Heathen friends have pointed out differences between the two:
1. All other Nordic sources "humanize" Odin into a king or nobleman--not a lowly stable boy who has to water others' horses, even if he is permitted to ride the best one.
2. St. Stephen follows "the tracks of the ugly wolf" and "the old bear in his den" as an ordinary hunter might; no companions, human or animal, join him for the ride.
3. The horse's grayness might be consistent with that of Odin's horse--but St. Stephen is never depicted as missing an eye, nor his horse as having eight legs like Odin's.
Some neo-pagans might protest: "Wait a minute, what does a returning sun goddess have to do with a procession of the dead?" The answer is more obvious than it seems at first. According to Scandinavian folklore, ghosts and other evil spirits are said to hate sunlight--which can destroy them at any time of year, not just on holy days. (Several ballads describe ghosts rushing back to their graves at the first sight of dawn, or trolls turning to stone after a hero tricks them into looking at the sun.) In a culture with those assumptions, it makes sense that spirits would take advantage of long dark nights--even if sun worship, as such, is only a minor part of the local religion.
It also makes sense that people would invoke the traditional divine enemy of those spirits at Yuletide: in Germany and some parts of Scandinavia, Thor was especially worshiped then. The Swedish/Norwegian image of the "Yule goat" is at least circumstantial evidence in favor of this. Some modern pagans also equate Santa Claus with Thor, based on his wearing red (Thor's holy color) and having reindeer named Donner and Blitzen (thunder and lightning) pull the sleigh. The custom of leaving milk and cookies--a food offering!--for a god with a monstrous appetite seems to justify the Santa/Thor connection as well. However, enough differences between them exist to make the similarities dubious at best:
1. Santa Claus' uniform, not his beard, is red.
2. His draft animals are reindeer, not goats; and more than two of them are said to exist.
3. He rides a sleigh, not a wagon; even though that change makes sense in snowy areas with few roads, sleigh runners would not make a sound which suggested thunder.
4. No surviving folk tales depict St. Nicholas as a heroic monster-killer, or Thor as a yearly gift-bringer.
Without substantial evidence that legends of Thor merged with legends of a gentler Christian figure, claiming that Santa Claus is based on older pagan figures is risky at best.
Now that we have sorted out which myths are and aren't relevant to Yule celebration, any modern Heathen should be able to separate Germanic holiday traditions from foreign ones: no single deity, solar or otherwise, is the real "reason for the season" within Asatru theology. At best, several beliefs and practices exist--some related to the sun and nature, some unrelated.