Keep Yule in Yuletide

One of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time (and possibly one of the best little songs ever), "White Christmas," was written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish. Just a few years later, the most-recorded Christmas song, called simply "The Christmas Song" (the one that starts "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), was co-written by another Jewish man, Mel Tormé. People find these sorts of things remarkable, but really, look at the lyrics: the beauty of a snow-covered landscape (with the daydreaming card-writer warm inside), a bit of nostalgia, sleighs and reindeer, food, and a general good feelings. Even though the word "Christmas" is used, the songs have no Christ, no Bethlehem, no manger, no angels, and no shepherds watching over their flocks by night. These popular songs aren't about Jesus. They're about the American midwinter celebration of family, food, and gift-giving.

Christians are welcome to try to keep Christ in Christmas. I can understand their wanting to celebrate the birth of their messiah without other aspects of the season getting in the way. But they can blame their own church for that one. The early church had a habit of trying to "override" existing seasonal holidays with their own sacred days, thus stamping out the pagan celebrations. Easter took over a festival of the coming of spring. All Saints Day somewhat less successfully took over the celebration of the very end of harvest and the day when the dead drew close to the living world. And Christmas was placed pretty much on top of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and the Celtic celebration of Yule, the shortest day of the year and the beginning of days getting longer.

The feast of Yule survives even outside pagan circles. We sing of Yuletide. We use the symbols of the evergreen tree and holly. Christmas attempted to take over the midwinter feast; the midwinter feast got its revenge. Christ gets his due, but he has to share.

Being a sort-of Wiccan, I celebrate Yule, the longest night, the birth of the god, and the return of light. I do, however, sympathize with the Christian desire to de-commercialize the season. For me, Yule, like all sabbats, is a sacred time. I love lights, food, good company, even gifts. But I don't like crazed shopping, spending into debt, and myriad market tie-ins. Let's face it: much of modern Christmas celebration is tacky.

Even though Yule is my feast, I casually celebrate Christmas as well, as most of us do in North America—sometimes even Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. And why not? In the northern hemisphere, it's very close to the shortest day. In the darkness, as the days very slowly begin to lengthen, let us light candles, take stock, think of family and friends and the wider world around us, especially those in need. And call it whatever you like.

1 comment:

Anji said...

In Norway they wish each other God Jul. ( J pronounced Y)

I prefer the magic of the dark eveings and being with family. Christmas for me isn't the day itself, it's the days leading up to it.

it's sad that so many people have lost the real meaning of celebrating at this time of the year