Midwinter, unlike all of the other seasonal festivals was and still is, less of a singular time or event and more of a season of celebration. Within traditional polytheistic practices, a whole cluster of festivities are marked at this point and even with the much more secular Christmas festivities, the festive period stretches over the eponymous twelve days.
We can be certain that our prehistoric ancestors marked this time of year sufficiently for them to build some of their monuments so as to capture the midwinter solstice as part of their very function. We don’t know exactly what meaning this held, or if it held anything other than a secular turning of the tide of the year. Evidence from Neolithic settlements in Wiltshire associated with Stonehenge suggest that there was feasting in this midwinter period – particularly on young pigs. Beyond that textual and archaeological evidence is absent.
It isn’t really until much later, in the Iron-Age and Romano-British periods that we start to see evidence emerging of midwinter festivities, all clustering around the Christian-focused Christmas. The Roman festivities of Sol Invictus, had given birth to the placement Christmas and any other Pre-Christian practices or beliefs were evidently held on to or merged with this festival.
The 18th of December in the modern calendar is when the Roman Empire celebrated Epona, the only ‘Celtic’ God to make it into the Roman calendar. Within Brython we generally all celebrate this as a festival dedicated to Rigantona-Epona and mark it how we each feel most appropriate. There is very little to connect this explicitly to the Solstice or midwinter itself that we know about, the practice of the ‘Mari Llwyd’ and kindred practices hint at some possible connection to Horse Goddesses at this time of year. Horses, like dogs are an animal connected to psychopomps and the dead and midwinter does have some very old association with the dead and the ancestors in the practices and tradition of the Koryos, so this might just be an element of its survival particularly with respect to its going house to house and being propitiated. (There will be a separate blog post in two weeks’ time specifically in time for the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas on the Koryos and the Wild Hunt)
The 21st of December or thereabouts, is the stand out date at this time of year within the modern calendar of paganisms and yet is the one date for which we know so little.All we can say was that our Neolithic ancestors built Stonehenge and various burial chambers to catch the sunlight at dawn or dusk on this day. We can surmise that it was somehow related to the dead, but in what way remains a mystery. Feasting took place at this time amongst our Neolithic ancestors, based on archaeological remains at Durrington Walls.
Generally we can look at this time of year as a pivot; a point where the swing of the seasons has reached an apex and begin to turn back towards the lighter half of the year. The days will soon begin to get perceptibly longer – funnily enough this become noticeable at about the 25th – and if this is something we want to mark, there is no reason not to do so in a way that is fitting.
Mother’s Night or Mōdraniht, was a festival marked on the 24th of December by Anglo-Saxon pagans as mentioned by Bede in the 8th Century. There are suggestion that this time of year was also marked by honouring female spirits – the Disir – who themselves may well be linked to spirits of the dead and the ancestors. Whilst this all derives from distinctly Germanic paganisms, it is worth bearing in mind that not only was there a lot of cultural overlap between the two group of people but that we also had the ‘Mothers’ here in Britain. We still have the faery folk known euphemistically in Wales as the ‘Mother’s Blessings’. In Britain we also have the triple formed, hooded Genii Cucullati which look suspiciously like the Matres and may be a British manifestation of these female Goddesses/spirits.
The long and short of this is that we have a good reason to use this date culturally as a time to honour the female ancestral dead and the household spirits, and so include them in our more physical household celebrations and gatherings.
December the 25th is so wrapped up with the Christian Feast of the birth of Christ that is difficult to escape. From a pagan point of view it seems to draw a lot on the Roman Saturnalia celebrations, and to a lesser extent in Britain from traditions from northern Europe.
It is to many people a largely secular event with all of the traditional foods, trees, gift giving and drinking. Albeit focusing more on spending time with friends and family in a world where we more often than not no longer live in close proximity to our families. The journey home for Christmas has become as much a part of Christmas as anything else.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
The end of the secular calendar year and transition into a new year might not seems like a source of midwinter traditions, but surprisingly there are many Welsh Folk Customs bound up with it. They run along two themes; new projects started on New Year’s Day will be bound to succeed and a multitude of omens portending doom and death. Not particularly cheery.
New Year is also another key time when the Wild Hunt is said to be abroad, in fact New Year lies squarely in the middle of its most ‘active’ time as it were. It is also a time when the Mari Llwyd is carried about from house to house.
There is a recurring notion that Samahin or All Hallow’s Eve represents some ‘Celtic New Year’. It is worth pointing out now that there is nothing at all to suggest this. It was an idea brought up on the somewhat shaky basis that ‘Celtic’ festivals were begun the night before the day itself. If we look at the whole year as a night and day (winter and summer) then in some sense Samhain represents the end of summer and so a kind of ‘night before’ of the year. We don’t really have any evidence to suggest that our ancestors had a notion of a ‘New Year’. However, the secular New Year’s Eve is so ingrained in our culture it is as good a time as any to mark the change from one year to another.
* * *
Midwinter offers a wealth of opportunities to gather with friends and family and celebrate; celebrate the Hose Goddess, the Good Mothers who dwell in our homes, the New Year or the Wild Hunt. Regardless of the precise whys, its entirely possible that our ancestors sought the darkest and most idle port of the year to throw the biggest celebrations perhaps merely for the reason of having something to look forward to doing before the Spring comes around again. Our lives may not be so idle – far from it – but we already have strongly ingrained sense of spending this time of year with the people important to us. So whatever you choose to mark – may it be peaceful, may it be joyous and may the New Year bring you prosperity, happiness and a more satisfying year than 2016.