Published in Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin

December 3, 1999

Whatís under Selena Foxís reading lamp

...on the shortest day of the year.


Photo Caption: Selena Fox, founding priestess of Mount Horebís Circle Sanctuary

IBQ: Can you recommend a book that talks about how winter solstice customs influenced holiday celebrations today?

If I had to pick just one book, it would be Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earthís Seasonal Rhythms Through Festival and Ceremony by Richard W. Heinberg. Itís thoroughly referenced, and very readable.

Many contemporary so-called Christmas customs are really survivals of solstice customs. People decorating their homes with light goes back to paleolithic and neolithic times. People would kindle bonfires to represent the eternity of the sun. Later, as cities came together, people put lamps and candles in their windows.

The 25th of December was the final day of the Roman solstice festival, Saturnalia. It was the day of the unconquerable sun, sacred to the sun god Mithras. Mithras was born in a stable. His birth was attended by shepherds. In the year 374, the [still underground] Christian church chose that date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They would be protected, since there were already festivities going on.

People know about Father Time, the symbol of the old man with the sickle. Thatís a Saturn figure. He was an agricultural god. Kronos [time] was the Greek name for Saturn. Youíve seen the images of the old man and the baby; the baby is the new solar year thatís just been born.

Holly was also associated with Saturn. In Celtic culture, it got linked in, so you have a myth cycle of the Oak King and the Holly King. The Holly King ruled from summer solstice to winter solstice. Thatís why holly was often burned in fires with the oak Yule log.

I also like When Santa Was a Shaman: the Ancient Origins of Santa Claus and the Christmas Tree, by Tony van Rentertghem. It has a collection of old woodcuts and illustrations, and quite a bit of information about the pagan roots of contemporary Christmas celebration.

In what sense was Santa once a shaman?

You have this roly-poly elf guy going through a chimney and coming out to a hearth fire--thatís kind of like a shamanic journey. And thereís gifting, which is part of cultures where shamanism is practiced.

In ceremonies, a shaman would often don an antlered headdress to connect with the cycles of nature. With Santa, youíve got reindeer. The Germanic, Nordic sun god Odin rode through the sky on his sacred eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.

Now we have eight reindeer. In shamanism, often there is a connection with creatures. Whether itís the sacred horse or eight reindeer.

And, where does Santa come from? The North.

For us in the northern hemisphere, itís a place of power. Heís got the elves, which are various forms of nature spirits. In Denmark, he was called the Yule Man, and he had nissa, or nisser, gnome-like characters with red stocking caps. In Sweden, they called them the tomten.

A book people of all ages would enjoy having is The Solstice Evergreen: History, Folklore, and Origins of the Christmas Tree, by Sheryl Ann Karas.

In a chapter called ďThe Death of Pan,Ē she talks about what happened to nature religions in Europe as Christianity became the dominant religion, and how the old tree customs continue to this day. Anyone who loves storytelling would enjoy this book.

     --Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

Circle Sanctuary is a non-profit nature sanctuary serving Pagan folk worldwide. To find out about Circle Sanctuaryís upcoming winter solstice celebrations, call (608) 924-2216, or visit

Internet Book Quarterly Q&A: Pagan origins of Christmas customs

The sun god Mithras was born in a stable. His birth was attended by shepherds. Many comtemporary so-called Christian customs are survivals of solstice customs....

Copyright 1999, 2000 by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach. All rights reserved.