Call it MithraYuleMas – the fact that three distinct holidays (holy days) were celebrated on or near December 25 in the times of King Arthur and Guinevere. It was a contentious age, in which the old pagan religions were waning and the new religion of Christianity was just gaining power, so what each person celebrated depended on their faith. (I’m not taking any sides here, just stating the tenants of the traditions.) Here are the top three most likely festivals:
The Great Mother and her divine son
Yule – Celebrated on the Winter Solstice (December 21-23 depending on the year), Yule marks the longest night of the year and the rebirth of the god who died at Samhain. This child of light (Lugh, Mabon or various other gods) is symbolized by the sun, which will continue to gain strength until the Summer Solstice. In some versions of Celtic mythology, the young god is kidnapped or stolen away in precarious circumstances, much like the Christian story of the flight into Egypt and the Arthurian tale of Arthur’s fostering by Sir Ector at Merlin’s command. Many sites associated with the Druids, such as Newgrange and Stonehenge, are aligned to the Winter Solstice sunrise or sunset.
The holy family
Christmas – Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the son of the Hebrew (and now Christian) God. Many scholars now agree it is likely the historical Jesus was born in spring or summer, the time when shepherds (who were among the first to visit baby Jesus, according to the Bible) would have had their sheep in pasture and been keeping the night watch mentioned in the Bible. So why do we celebrate Christmas in December? The Catholic Church was very good assimilating aspects of the old faiths when it took over. That date conveniently encompassed the pagan celebrations of Yule and the birth of Mithras (see below), so it would have made the conversion of the faithful a little easier.
Mithras slaying the bull
Birth of Mithras – Mithras began as a Persian Zoroastrian god of oaths, but was assimilated by the Romans in a highly elaborate cult. Because of his popularity with soldiers, some researchers suggest he may have been the god of choice of a pagan, Romano-Celtic King Arthur. Like Jesus, Mithras was said to have been born on December 25 and was as a reconciler between the forces of good and evil who was buried in a tomb and rose after three days. Like the Celtic gods celebrated at Yule, he was a child of the sun. Sources differ over whether or not Mithras was ever human.
So which feast were Arthur and Guinevere most likely to celebrate? The truth is, we don’t know. I’ve made decisions for my books, but personally, I think the smartest course of action would have been to keep their personal beliefs to themselves and tolerate all three. That way, they would ensure the loyalty of the greatest number of their subjects.
Samhain, or as we know it, Halloween, marks the beginning of the Celtic New Year. We have no records of exactly how this holiest of feasts was celebrated, but traditions passed on over thousands of years give us a good starting point. What follows is my dramatic imagining of what could have taken place at a Celtic Samhain ritual. Journey with me back in time, won’t you?
The last of the day’s dying light casts long shadows at your feet as you depart from your small cottage. Leaving the door slightly ajar, you look back one last time at the simple plate of bread and cheese on a table by the front window, sustenance for wandering ancestral spirits, and to the single burning taper meant to both welcome the good and ward off the malevolent. All is in place. You can make your journey in peace.
As you walk through the countryside to the forest, you pass the herders and shepherds, coaxing sheep down from their highland pastures to their winter pens and leading the weaker cattle to be slaughtered, their sacrifice a store against the cold, starving days of winter that linger just on the horizon. In the thick blanket of leaves on the side of the road, squirrels and children scrounge for the last of the nuts and withered berries, for this is the night of last harvest. Anything remaining on the vine after nightfall is taboo, left for the spirits, a gift for the puca, with its long, shining mane and luminescent yellow eyes, or the beguiling Sidhe who ride out from the hollow hills in search of humans to enchant. Your stomach tightens against the current of unease in the air. This is the time of magic, the time when the dead walk among the living, for the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest tonight.
It is dark by the time you reach the stone circle and the air is thick with the scent of wood smoke and sounds of merriment. Friends call greetings and beckon you to feast with them on the roasting meat of a sacrificed boar, freshly baked barley bread and dishes made from apples and gourds. You gladly accept a cup of cider and sit on the cold earth to sup.
Watching the crowd you see tribesmen of all ranks joined together to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next. To the east, a group of giggling young girls take turns peeling apples and casting their seeds like lots to divine the identity of their future mates. In the center of the circle, a couple leans toward the bonfire, each grasping the handle of pan, seeing their future predicted in the dancing of the hazelnuts on its surface. All around you, a stream of dancers twirl, some from an overabundance of drink, while others keep the more sacred tradition of dancing to keep the evil spirits at bay.
You are about to join them when a hush falls over the crowd as an elderly woman enters the circle, her long gray hair trailing loose over the folds of a black cloak. You recognize her as the high priestess of the Druids and bow to show your respect as she passes by, shuffling footfalls echoed by the thumping of her walking staff.
When you rise, you see someone has placed a large cauldron over the fire. The woman takes her place behind it and lifts her arms in invocation. The air stills and the crowd holds its breath. When she looks up, her eyes hold an otherworldly fire and you realize the Goddess stands before you. Before you can draw breath, you hear her reedy voice resonate in your head, although her thin lips scarcely move.
“This night you pay homage to Me, keeper of wisdom, harbinger of death, She to whom all return in the end. In my cauldron you shall be reborn or taste the bitter dregs of death, dependant on your actions in this life. Come forth and drink in remembrance of those who have passed through the veil before you.”
Your Chieftain steps forward, carrying a bowl in which the blood of the slain boar was the collected. He and the Crone walk the circle moonwise and pour out the blood at the base of each stone in thanksgiving for the fertility of the past year and as a gift meant to ensure its continuance in the year to come.
Returning to the center, she dips the cup into the cauldron and presents it to the Chieftain. He drinks, passes it on to his family, who give it to the next and so it makes its way around the circle. When it comes to you, you hesitate, seeing for a moment in its gleaming surface the blood of the fallen boar, even as its acrid smell identifies the contents as mere red wine. You swallow, wincing as the sour liquid winds its way to your belly, and seat yourself on the ground.This is the time for saying farewell to those whom the tribe has lost since the last Samhain festival. You close your eyes and slowly their faces take shape, the father lost to winter’s chill, the sister who died in childbirth, neighbors and friends who were their own bloody sacrifice in battle. And then you think of her, the Goddess Cerridwen. You must make you peace with her, for life is fickle and you know not if you will live to see this festival again. After several moments of silent prayer, another face rises in the darkness, a man crowned with antlers. It is his voice you hear this time, the dying God.
“Mourn me not, for I shall always return. Born on the longest night as the child of light, I wait only for the return of the sun. Blessings be upon you and those you hold dear.”
As you watch, his antlers fall off and he is swept into the Goddess’ ancient embrace.
When you open your eyes, you see the priestess is now gone. The ritual is over. All that remains of the former revelry are a few people casting objects into the fire – bunches of reeds or scraps of cloth representing their prayers – and those still rapt in private contemplation.
Taking a torch lit from the bonfire, you join your friends for the journey home, for no one should wander alone this night. There is solace in numbers from both the wolves howling in the hills and the wandering spirits.
Later, as you rest your weary head, you reflect on the transition of this ritual, from the time of harvest into the season of silence and of sleep. Though the land will soon be swathed in ice and snow, deep within the frozen earth, life goes on unseen. And from these tiny seeds, swaddled in their loamy wombs, shall rise the buds of spring.