The Holly & The Ivy

IMG_1227Yule approaches.  This Saturday, in the late afternoon, the sun will appear at its lowest apex in our daytime skies, signaling the shift from days of light waning into days of light waxing. This nadir is a tipping point, creating the longest night and shortest day each year, and this was a tremendously significant moment to many northern cultures (my own Highland and Norse ancestors included).

Historically (because what’s a BCC post without some history!) the solstice was celebrated by widely varied northern cultures, but there are common, remarkable themes to those celebrations. Of note, because it’s difficult to calculate the azimuth [1], many celebrations of the solstice were over a period of days. [2]

The moment when the sun reached its nadir and once again began its slow climb to dominance in the skies was a time to rejoice.  This was all the more important to agrarian people who depended on metering their food supplies over the seasons, and for whom starvation was a very real threat (hi, ancestors!). It’s also probably not a coincidence that the drinks casked earlier in the year were likely done with their fermenting and ready to be enjoyed. So, on with the celebrations!

What we have when we consider Yule[3], the Solstice, and the celebration of the birth of Christ, are three different points fixing upon the same phenomena: the birth of Light. As a Christian, I celebrate the birth of the Savior on Christmas; despite awareness that it’s unlikely he was born in December. Given the deep symbolism and rich cultural history of Yule, and the beautiful, calculable science of the winter solstice, it’s all the more fitting and lovely that we celebrate the birth of Christ now.

It is truly not a coincidence that we celebrate the birth of our Savior at the darkest part of the year. The birth of Jesus is undated in the Gospels, and it wasn’t until around AD 273 that the church placed the Christmas celebration at midwinter. St Augustine, the Archbishop of Constantinople, frankly explained the Nativity had been so fixed in order that “while the heathen were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance”.

I suppose ‘profane’ or ‘holy’ depends on your viewpoint. In pre-Christian pagan Europe, at midwinter, the Goddess, giver of life, gives birth to the Sun King, who then grows and rises with the year. The Goddess had companions, but she belonged to no king.  It’s easy to see the parallels between the ancient ideas of a sacred woman vessel bearing a king…

We see themes the birth of light in many traditions.

In Scandinavia, for St. Lucia Day, a young woman, dressed in white with a red sash, wears a crown of evergreen boughs with candles. Traditionally, only a young woman can perform this role, and is frequently the eldest daughter. Her job is to chase away winter and bring back the light.

In Slavic cultures, Koleda was a midwinter festival where a family made a fire in their hearth and invited others to share of their light, and children would visit neighboring houses, singing in exchange for treats.

The Saturnalia was a midwinter grand public festival and banquet for the Romans, where masters served slaves and the renewal of light for the coming year was celebrated. Candles and light were to represent the seeking of truth and knowledge.

The Druids would travel deep into the forest to harvest mistletoe, whose evergreen leaves and white berries were regarded as restorative and sacred. Bonfires were lit in the fields, and the flames were “wassailed” with toasts of cider. A Yule log was given as a gift, or harvested from ones own land, never bought.

Frankly, I love being aware of these traditions and knowing some of where the things I love about Christmas come from- it find it beautiful and comforting.  I love that science (the solstice!), northern European cultural history (Yule!) and my own faith tradition (Hallelujah, Christ is born!) all share a similar mythos and visual symbolism. It enriches my understanding and makes the world just a little bit more beautiful.

So when you lift your cup of Mormon wassail this year, raise your voice in song, drink deeply, and know that you’re not just enjoying a lovely (non-fermented) holiday treat, you’re also drinking history. Clear out your holly (from the waning year) and bring in the ivy (the coming light). The Druids would approve.


1. But they did it anyway. The azimuth is the angle between the north vector and the perpendicular projection of the star down onto the horizon, thus:




2. The difficulty of that calculation makes prehistoric sites like Stonehenge, the Temple of Karnak, Glastonbury Tor, and Chichen Itza, who all have precise orientation at the solstice, all the more marvelous.

3. The etymology of the word Yule is not tidy- it’s often associated with the Norse iul, meaning wheel, and is tied to pre-Christian ideas of feasting, seasons and particularly, to Odin, a Norse god with a long white beard.  Hmmmm… who’s got a beard that’s long and white..?


  1. Lion House has a good wassail, if you can cut back on the sweetness.

    Also, if you’re Canadian — butter tarts are a Christmas must. If you’re not Canadian you can go to hell for all I care.

  2. Love your thoughts on the Holly and the ivy. I love that song too!
    I make a lovely wassail, FYI, but no butter tarts. Excuse me while I now retreat to my fiery inferno.

  3. This is lovely, Tracy.

    I also love the symbolism inherent in celebrating Christmas at this time of year, no matter when Jesus, of Nazareth, might have been born. After all, what better time to remember the birth of someone who said, “I am the light of the world,” than the beginning of new light.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I love that we’re pragmatic enough to accept such rites of pagan origin into our own worship and celebration.

  5. Wassail is the devil’s urine. Also, Steve, Hell is great this time of year.

  6. Jeannine L. says:

    The best song ever that illustrates this. (I hope the link works.)

  7. Jeannine L. says:

    Sorry, I should have said what it is. Winter Solstice Carol by William Beckstrand.

  8. I’m just hoping that those of us married to Canadians (and, by a quirk of a new Canadian citizenship law, the father of Canadians) get some special dispensation from Steve’s diktat.

    I don’t know much about this history of trigonometry among the Druids, but I suspect that they determined the solstice by observation, and the actual azimuth, and its sine, cosine and tangent, weren’t that important.

    Solstice is from the Latin words for sun (sol) and stand still (sistere), because the sun’s declination stops as it reaches either its southern (or in the summer, its northern) limit, before turning round and heading in the opposite direction. The 30 days surrounding each solstice show very little movement in sunrise and sunset times–thus, the sun sits still, and the excuse for a long celebration is born.

    Several years ago, when looking for information about earliest possible tee times, I discovered the U.S. Naval Observatory’s website, which will show, for any latitude and longitude, the sunrise and sunset times. A quick glance at that will show you the slowing in changes in those times at the solstices.

  9. Mark B., you get grandfathered in.

  10. Most of what people “know” about the dating of Christmas is possibly wrong. The earliest proposed dates were all early in the year and Christmas was not celebrated on Dec. 25th until the 4th century. The first mention of possible pagan origins for the date is in the 12th century. It’s even possible the 25th of December is Jewish in origin.

    As with all things related to biblical scholarship, nothing is undisputed. The attached article is interesting, and some of the comments lead to other good sources.

  11. Let me get this straight: mathematical formulas AND footnotes? Who are you and what have you done with Tracy M?

  12. Steve: My Canadian grandchildren thank you.

  13. I was momentarily confused when I went from Dandelion Mama to BCC. Thanks for the history!

  14. The symbolism is nice, as Ray says. It doesn’t, however, work quite so well for our brethren in the Antipodes.

    And, after a bit more checking: the angle that matters in calculating the solstices is the altitude, not the azimuth. The relevant altitude is the sun’s angle above the horizon when the sun is at its zenith. The definitions I found online for azimuth are filled with unfamiliar references, but the US Naval Observatory once again comes through: their website will generate altitude and azimuth tables for any date and place, which will clarify what the terms mean.

  15. This is why I’m not a scientist. And it doesn’t at all negate the incredible calculations of ancient civilizations to precisely align their monuments to celestial event.

  16. If you ever have a chance to go to Newgrange, in Co. Meath, Ireland, it’s pretty cool. Dates from about 3200BC, and the chamber is dark inside all year, except for about a week around the winter solstice, when the rising sun shines through a carefully aligned tunnel to illuminate the interior for a short time.

  17. I will definitely be celebrating when the sun shows itself more often!

  18. In Scandinavia, for St. Lucia Day, a young woman, dressed in white with a red sash, wears a crown of evergreen boughs with candles.

    I’ve still never figured out how the cult of this Sicilian martyr got transported to Sweden, where she’s a big hit, even in a largely secular country. I served my mission in Sicily and was in her hometown of Siracusa during her feast in December of 1987; my comp and I watched the official procession of the image from the cathedral for veneration by the faithful (a week ago today – 13 December). It’s quite a sight. The Siracusani seem to mostly hold to the legend that she gouged out her own eyes to discourage a stalker, and was then executed for refusing proper homage to the Emperor of Rome. In typical grotesque medieval Catholic fashion, she’s usually pictured holding a dish with two eyeballs.

  19. Angela, Hell is a lot nicer, temp-wise, than Minnesota at this time of year. But I’d bet it’s dark. Sunrise and sunset are about 4.5 hours apart at that latitude at solstice. :(

  20. New Iconoclast–My daughter celebrated Santa Lucia in school last week (here in the US). She and her classmates donned white robes and red sashes, carrying candles and delivering saffron buns to the other classes at school, I thought it best not to mention the eye gouging, though. ;) I also lived in Italy for a few years (not Sicily, though), and wondered how she has taken hold in Sweden…such a leap!

    Despite the eye gouging and execution, I love having a female saint that my daughters can look to during this time of year–I even bought a cool rendering of Santa Lucia off Etsy, and it hangs near our Christmas tree.

%d bloggers like this: