John Matthews’ (with Caitlin Matthews) The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas

cover, The Winter SolsticeYe of weak or uncertain faith, enter not herein.

For herein lies the dispelling of many myths and legends, or at least the ancient origins of the traditions we now associate with the winter holiday season. John Matthews has set out to compile within a 250-page volume a vast collection of folklore, faith, tradition, and ceremony, all of which have similar roots. If your faith, whatever it might be, is not easily shaken, you will find this a fascinating collection of stories, songs, and traditions, which easily tie together to celebrate the season. However, if your faith is already on shaky ground and you are uncomfortable with such revelations, steer clear of this book: it may make you question what you believe.

The book itself is a work of art, filled with lavish illustrations ranging from paintings you might see in an art gallery to contemporary photography, and everything in between. Divided into seven basic sections, the book discusses some of the most significant symbols of the season, one in each of the first five chapters. Starting with the current associations of these symbols, the chapters soon branch off in many directions, exploring the probable roots from which these traditions stemmed, be those roots Norse, Greek, or pagan. By piecing together these traditions, perhaps as ancient as time itself, one can see the similarities between many belief systems.

Take as one example the use of evergreens in decorating at Christmas. A Christian tradition? Certainly not originally! The idea of decorating trees at the time of the Winter Solstice was at one time highly frowned upon by the Christians as a pagan activity. The early Roman households would decorate trees during the Kalends of January, to celebrate the new year. It is likely that the tradition dates back to well before the birth of Christ, for any culture that experienced winter undoubtedly saw the evergreen as a symbol of life, rebirth, and hope. Knowing these trees managed to survive and stay green all winter brought the promise of the return of the sun and thus the warmth of the summer season. Christians did not largely adopt the tree as a symbol of Christmas until well into the nineteenth century.

Similarly, the origins of the symbols of Santa Claus, mistletoe, candles, gift giving, and sacrifice date back to far before the Christian era. Matthews explores each of these and other topics, discussing how a variety of other faiths and traditions were eventually embraced by the Christian community. Even the “official” date of the birth of Christ was chosen to fit in with the already-existing holiday -the celebration of the Winter Solstice.

Be that as it may, the book makes an effort to avoid disparaging any faith or tradition. It is clear that the author has a bias towards pagan and Celtic traditions and beliefs, but he mostly manages to transcend this, and suggests that we each find common ground with one another in the common well from which many faiths and beliefs obviously spring. However, the largest quantity of traditions put forward are from the Druid tradition, and these are discussed in more detail and with more faith than those of any other religious persuasion. Matthews puts forward a variety of Druid and pagan practices and suggests that the reader incorporate those they are comfortable with into their own winter festivities. Although the presentation is a little one-sided, it is clear that we can all learn from the origins of our beliefs, if we are open-minded enough to embrace them. It makes you wonder what other wonderful things might be revealed if this book had been written by someone totally unbiased.

One of the truly wonderful aspects of this book is the resources it puts available at your fingertips. These include an excellent list of books, recordings, and addresses which can be of use to do further research or further immersion in the topic. If you want to know more about the significance of stars to the season, you’ll find a book on the subject listed in the back. If you want a chance to see some of these rituals and symbols in action, a list of Winter Revels addresses is listed, where you can try to attend one of these festivals. Beyond this, each chapter ends with a list of suggestions for how you can celebrate the aspect of the season discussed in the chapter. These extras include marvelous things, from recipes for a “cake of the Magi” to how to prepare your own Yule log. The entirety of Chapter Six is dedicated to outlining the significance of each of the twelve days of Christmas, and making suggestions for how to celebrate each one. Chapter Seven ends the book with a collection of plays and rituals that can be performed as a communal way of celebrating the season.

There are a few problems with the book. Besides the lack of depth to many of the historical tidbits, which cannot be helped in a book of this length, there is a clear preference for Western and European traditions over others, and more detail is generally given to the pagan traditions and the Christian traditions than to most others. This may be largely due to the expected audience. Almost no mention is made of Eastern beliefs and traditions, and it is unclear whether there is much to link the two sides of the world in this regard. Also, the book has more typos and editor’s errors than is generally acceptable in a book of this nature. Finally, the layout of the pictures and sidebars is sometimes awkward and cumbersome, leaving the reader wondering how the pictures relate to the text on the page, or even the chapter, and the captions often are misleading at best. In general, though, the illustrations are good enough that this problem can be overlooked, and the content of the book is overwhelmingly informative, so minor problems can be ignored.

One of the book’s highlights is the brilliant use of old carols, writings, and stories to illustrate the history and traditions presented. From the Native American traditions of the Huron Indians, illustrated in “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” to the Celtic traditions found in the words of “The Wren Song,” lyrics of songs and carols do much to create a sense of living history. This is especially true when the carols are still widely sung, as with “The Holly and the Ivy.” Similarly, much can be learned from reading the words transcribed from a fragment of an ancient prayer or from writings of scholars, historians, and poets of yore. Folktales and literary stories are also used with good effect. Matthews clearly recognizes the importance of literature, commentary, and song in the study of tradition.

So, if you have a strong faith, whatever that might be, or are unafraid to face the many facets of the truth, take a deep breath and dive into this fascinating collection of folklore and tradition. You’ll probably find at least one thing here that will bring you comfort and joy this holiday season.

(Theosophical Society, 1998)