Happy Holiday Edition: Nature Religion Connection

Happy Holidays to all The Connection’s readers! Wishing you well and thanking you for all your support.

Here in Central Ohio we were blessed with snow for what the Christian’s call, Christmas Eve and Christmas day. It’s hard to not call it that myself, after all, as I sit here and write, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is playing in the background. Being more ecumenical and more secular about this winter holiday season would seem to be a tremendous culture shift, here in the U.S.A. But, we in the O-H-I-O are pretty parochial/provincial and things might look differently from the point of view of Long Island or L.A.

(The old suburban castle decked out in holiday lights.)

The word “Christmas” seems to mean something like The Christ Sending, or Messiah Sending; “mas” from the Latin verb “mittere”, to send. I have long intended to write a post on the various cultural traditions that have congealed into our winter holiday season. From the ancient rituals surrounding the Winter Solstice, the darkest day in the Northern Hemisphere on December 21st; to the New Year and the Roman Saturnalia; to the origins of the Christmas Tree, Santa Claus and seasonal lights; one of the most interesting cultural practices, to me, was the “Yule Time” and the “Yule Log” from Northern Europe and the Germanic peoples.

Illustration of Yuletide celebration from an 1880 German newspaper. (From mentalfloss.com and quotes below)

At this time of the year, late in the fall and early winter, the people of these northern regions had well learned that a significant portion of their live stock would not survive through the winter. So, instead of letting the older, less firm cows, sheep, and pigs waste away, dwindle slowly and consume the fading grasses and feeds, the Germans “culled” the herd. They killed the less firm, saving feed for the most likely survivors, and created an abundance of meat to be eaten. This was my longtime understanding of the Yule tradition, though I’m having some difficulty confirming it now; there seems to be a great many interpretations and no decisive evidence.

“Drinking and eating to excess –gluttony, even– were not only the centerpiece of this holiday, but a sacred duty.” 12 days of celebration were set aside, from the Solstice to New Years Day. The final shock of grain from the years harvest was fermented into beer, some 4 gallons of it, and at one point the celebration was not to stop until it had all been consumed. Yule is the source of the still occasionally seen “Boar’s Head” or Yule Boar.

If that was the economic basis of the Yule Time feasting, these activities became encrusted in the mythology of the Norse gods, especially Odin. Jolnir was one of the many names for Odin, and jol is associated with the origins of the term “yule”. Odin was the god of the dead, especially dead warriors and heroes. At this darkest time of the year the Norse and Germanic people reveled their departed ancestors. “The veil between the living and the dead was thin” at this point, they felt. A table of food was left out over night to satisfy any ancestral or other supernatural visitor.

(The Traditional Yule Log and the much more modern Yule Log Cake. The dessert was started in France in the 19th century in memory of their custom of burning a log each Christmas Eve. It is a chocolate cake rolled about a heavy cream filling. And who is that mysterious man carrying that other log?)

The pagan Yule Log tradition started among the Germans and consisted of family members venturing into the woods to select an Oak Tree for cutting and burning. Note the earlier post (Folk Religion, The Strange Idea Of…) where we learned the special connection of the Druidic “folk religion” to the oak tree and the mistletoe. The word “Druid” meant “oak-knower” or “oak-seer”. The log and the fire was to be kept burning throughout the midwinter festival and the successful ignition of it on the first attempt foretold prosperity for the family in the new year.

The Wild Hunt of Odin, 1872 by Peter N. Arbo. Odin was believed to have flown through the skies during the Yule season. Accompanied by other gods, elves, beasts and ancestral spirits, they sought out evil (The Ice Giants and other Dark Forces) to combat and good to reward. These flights and fights were associated with the stormy weather of that time of year. (Thanks to sonsofvikings.com for the above and below illustrations and information.)
An early depiction of Santa on the left, and a depiction of Odin, in disguise, on right (ink drawing by Georg Von Rosen)

Odin as a forerunner of Santa? In Norse mythology, Odin or Wotan or Jolnir used many names and took on different forms. In various Sagas, he travels the world to obtain knowledge in the disguise of an old, white-bearded man wearing a cloak with hood or hat. I guess we might conclude that “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so…”

But the times, they were a changing and by the 900s AD, Christianity was moving northward and these Yuletide festivities began merging with a growing Christian religion. Interestingly, the birth of Jesus –or Christmas– was not an important holiday or religious event in these early years of the religion. Its followers were still focused on Christ’s Return, the “Second Coming”, not his first, but with time, the immediacy of that expectation waned and focus began to shift.

And shift they did. Today we have all manner of celebrating this time of the year, and I hope you are enjoying yours, as limited and pandemically safe as they undoubtedly are.

Logo by Marty
Boar’s Head Meal (thanks to U. of Rochester for photo) Traditionally The Head On Its Platter was marched into the dining hall in a grand parade sometimes accompanied by a fanfare of horns.

THE RECIPE: Bone the head, leaving only the jawbones (for shape) and tusks. Make a small quantity of stuffing composed of minced pig’s liver, chopped apples, a little onion, sage and rosemary. Arrange this stuffing all around the inside of the head about half an inch in thickness.

Now stuff the rest of the inside of the head with a second stuffing made of sausage meat, squares of ox tongue, chopped truffles, chopped apples, chopped mushrooms, chopped pistachio nuts and minced rosemary. Add one wineglass of Calvados (or sherry) and an equal quantity of cream.

When the head is filled tight with this, stitch a very strong cloth over the stuffing, then bind the whole head in another strong cloth, and put it in a large pot of boiling water to boil slowly for about eight to nine hours, during which time you add more boiling water as evaporation requires. When the head is cooked and is still warm reshape in cloth, remove the wrapping and let it get cold.

The ears, which have been cut off and boiled separately, are then replaced on the head with a skewer.
Place the head on an oblong dish, surround it with slices of truffles, slices of apples, and strew with rosemary. ENJOY!!!

(recipe -verbatim- and additional information from castlearcana.com)

STAY SAFE and ENJOY YOUR HOLIDAYS, no matter their form!

2 thoughts on “Happy Holiday Edition: Nature Religion Connection

  1. Typed a whole bunch of stuff but lost it when I pressed send. So, thanks for your messages. Christmas is an important time for our beliefs and family. We wish you and the family a safe and healthy holiday season and a Happy New Year. Love from your family in Canada.


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