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The Winter Solstice – John Matthews

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The Winter Solstice is a big book stuffed with glossy color plates and an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the origins of the solstice celebrations, Yule traditions and instructions for Yule logs, wishing trees and ceremonies, solstice animals and birds, and classic recipes for eggnog and wassail bowls.

John Matthews has written numerous books on Celtic subjects but this one is subtitled “The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” and there is a lot about the holiday we know and how influences from Druid mistletoe to Coca Cola have shaped it. Santa, with his red coat, big belly, rosy cheeks and white beard, is fairly modern image from an illustration publicized by the Coca Cola Company in its late nineteenth century advertising. The pagan Green Man is said to have challenged Gawain in Arthur’s court when Camelot traded its Druid spiritual customs for a Christian celebration. The first mention of Christmas trees comes from 1605 in Germany but the ancient Romans decorated their houses with evergreen boughs every year in early January.

You may infuse a solstice observance with symbolism from many cultures and Matthews tells you how. Mithras, a Persian deity with a life story remarkably like Christ’s, can be invoked with a golden circle or disc. Dionysus, god of wine and merriment, gets a pine cone. Holly branches and strands of ivy hark back to the folk tradition of a ritual battle between the Holly King and the Ivy Queen. The two plants, which remain green, produce bright red berries and are decorative in winter, were also part of Greek legend and represented for Christians the crown of thorns and the purity of Mary.

Matthews details the Twelve Days of Christmas with history for each day and suggested activities. But he lists as well the unique architecture of the pre-christian people who built New Grange and Stonehenge and other sacred sites aligned with the winter and summer solstice sun. An interesting tidbit is that Bronze Age and Neolithic shamans climbed down ladders into the fires and smoke of the underworld to retrieve soul bits or to discover wisdom. They were precursors of the reindeer-driven gift-giver who climbs down the chimney to reward good boys and girls with their heart’s desires.

The Winter Solstice is a better reference book than a straight-through read. I would add an index to make it easier to recover specific information without having to flip through pages. And I did find the content much more Christmas-centric than solstice-focused. But the book does link some of the older celebrations with the feast days and festivals that were layered over them. The Romans tried to remake a pagan world that revered the life-giving return of the light each year as the season turned. They may have co-opted solstice but evidence of it is still everywhere, if you know how to look.

The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas   John Matthews | Quest Books   2003