Of Winter Kings & Snap Dragons:
John & Caitlín Matthews’ The Winter Solstice
John Matthews, with contributions from Caitlín Matthews
The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas
Wheaton, Il.: Theosophical Publishing House/Quest Books, 1998
The Winter Solstice is divided in two, like the day it celebrates, but instead of an even mix of dark and light, this book remains enlightening all the way through. The divide comes from its balance of solid information and creative instruction. This is no armchair research volume. While The Winter Solstice gives readers an abundance of historical, spiritual and literary material, it also fully equips the reader with ways to embrace the season in a wide array of styles. In these current days of DIY fashionableness, it is strange to think that this book is nearly 14 years old. Timeless worth is just that, though, timeless.
John Matthews and Caitlín Matthews, the authors, know a lot about timelessness. John Matthews is a historian, folklorist, and author, whose works in Arthurian myth and Grail legend span three decades. His wife, Caitlín, has been trained in the timeless esoteric Western mysteries through the schools founded by Dion Fortune and Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. Between them, they have written over 90 books on Arthurian, Celtic, and/or arcane subjects, some of which have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Czech, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish, Korean, Japanese, Finnish, and Russian.
The Winter Solstice brings a reverence to the entire history of the season, going back to the Neolithic farmers and hunters who watched the sky eons ago: “Long before the appearance of an obscure wonder-worker in Palestine, the celebration of Midwinter sun held a central place in civilizations throughout the ancient world. It is to these that we must turn now in order to be able to understand something of the continuity of belief and celebration that has attended the rising and setting of the sun from the earliest days of humanity” (13). Harking to Mithras, Aion, Attis, and Ra, the opening chapter defines why and delineates how the Winter Solstice is such an important and spiritual time for us.
The word solstice itself comes from the Latin sol stetit, literally ‘sun stands still’, which recognizes that for approximately six days in June and again in December, the sun appears to rise and set at more or less the same point on the horizon, appeared in to stand still in the sky. . . . They have always been recognized as mysterious, shadowy uncertain times, when the conviction that the sun would return becomes doubtful, and when the gates between the worlds stand ajar.
At these times the coming and going of otherworldly beings, communications between the dead and the living, happen all the more easily, and there is a need to propitiate them, and to watch closely to see that the thing return to ‘normal’ once the Solstice has passed.
This was above all a time of celebration, of ritual acts designed to align the individual with the cosmos. Dances were devised to enact the movement of the seasons, the fertility of the land and people. The masked dancers and shamans of the Bronze Age and the Neolithic people are still reflected in the masked ‘guisers’ who tour the outlying villages of Britain and Ireland to this day; while the shamans, who descended a ladder or tent pole into the smoky fires of the ancestral world, recall a more familiar red-suited figure who descends our chimneys every year at Midwinter. (15)
Having established why and when the Solstice was and is considered a time of great spiritual and emotional regard, Matthews gives a chapter’s worth of examination to each of the more well-known parts that make up Yule/Christmas: the sacred baby, the tree, Santa, even the animals get their fair share of attention. Within these major subject areas, Matthews examinations range from the usual (following the star, the Holly and the Ivy, reindeer) to the less known but equally important parts that make up or made up the whole of Solstice tradition. The Solstice Smith, the Sooty boys, King Wren, Mabon, the British Apollo, the horse, Krampus all are given attention.
Along with the well written facts about the various components of Solstice, there are many illustrations. All of the illustrations are full color, some are full page. The pictures include both the familiar and the less known glimpses of our rich artistic heritage, ranging from the ancient to the modern. Poems and lyrics interweave the text, mixing with pertinent quotes from literary and historical passages that highlight or echo whichever portions of the text they are woven into. The effect of combining classical works with Matthew’s own research produces that sense of essential timelessness that is so evocative of the sacred, and so enhances the experience of delving into the book.
As well as this mixture of research and literary harkenings, The Winter Solstice offers readers imaginative ways and techniques for truly taking part in the Solstice. Recipes for holiday treats such as real egg nog, wassail punch, 12th Night Cake, soul cakes, and that lovely food game of olde, “SnapDragon,” are peppered throughout the chapters. Every chapter contains a special Solstice craft or event—from preparing a modern-sized Yule log to creating a winter shrine to partaking in a souling ritual.
The last two chapters are devoted to the reader’s experience. Chapter 6 is basically a schedule of proposed events concerning what the reader can do from the time of Day 0 (which they say is Christmas Day) to the 12th Day (Epiphany). This 13 day post-Christian based reckoning is different from the Asatru/Odinist reckoning which marks the Solstice season from the day of the actual solstice (usually December 21st) to the twelfth day past, but the spirit of marking each day with a certain ritual or observance is the same. Chapter 7 contains two dramatic works based on traditional Midwinter themes and a guide to the celebrations in the book. This guide takes the reader from preparation to revels and leaves little that could be experienced out!
Resources and further reading–both print and online—close this eminently readable book. Right before the authors list their contact address, which is the last information given by them, they add a penultimate tidbit.
If you want to write to Santa in the old-fashioned way, the following address will always find him and generally gets a reply as well:
I always suspected that that wise old Elf might live there, and now I know.
This is a book that certainly holds up to what its back cover says it is:
A beautifully illustrated reference book for those interested in the oldest festival in the Western world, it proactively suggests reclaiming elements of ancient ritual for your own solstice celebrations. . . . there is plenty here to counter the effects of commercial frenzy that the holidays currently inspire.
For a folk whose culture’s most important values and traditions have been steadily eroded by the forces of Capitalism and alien cultures, and are still being eroded, books like The Winter Solstice are not merely recommended readings, they should be obligatory for each and every one of us. And, not just those of us with children young enough to wait for Santa’s gifts, but for all of us. There is more to Midwinter than meets the eye, and much of it is in this book.
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