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Christmas Special 
’Tis the Season:
An Ethnobotanical Look at Yule

[1]1,759 words

Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling
Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide [2]
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2003

Christmas—or Yule, to use the name originally given to this sacred time by our pre-Christian ancestors—is one of those times when I am particularly reminded of how much who we were still strongly influences who we are. Despite how much of our ancient sacred heritage has been lost, disregarded, or condemned over the years, there is no denying that this season includes a very special time within its weeks.

Pagan Christmas examines these festive days—which it says “start with November 11 and end on February 2”–from an ethnobotanical angle, which is very apt. The season is one of plantly abundance: “Fir trees, mistletoe, holly, golden oranges, red apples, ripe nuts, exotic spices, straw stars, cinnamon stars, mugwort roast, witches’ houses made from gingerbread, and currant loaf (Christstollen): It’s Christmas all around!” (x)

Divided into 13 chapters, not including the preface, bibliography, and index, Pagan Christmas explores both the usual (trees, colors, food and drink ingredients, chocolate, Santa Claus, aromas) and the unusual (pheromones, mugwort roasts, sun gods, erotic bean fests, the wild feast of Sylvester) botanical-based aspects of the season. The contents of some chapters are strangely distributed, for example holy trees are explored in chapter 3 and Christmas greens (including holy trees) in chapter 5, red and white “fly agaric” colors are discussed in chapter one and again (and again!) in later chapter sections as well. But, perhaps it is due to the vastness and inter-woven quality of the subject matter.

Dr. Rätsch is an anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist whose specialty is the shamanic uses of plants. Dr. Müller-Ebeling is anthropologist and art historian. A book written by two German PhDs on the ethnobotany of Weihnachten could be a difficult read, but working with each of their strengths, these authors create a work that is both intellectually interesting and artistically beautiful. And, very importantly, it is extremely readable, even with the interweaving of chapter material.

Heeding Byron’s words to “begin with the beginning,” Pagan Christmas opens with a first chapter that explains why Christmas time became the time of light, the time of greenery, the time of feasting and the time of holiness and ritual.

Christmas is a complex ritual with elements of tree and forest cults, agricultural rituals, magic customs, applied folk botany, rites of sacrifice, mystery plays, feasts and all kinds of social exchange. Christmas is also a ‘feast of love’ involving symbolic plants; nearly all the plants of Christmas have a historical association with fertility, love magic or aphrodisiac effects. Thus, for ages, Christmas plants have provided a safe haven and domain of contemplations on dark and cold midwinter nights, with their blessings and their dangers. . . . Only three or four generations ago, winter was the time when the infamous ‘Thin Jack’ was the chef in poor households. Work in the fields was over for the year. Many farms were snowed in. . . . Whoever lacked warm clothing and had no wood for a fire could—until the middle of the twentieth century—truly feel the harshness of the winter. One yearned for warm socks and a warm jacket, a merrily crackling hearth fire, hot soup, and something good tasting—like the apples, nuts, and almonds mentioned in numerous Christmas songs. In these times of darkness and scarcity, on what is practically the shortest day of the year, comes Christmas Day. Our modern celebration of the birth of Christ, with all its glowing lights, continues the pagan traditions of the winter solstice, during which the people celebrated the return of the sun. (3–8)

Chapter 2 –“A Pagan Feast”—packs a lot of information about the Shamanic roots that grew into Christmas, or Julfest, as we know it now: Santa (and his fly agaric red and white suit),Wotan and the Wild Hunt, Mother’s Night, Sol Invictus, Rubezahl, “raw nights/smudging nights” and the magical/botanical elements inherent in them are nicely summed up. This chapter acts as a sort of base for the rest of the book, having introduced certain ideas and elements, and it is worth checking back to if you don’t quite understand something that crops up further on.

The next three chapters focus on Shamanic, holy, and magical plants, with some interesting side trips into St. Nick’s helper “Ruprecht,” the origins of “Baccy Claus: The Smoking Christmas Man,” and flying reindeer connections to magic mushrooms (fly agaric again!). There are some lovely illustrations and wonderful side notes and side bars. There is also much immensely interesting information given about so many aspects of the season and the possible holy origins. Under a sidebar explaining the “soul flight of Father Christmas” (a combination of the red and white hood of the fly agaric mushroom and the flying sleigh of red and white Santa), for instance, Rätsch and Müller-Ebeling write this:

 in the folk vernacular, fly agaric mushrooms are called ‘raven’s bread’. Ravens are not only age-old shamanic power animals, they are also messengers of Odin, also known as Hrafnoss, ‘raven god’. In Skaldic poetry, fly agaric is called munnin’s rugga ‘food of the raven (munnin) (Gisli 31, 4). Could it be that the fly agaric mushroom has a direct connection with Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin? Are the mushrooms food for the two ravens, who carry his thoughts and memories during their flights? (46).

Is the wild hunt of Odin the less intimidating form of Santa and his sleigh of flying reindeer?

Recipes for incense, snuff, Yule smoke, an essential oil blend, even cookies for preventing sadness (from the medieval herbalist Hildegard von Bingen) are scattered throughout the book. Lists of Christmas spices (with common names, botanical names and origins helpfully given), Christmas “stars” (flowering plants), Christmas roses, and other botanical/Christmas subjects are included through the book. The illustrations are various and complementary—they range from woodcuts to old advertisements to charming vintage drawings to photographs, some are even rather funny. While the great amount of illustration might lead some people to think Pagan Christmas is a shallow coffee table type of book, the greater amount of arcane information that surrounds the illustrations instantly puts paid to that notion.

The 6th chapter, “The Aromas of Christmas: A Shower of Pheromones,” is a fascinating look at the effects of smells on the Christmas experience.

Typical Christmas aromas provide us with a true shower of pheromones! . . . The aromas we associate with Christmas come from Christmas evergreens and the Christmas tree, Christmas spices, Christmas incense, and special scent-producers (pomanders, oil lamps, scented candles and so one). Little aromatic pouches and potpourris are especially popular in the United Kingdom. These contain what amount to aromatic drugs (a word that comes from an old Dutch term referring to dried plants). These so-called ‘designer drugs’ in the form of dried plant parts are included in potpourris, tea blends, and smoking mixtures partly for aesthetic reasons, but also because of their symbolism. (102)

Incenses for everything from weather magic to the “Nine Herb” mixture of the ancient Anglo-Saxon herb charm are detailed and ingredients given. The chapter closes with information regarding traditions and rituals associated with ash and Yule Logs.

From the nearly subliminal intoxication of Chapter 6, Chapter 7 brings the reader to more direct intoxicants. Starting with liquid libations, “Wodelbeers (Wodel=Wotan),” Pagan Christmas moves on to hemp, chocolate (with an interesting bit on Ritual Christmas cannibalism and the eating of chocolate Santas), ancient mugwort and goose fat flying balms, and the very contemporary connection between Coca-Cola and the Christmas season that came into being in 1931 “The company actually secured this very public and popular mascot, the American Father Christmas, with the trademark Santa Claus ®” (137).

I had never heard of the erotic bean feast (Jan. 6) until I read Pagan Christmas.

In old Germany, the January feast grew out of the concept of the Roman Saturnalia. It was a time to celebrate the awakening of the Earth from its winter sleep. Because the bean was the center of ritual attention as a fertility symbol, the German folk vernacular called this feast—with its sexually excessive orgies and Saturnalian drinking and eating—the ‘bean feast.’ (157)

Nor had I heard of The Wild Feast of Sylvester (Dec. 31) “Sylvester is a wild feast day that falls on the furthest border of the year’s cycle” (159). Rätsch supplies a recipe for Sylvester Punch that not only sounds tasty, but gives the reader the root of the word punch, as well. “The word punch has roots in the Hindi ‘panc’, meaning ‘five.’” (161). I think it is particularly interesting to see Hindi pop up in Northern Germanic ritual drink recipes.

Because Pagan Christmas extends Christmas past December 25th, in keeping with the ancient observances of this event as a season rather than just a day, Chapter 10 discusses various ethnobotanical facets of New Year’s Day, from ancient fireworks such as those made from Stag-horn Club-moss spores (“Thunder and Witch flour”) to lucky mushrooms (fly agaric yet again) to magical shamanic clover.

The book closes, as the post-Christ Christmas closes, with the dawn of Epiphany, January 6th. The Christmas witch, Befana (an Italian folk custom) and the Three Magi (a Christian one) are examined in context of the ethnobotanical end of the season. “The name Befana (or Befania) comes from Epiphanias (epiphany), the feast commemorating the baptism of Christ, also known as Three Kings Day in some regions. . . . Befana is one of the spirits who haunt people in the smudging nights” (173). “In our calendar January 6 has a solid place as the holiday of the three magi, commonly known as Three Kings Day. Even today priests go from house to house in the Black Forest on January 6, smudging them for protection from evil influences” (180). Helpfully, the plant ingredient information and recipes needed for smudging on Three Kings Day are found on page 184.

From the holly berries wired onto our fir tree wreathes to the foil wrapped chocolate Santa Clauses we place in our children’s stockings, so much of what we do this season has an origin in the pagan rituals of our ancestors. It is comforting to know where our traditions hail from, and it is enlightening to know the reasons for everything from ball-shaped ornaments to Julboks.

While this book deals with the ancient rituals and Pagan traditions, it does not dismiss post-Pagan ceremony or post-Pagan sincerity in any way. It is an even-handed, level-headed, veritable treasure source of information and imagery for Pagan and Christian readers and searchers alike. For those of us who wish to preserve all that we possibly can of our authentic ways and our indigenous manners, this book is a valuable resource.

Glück Weihnachten! Glad Jul!