“The Women of Christmas” ~ Rev. Christine Kell
Did you know that once upon a time, Christmas Eve was known as “Mothers’ Night,” a festival held on the eve of Yule that celebrated The Mothers? The Christmas season owes a lot to feminine tradition and herstory. Join us for a look at some ancient yuletide practices and myths that celebrated Goddesses, Mothers, female ancestors, and the powerful energies they birth into our world.
A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing, including prayers, readings and songs.
Community Circles Discussion Guide – View & Download
A prayer of light, by Rabbi Lisa L. Levine
As we bring healing to those in need of strength,
May our spirits be filled with the light of You.
As we bring hope to a broken world.
May our hearts be softened by the light of You.
As we bring understanding to those who are suffering,
May our arms be opened by the light of You.
As we bring awareness to hatred,
May our anger be lessened by the light of You.
As we bring calm for inner peace,
May our breath be deepened by the light of You.
And may You guide us to those who seek our gifts,
Leading them gently and lovingly,
To the light of You. Amen.
The Prayer of Oscar Romero
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.Anonymous
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying that
The Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expressed our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
Knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produced effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
A step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.
“The Women of Christmas” ~ Rev. Christine Kell
Dec 13, 2020
I am so pleased to present this talk about the women of Christmas this morning. When I started looking online for material, I was surprised to find out just how much information is available. I think to cover it all would take up all the Sundays of December. However, you will be relieved to know that I have pared it down to around 20 minutes this morning.
There are many aspects of folklore, tradition, and folk custom that have very deep roots. However, the origin of such practices can be difficult to identify for a variety of reasons. The pre-Christian cultures in Northern Europe passed on their wisdom, histories, poetry, and myths orally. So in most cases, they didn’t leave written records. Yet, we do know that at the beginning of our known history, the world was perceived as being in a perpetual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In many cultures the sun was revered as the Sacred Masculine, and the earth as the symbol of the Great Feminine, the Great Mother of Life.
Centuries before the arrival of the baby named Jesus, in the darkest days of winter early Europeans joyously anticipated the coming rebirth of light. They rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. In cultures which used cyclic calendars, the winter solstice was the beginning of each new cycle. The solstice was celebrated with midwinter festivals in acknowledgement of the ongoing cycles of life-death-rebirth, and as a petition for the continued blessings of nature’s bounty and from the reborn gods and goddesses.
Midwinter festivals were widely celebrated across what we now know as the European countries. From the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Germany, to Russia, Siberia and the Bering Strait, and further south in the Mediterranean countries such as Italy, women were revered spiritual figures and a major component of these holidays. In addition to the more well-known celebration of the Winter Solstice, winter festivals included the Roman Saturnalia, Yule (a celebration of the children born after Mothers’ Night), Koliada (a celebration of the sun goddess Koliada), and the Night of the Witches. Dís a blóat, a midwinter festival honoring the spirits of female ancestors, was a more private celebration for family and friends, much like today’s Christmas.
The Christmas season owes a lot to the feminine traditions and the herstory we’ve been able to piece together from the myths, legends, folk tales, and even fairy tales that managed to survive to today. From ancient times, in addition to honoring the seasons, mid-winter was a time for celebrating and honoring not only women, but also the feminine presence and guidance found throughout nature.
Researcher Danielle Olson has written that ever since the early Neolithic period, when the earth was much colder and reindeer more widespread, the female reindeer was venerated by northern people. She was the “life-giving mother”, the leader of the herds upon which the people depended for survival, and they followed the reindeer migrations for milk, food, clothing, and shelter. The sacred significance of the deer and reindeer were important elements of the shamanic traditions, which were understood as essentially female and associated with the tree of life, fertility, motherhood, birth, and the rebirth of the sun.
The reindeer was often shown leaping or flying through the air with neck outstretched and legs flung out fore and aft. Her antlers were frequently depicted as the tree of life, carrying birds, the sun, moon and stars. And across the northern world, it was the Deer Mother who took flight from the dark of the old year to bring light and life to the new. It was the female reindeer who drew the sleigh of the sun goddess at Winter Solstice, the ancient Deer Mother of old who once flew through winter’s longest darkest night with the life-giving light of the sun in her horns.
According to writer Marcie Telander, many winter goddesses in northern legends were associated with the solstice. They took to the skies led by a throng of flying animals. One tells of the return of Saule, the Lithuanian and Latvian goddess of the sun. She flew across the heavens in a sleigh pulled by horned reindeer and threw pebbles of amber (symbolizing the sun) into chimneys.
For the Sami, the indigenous people of the Nordic countries, Beaivi is the name for the Sun Goddess associated with motherhood, the fertility of plants, and the reindeer. At Winter Solstice, warm butter (another symbol of the sun) was smeared on doorposts as a sacrifice to Beaivi so that she could gain strength and fly higher and higher into the sky. She was often shown accompanied by her daughter in an enclosure of reindeer antlers and together they returned green and fertility to the land.
Women were undoubtedly honored as powerful shamans, daughters of the Earth and partners of the Sun. Women were considered shamanic not only because of their magical life-giving abilities but also because of their unique relationship and communication skills with reindeer. The deer were special to the people, who regarded them as magical guides to the mysteries of healing. Throughout the world, cave drawings, petroglyphs, and pictographs show the Antlered Ones as embodying a kind of antenna to the Sky and the Upper World of the gods and goddesses. Through these antennae, or antlers reaching from their temples forward and upward, it was believed that the horned-ones could literally “receive knowledge from the gods.”
Siberian legends and folktales tell how, at the winter solstice, shamans wearing red and green clothing would collect hallucinogenic mushrooms and fly with the reindeer on a vision quest, and then deliver mushrooms through peoples’ chimneys as gifts. Reindeer, who are known to seek and ingest mushrooms, were the hooved teachers of the shamans. As healers and spiritual guides, these women would have paid close attention to the food the reindeer chose. The mushrooms were used to induce alterations in consciousness and perception for the purposes of producing spiritual visions. The roots, berries, lichen, moss, and other plants were used to heal various ailments and to improve gestation and birthing processes. So during the celebration and recognition of the Winter Solstice, the ritual of leaving shamanic presents may have been intended by the traveling reindeer shamans as offerings of guidance and physical and psychic healing rituals rather than simply physical gifts.
While many historical explorations of the pagan origins of Christmas observe the link between Santa’s garb and the red and white clothing of the shaman, few mention that it was the female shamans who originally wore red, green, and white costumes trimmed with fur, curled-toe boots, warm, reindeer hide mittens, and horned headdresses or a red peaked hat made of felt. Telander believes that most of these shamans were likely originally women, and it is probable that their traditional wear is the true source for Santa’s costume. It is also very likely that they were the first to take a flight with reindeer on winter’s darkest night.
In Olson’s opinion too, these priestesses of the deer who flew through the night to gather and distribute healing gifts and blessings to their tribe members must surely be considered the Fore-Mothers of Santa. And today, it is the female deer’s image that adorns Christmas cards and Yule decorations – not Rudolph’s. Because unlike the male reindeer, it is the doe who retains her antlers and leads the herds in winter.
One of the most important midwinter festivals was named Mō dra nicht which translates as Mothers Night, or Night of the Mothers. Stretching back at least 6,000 years there are references all across ancient Europe that talk about three all-powerful female gods called the Mothers, who were honored and celebrated at midwinter solstice.
We don’t know a lot about this celebration because it would have been suppressed after the conversion to Christianity. We do know that for Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian religions it was a time to celebrate both motherhood and female ancestors. This celebration of the feminine may be related to the age old correlation between the fertility of women with fertility of crops, and with rebirth of new life.
Mō dra nicht holds a special place within the Anglo-Saxon calendar as one of the holiest nights of the year. It deals with a variety of themes and devotions including remembering sacred ancestors, celebrating the end of the winter dark and the beginning of the new year, and honoring the goddesses and gods.
Ancestor veneration was a very important aspect of indigenous religions. Though both male and female ancestors were honored, female ancestors played an important role as guardians of the family line. Religious inscriptions along the Rhine river in Germany demonstrate that a cult devoted to “the Mothers” existed in southern Germany, Gaul, and Northern Italy, demonstrating that the Old Religion placed a high emphasis on celebrating maternity and the feminine.
Mothers’ Night is an observance that honors the goddess Frig in addition to human mothers and ancestors. Frīg, or Frigga, whose name means Beloved, is a goddess found in Norse mythology. Among her titles she is known as the All-Mother and Protectress, and she was in ancient times called on to guard mothers, babies, children, and the home. (Sharon Turnbull)
Frig was also the goddess of love, marriage, and destiny. Known as a seeress and the fate spinner, the people sacrificed to her in hopes of a fortuitous coming year and a healthy passage through the winter season. Frig was the goddess associated with the birth of each new year. She was responsible for weaving the clouds, and therefore for sunshine and rain and the fertility of the crops, and when she shook out her blankets, it began to snow. Responsible for weaving the fates, she sat at her spindle weaving the destiny of men and gods alike.
Frig was the goddess called upon to bring a woman love, marriage, and fertility. She may have been a paradigm of motherhood for her followers, as myths about her are closely associated with her son, Baldur. The Norse believed Mothers Night was the night during which Frig gave birth to her son Baldur, the god of light and joy. The blessing of Frig is still invoked for birthing women who light a white candle that was previously burned during the winter solstice as a charm to ensure a safe delivery.
Frig’s tender, nurturing side was widely recognized. Her sacred animal was the goose. It is from Frigga that we get our beloved character Mother Goose.
She was also called upon by those who were dying, to ease their transition into the after-life.
The goddess Frig keeps us in touch with our intuitive nature and helps us make transitions and new beginnings. And as a goddess of love and divination, Frig helps keep our lives in alignment with our spiritual selves.
Known wide and far by many names, in earlier times Frig’s holy day was known as Mother’s Night, on the eve of the Winter Solstice, but with the arrival of Christianity, her worship was integrated with that of Mary, mother of Jesus.
Mō dra nict, Mothers Night, was celebrated on the date we now call Christmas Eve. So this year, raise a glass and toast to your own mother, grandmother, aunts, great-aunts, and all the women who have helped raise you and yours. This is surely an old custom that can be appreciated by people of any tradition today!
In pre-Christian times, human women were honored as powerful shamans, partners of the Sun and daughters of the Earth. They were viewed as the representatives of the all-mother goddess, and before the major Aryan invasions overtook these Mother-oriented tribes and cultures, they were regarded as the sole creators of human life. Women were also seen as the ultimate expression of Life (with a capital L). Artifacts and funerary practices identified from thousands of years ago from ancient burial sites indicate that some of the most important spiritual guides were women.
There are many aspects of folklore and custom that have deep, deep roots. It helps to remember that some traditions have been immersed in Christian practice for many years, but their true origins exist in the dark crevices of ancient customs. The origin of such practices can be difficult to identify for a variety of reasons. For the most part, pre-Christian cultures in Northern Europe passed on their wisdom, histories, poetry, and myths orally with few written records.
And of course, Europe was converted by and large by force. Charlemagne made it his mission to unite his conquered lands under one banner. But, it is easier to unite a people if they worship only one God, one system of belief. During his campaigns, indigenous cultures were attacked brutally. Ancient holy trees in sacred groves were chopped down, artifacts destroyed, and pagan holidays and holy figures were banned.
Another major obstacle is the way that the Catholic Church absorbed paganism, at the same time re-branding and replacing specific customs and figures, especially female deities, and hunting down the shamans. Gods became saints, pagan holidays became Christian ones. Eventually, the church realized that they couldn’t ban all festivities, so they provided their followers with an alternative option: a festival which honored the birth of Jesus that eventually gave us the Christmas traditions we celebrate today.
As I suspect most of us by now know, the most prominent theory about the origins of the December 25th Christmas date is that it was co-opted from pagan celebrations such as Mother’s Night. If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, so the story goes, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated. Yet, the exclusion of female images from the Christian concept of divinity in the Church – which at that time was making a concerted effort to eradicate the worship of pagan goddesses – was particularly hard on people whose experience with birth and death had been connected with the female principle for ages. Consequently, people discovered and became devoted to the more popular image of Mary. Like Frig, she was the compassionate Mother of a God, approved by the Church as a woman of power and agency.
Like Frig, Mary took over the traditional role of mediating human transitions from birth to death. She became an assimilation of characteristics from a variety of different cultures. The mother of Jesus became accepted by the public as their All-Mother, allowing believers to preserve their differences as well as their cultural ties.
Today, the Christmas story is not just about the birth of the baby Jesus, son of God. It is a telling of the rebirth of women after centuries of being ignored, forgotten, even persecuted. Mary’s story returns the balance between women and men, becoming the New Eve in concert with Jesus as the New Adam. It becomes the story of every woman’s need to reflect on the presence of the divine feminine within, to face doubts and still be faithful, always trying to reconcile faith and experience without forcing them into a masculine mold.
Mary’s story is especially accessible to cultural and personal interpretation, at once open and vulnerable, yet mysterious and strong. She is both virgin and mother; disciple, prophet, and compassion personified. Mary is our connection to both goddess and woman, and, prompted by their own experience, contemporary women find hidden dimensions in Mary’s story. We see a brave young woman of thirteen or so willing to commit herself to an action whose consequences she cannot foresee. The mom who saw to her son’s safety, education, and religious upbringing. The wise older woman who walked with her son on his journey, and the heartbroken mother who held her son’s dead body in her arms. Mary speaks to us as ordinary women and men, yet she represents not only the historical human woman who once lived on earth, but also the sacred goddess who resides in heaven, appears at times to living persons, and intercedes with God for the renewal of us all.
Marian devotion has waxed and waned over the centuries, yet she is venerated in religions the world over, including Islam and Hinduism, as well as Christianity and Judaism. As she gives birth to the son of god each year at Christmas, her story teaches us how to live in the light; she offers us the reminder that we are fortunate enough to experience, embrace, and celebrate the rebirth of grace, compassion, gratitude, and unconditional love.
Whether people see of the coming of the light in spiritual terms or as simply the natural progression of the yearly cycle, we have been celebrating the rebirth and power of the light since the beginning of time. We rely on that light in our darkest moments, and without its strength we feel its absence keenly.
Christmas, like the winter festivals our ancestors celebrated, is our annual reminder that the light we choose to embrace on whatever level we choose to embrace it, is there for us, burning as brightly as ever. The light that really matters isn’t the return of sunny days, a sleigh pulled by reindeer, or a star in the sky; it’s the growing illumination of who we each truly are — divine beings having a human experience. It’s an opportunity to review where we are spiritually, to feel the rebirth of our inner awareness of Source, and to resolve to let our own glorious light shine as a beacon of love, peace, and hope for others. That is the gift that has come down to us from the women of Christmas – and it is the greatest gift of all.
Thank you, and a Happy and Blessed Christmas to all.
Today’s reading is adapted from an essay by Patricia Montley entitled Winter Solstice and the Shaman Within.
The earth is turning. The receding sun is taking with it the old year, and the returning sun brings in the new.
The dwindling of the sun’s light is a reminder that even as the old year dies, so must all living things. When the daylight hours are shortest, we long for assurance that spring will return, that once again the warm sun will nurture growing things and make the earth green. It is the shaman who helps the people to accept this universal dying, to understand it is necessary for new life.
From earliest times, the shaman journeyed in an altered state of consciousness. In this ecstatic trance state, the shaman’s soul was believed to leave the body and ascend to the heavens or descend to the underworld. She was a bridge between the worlds who could discern the truths of other spheres and bring back messages from beyond the members of the tribe — messages that were important to their well-being.
Sometimes the messages were about practical things concerning the year to come, like what to plant, when to harvest, where to hunt, for shamans often served as mediators harmonizing the behavior of their people with the natural world. Sometimes the message was about how to treat an illness of someone in the tribe, for the shaman was also a healer.
And sometimes the message was a spiritual gift — a secret that enabled the people of the tribe to achieve some truly great thing or understand some profound truth.
At this time of the year, it is the shaman we must look to for guidance — the shaman within ourselves.
It is we ourselves who must don the shaman’s mask. It is we who must journey deep into the realms of the dark. It is we who must return to the light to live and celebrate the rebirth of the Christ spirit.
“Triple Solstice Goddess” to the tune of We Three Kings
“A Christmas Song” written by Asha Lightbearer
This service aired on December 13, 2020.
Doe, A Deer, A Female Reindeer: The Spirit of Mother Christmas
By Danielle Prohom Olson
The Lost Female Figures of Christmas
By Carolyn Emerick
Freya & Frigga: Norse Goddesses of the North
By Sharon Turnbull