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2 December 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 7:06am

As Christmas approaches, we should remember the pagan rituals that came before it

Now more than ever, we should learn from our prehistoric ancestors’ reverence for the Earth. 

By John Burnside

In prehistoric times, tribal groups across Europe placed their dead in chambered cairns during the winter solstice. For one day of the year the sun reached all the way down the long, narrow entrance corridors of stone structures such as Maeshowe, Orkney, to flood their inner chambers with a bright, revivifying light.

We cannot say for certain what those ancestral builders intended, but it is hard not to think of such sites as laboratories of regeneration in which the dead were released, symbolically, to assume new forms in the cycle of birth, death and renewal. I like to think this release was not seen as a personal entry to some kind of afterlife, but as a larger ritual in which life itself – not one specific instance of humanity – was the focus of celebration. But this cairn-building culture has passed now, and all anyone can know is what the stones reveal.

At a later period in Orkney’s history, Viking invaders would use these cairns as temporary shelters or even as middens, for waste disposal. The runes carved into the stone walls of Maeshowe, once assumed to be expressions of awe, turned out, when finally deciphered, to be crude graffiti – the casual disdain of a piratical, materialist society for its more sensitive predecessors.

But this should come as no surprise, for it is how history works: one culture displaces another, and change does not equate to progress. When the Christians came to Britain, they built their churches and cathedrals on top of Celtic holy sites and renamed the old festivals and ritual days to fit the new religious calendar. So it was that the period of winter solstice, known to the druids as Alban Arthan, became the 12 days of Christmas. What had been a celebration of the natural cycle of decay and renewal became the birthday of an enigmatic demigod from a distant land, with all the moral and cultural baggage that came with it – until, eventually, the Christian mystery of the Incarnation was reduced to those plastic Nativity scenes that adorn provincial shopping centres across the world.

[see also: Appreciating the magic of autumn’s seasonal milestones]

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There is now a long-standing tradition that, around this time every year, some Tory cleric trots out the old complaint that the real meaning of Christmas has been lost in a welter of consumerism and greed – and it is hard not to agree. Yet for someone like me, whose sympathies are pagan and animistic, it sounds a bit rich, considering what happened to the rites and beliefs of those who were here before St Columba and his ilk turned up.

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This year, the loss of that old, pagan reverence for the land seems particularly poignant. We are still in the midst of a plague whose origins almost certainly lie in our abuse of natural habitats, while 2020 has been a year of unprecedented forest fires, unseasonal storms, increasing degradation of the seas, continuing species loss and the pollution of drinking water in several developed countries.

Surely we can see by now that how we are living is not sustainable. That being so, might this solstice not be a good time to remember our ancestors, the cairn-builders and the druids – not in some superficial, fancy-dress way, but as exemplars of how we might live, in some kind of meaningful accord with the land? We don’t have to burn a Yule log, or dance under the moon. All that matters is that we pause to remember where we are, and what we need to change in order to continue, through the standstill of solstice, into a new spring.

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed