The Struggle Between Darkness and Light: The Old Meaning of Christmas


The Color of Christmas is Black

Christmas is a celebration of the dawning of the light.

In the Western World we have combined elements of Pagan rituals with the Christian Mystery of the nativity for a joyous recognition that new Light comes out of Darkness, that the resurrection of life after death is part of the cycle of nature.

Red, green, gold, tinsel, these are the colors associated with Christmas. But the old color of Christmas is black. The black of the long night filled with stars, the black of life still quickening under the soil, The darkness of the evergreen forest with glints of sun shining through,  the darkness of snow banked  houses inwardly lit by candles and hearth fires.


And then there is the old tradition of Saturnalia.

Ancient Romans told tales of a Gold Age ruled over by King Saturn, God of sowing and husbandry. Old King Cole was a Merry Old Soul could have been written about him. The earth brought forth abundantly  as King Saturn brought people together from far and wide to teach them how to plant an harvest and till the ground, how to live lawful lives under his generous and peaceful rule. All property was held in common, greed and war were not even thought of.

After King Saturn vanished, or died, his reign continued to be commemorated by the Romans with shrines and festivals in his honor. And every winter from the 17th to the 23rd of December, great revels took place led by the Spirit of Misrule. Slaves were freed and allowed to act the part of Masters. Masters waited upon slaves. Class barriers were further razed as everyone indulged in feasting, drinking, dancing and orgies. The high point of this carnival was the coronation of the Mock King. Usually chosen by lot, the slave who was mad King, ordered the people around, often requesting the drunken revelers to perform ridiculous antics, like silly dances, mimicking animals, or carrying musicians on their backs.

But as was the case in most ancient agricultural societies known for an abundantly fertile and yielding earth. there was another side to these festivities. For the Mock King, who for a few days enjoyed every indulgence, for whom was his command, ended his reign with his head on the block, burned in the fire, or hung on the gallows tree.

It was believed that the Sun actually died on Winter Solstice, and that the only way to bring it back to life, was to exchange one life for another — a human life for the life of the sun.  The Mock King of the Saturnalia, chosen by chance — and therefore by the Gods — drunken and in a state of high excitement, was a slave for whom these few days may have been worth the price of his short and miserable life.

old king cole

The Battle of the Summer and Winter Kings

What is this connection of Christmas time and death? For Christians it would be a pre-configuration of Easter, when the Son would die as a human being and be resurrected as God, and bright solar God at that.  In December, the Mock King, a Christmas Fool dies to bring back the Sun.

The Celts had a tradition of the Oak King and the Holly King meeting on the field of battle at Winter Solstice. The Oak King o Summer must give way to the Holly King of winter, but will not do so without a fight. That it was a fight to the death is a given in the books I have read on the subject. Was this another way to insuring the sun coming back in exchange for a human life? Or was this battle enacted in the Dreamtime — the Otherworld realm where European  shamans battled witches to protect the fertility of the land?


It is the brightness over the darkness that gives Christmas its special character. Gold over black. The warm glow of fire, the colored lights, the shining evening clothes and jewels shining in the long dark night of winter is the glamor of Christmas. But under the reassuring images of Santa Clause, and  abundant gift giving in honor of King Saturn’s Golden Age, and the Peace on Earth that also characterized his mythical reign, is the deeper complication of our mortality and our place in the scheme of things. We call on angels, wise Kings and a Great Mother Goddess to bring forth the Light now.  The Mystery still remains — the birth of the Divine Child, the one and only God, entering the darkness of the flesh to awaken the Light within us all.

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