Witches' brew at winter solstice.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 18 2009 12:42 PM

Witches' Brew at Winter Solstice

How Wiccans do themselves in.

Christmas and Hanukkah may be the most well-known end-of-year religious holidays, but each December, Wiccans celebrate winter solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year. In a "Faith-Based" article originally published in 2005 and reprinted below, Mark Oppenheimer argued that the pagan celebration relies on false historical claims—undermining Wiccans' attempts to gain some credibility.

If, as linguists say, a language is just a dialect with an army, then a religion is just a madman's fantasy that has failed to die out. Religions gain legitimacy by lasting, and by that measure Wicca is well on its way to being mainstream. Now 50 years old, the earth-centered faith (also known as paganism or witchcraft) has thousands of adherents and many more occasional dabblers in the United States and Europe. Dozens of new Wicca books are published every year. There are dozens of Wicca conferences and retreats. And solstice celebrations are now seen as normal in the United States—and in freethinking Unitarian churches, practically required.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

But Wiccan teachings are for the most part a stew of demonstrably false historical claims. There's no better time to examine this penchant for dissembling than at winter solstice on Dec. 21, which Wiccans say has been their holiday for thousands of years. For it's just such unfounded claims to old age and continuous tradition that may keep Wicca from growing to be truly old.

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Wicca is not a unified movement; it comprises "good" witches who use spells and charms, feminist worshippers of a monotheistic Goddess, and earth-cultists who propound nature worship. But the many strands overlap. They're gynocentric; they're all concerned with nature; they all celebrate eight holidays, or "sabbats," that include the equinoxes and the solstices. Adherents typically say that those eight holidays were celebrated by ancient Wiccans or pagans, primarily Celtics or Romans, whose traditions the contemporary Wiccans are carrying on. These seasonal festivals, they add, have been co-opted by Christians, who turned Samhain into Halloween and Yule into Christmas.

The rare Wiccan belief that pans out is that Christmas is an adaptation of a solstice celebration. We have no way of knowing when Jesus was born. Scholars generally agree that by the late fourth century his birthday was figured for Dec. 25, because that was already the day of the Roman feast of Sol Invictus (the "undefeatable sun"), a solstice holiday, as well as the time of Saturnalia, the festival for Saturn.

But in reaching for a usable past, Wiccans trumpet numerous other historical claims that are entirely without merit. The central claim that Wicca is descended from pre-Christian cultures and that it was driven underground by violent Christians was popularized by the writer Starhawk, whose 1979 book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess is a foundational text for contemporary Wiccans. Starhawk based her teachings on the work of, among others, Marija Gimbutas, a UCLA anthropologist who in the 1970s and 1980s argued that in pre-Christian times there existed a unified, female-centered, Indo-European society that worshipped a Goddess.

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