The Wheel of the Year Series: Yule or The Winter Solstice
The leaves have fallen off the trees, leaving them to brace naked against the cold, icy winds. The grass has died, and other than the evergreen trees and shrubs, the landscape is a mixture of browns and greys. The sky, although spectacularly pink and orange at sunrise and sunset, can seem too sunny or too overcast, depending on the day. In the colder climates, snow has begun to fall, coating the land in a blanket of brilliant white. Deer run freely in the forests and other animals have retreated to their fully-stocked burrows for the season. The days have been getting shorter and darker, but there is still light, in the form of fireplaces and multi-colored bulbs hung on houses. There is a spirit of kindness and giving in the air, of hospitality, love, and peace. It is midwinter, and it is almost Yule, a special time of year where we gather and feast, share gifts and stories, and celebrate the comings of the light.
In the pagan context, Yule is a sabbat on the Wheel of the Year that occurs around December 21st. Historically, Yule is an Old Norse celebration that took place at the Winter Solstice and lasted till the beginning of January (our modern calendar of course). Yule isn’t the only celebration of this time of year however, and although the word Yule and many of its customs can indeed be traced back to this specific festival, there are plenty of other Winter Solstice celebrations that have carried forward today. At its heart, Yule is a recognition of the Winter Solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year, and the fact that after this night, the light is coming again.
Origins of Yule
Strictly speaking, Yule originates in the celebrations of ancient Germanic tribes in Northern Europe. The word Yule comes from the Old Norse name for the celebration, Jól. (As a side note there is speculation that the proto-Indo-European root for jól means “joke, play”, and some believe the English word jolly also comes from jól). It is believed that the word originally referred to a month or two month period of Mid-November to January. The Norse celebration is tied to Odin (a more fierce-looking Santa Clause if you ask me), and the Wild Hunt, a folklore/legend motif of a “ghostly procession in the winter sky”.
The celebrations at Yule consisted of eating, drinking, and even making sacrifices, especially of remaining livestock for the winter. They would sacrifice the Yule boar in a sacred ceremony, burn a Yule log, decorate their houses with representations of the Yule goat, hang evergreen plants like mistletoe and holly, and even sing Yule songs.
Other Midwinter Celebrations
There are many other cultures that celebrate the Winter Solstice in ways that resemble the Germanic Yule, as well as ways that have carried forward to modern secular Christmas. Here are a few:
- Modraniht – Recorded by Bede in the 8th Century, this was an Anglo-Saxon festival known as “Mother’s Night” that was celebrated on modern-day Christmas Eve. This ties to Disablot, an ancient Scandinavian sacrificial celebration presided over by women.
- Saturnalia – the ancient Roman festival celebrated at the Winter Solstice. There was gift giving and feasting, as well as decorating with evergreen plants indoors. Rumor has it that there were also naked revelers singing in the streets, so sorta like caroling right?
- Twelfth Night – sort of a mixture between pagan Yule and Christian Christmas, many similar customs, lasted for 12 days, Winter Solstice-January 6th ish. Had the King Cake, a precursor to the modern fruitcake.
- Modern Yule – Most modern pagans celebrate Yule with aspects of the Druidic lore featuring the Oak King and the Holly King, symbolic of the rebirth of the “Great horned hunter god”. This is done with meals and gift giving.
- Dongzhistival – A Winter Solstice Festival in China, celebrated by families gathering and eating special food.
- Lohri – a Punjabi festival celebrating the Winter Solstice. Bonfire, singing children, and throwing sweets, peanuts, and popcorn into a fire.
- Yalda Night – Iranian. Celebrated on the longest night of the year. Friends and family gather, eat, read poetry. Fruits, like watermelon and pomegranate are eaten bc they symbolize the ‘hues of dawn’.
- Koliada – Used to be a pre-Christian winter festival, but has been incorporated into Christmas.
Yule to Christmas
I won’t spend too much time here, but since Christmas is probably the most widely celebrated ‘descendant’ of Yule, I thought I’d just quickly touch on it. Because Yule was a Northern European celebration and most of Europe was Christianized over the last thousand years, it is no surprise that this new Christ Mass would take on the trappings of the already existing pagan traditions. We see echoes of Yule in almost every part of Christmas from the Yule boar= Christmas ham, Yule songs = caroling and wassailing, Yule goat = ties to Santa/Old St. Nick, Yule log = Christmas tree, to the very heart of Yule being about the rebirth of the light (or Sun God) = Christ being born. If you really think about it, those Christmas lights are really just little reminders of this theme. The gathering, gift giving, and feasting are all remnants of Yule. The sacrificial animals, slaughtered for food for the winter months also tie into the sacrifice of Jesus, according to Christians. Christmas really is very much like Yule, just with the trappings of different religious beliefs. And of course, the pagan customs and folklore beliefs melted together with this so what many of us grew up with isn’t too far from the ‘original’ Yule.
Themes of Yule
As with all of the sabbats on the wheel of the year, the themes can be found by meditating on the energies of that time of year. As we’ve already seen, Yule is associated with the following themes:
- The coming of the light/light returns/rebirth
Symbols of Yule
Symbols associated with Yule are:
- Evergreen trees and plants (spruce, fir, holly, pine, mistletoe, ivy)
- Yule logs
- Cakes/cookies/rich foods – feast
Correspondences of Yule
Some of the correspondences for are:
Stones: Clear Quartz, emerald, garnet, ruby, bloodstone, ‘fool’s gold’, orange calcite, red jasper
Colors: Gold, Silver, Green, Red, White, Blue
Herbs: rosemary, cinnamon, peppermint, clove, nutmeg, orange, bay, (non edible) – holly, mistletoe, ivy, evergreens, pine cones
Foods & Drinks: Mulled cider, gingersnaps, dried fruits, rich meats, fruitcake, eggnog, ham, puddings, wassail
Magick: Connecting with Oak or Holly King, depending on the angle you’re going for, spells for love, harmony, peace, healing, spells for seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, rituals of sacrifice (not human of course!), rituals to honor and recognize the longest night of the year.
Ways to Celebrate Yule
As modern witches and pagans, we have to find new ways to celebrate the Sabbats. Surprisingly, it is really fun and easy to come up with ways to celebrate that honor Yule and also fit into our busy lives. As with all magickal practices it is the intention that counts. If you are able to center in on the energies of Yule by meditating on its themes, colors, stones, and other correspondences, you don’t need a flashy ritual (although there’s nothing wrong with it if you want to do one!) to celebrate.
Here are some celebration ideas. I’ve made them as simple as possible, so you can add on your own touches as your practice allows.
- Go crazy with décor! Just like Samhain, Yule is a time where the decorations in the stores match many of the traditional Yule symbols. You can easily deck your halls with Yule decorations, even in the broom closet. The fun part is that you know the symbolism and meaning behind the holly wreaths and mistletoe boughs.
- Set up a Yule altar – similar to decorating, but here you can put a statue of the God/Goddess of your choice, maybe frame a Yule poem or prayer, and place more magickal items like crystals and herbs.
- I got this one from Davy & Tracy. They suggested placing a clear crystal quarts on an east-facing windowsill to catch the first rays of light from the ‘reborn sun’. I love this, as it is easy and symbolizes the rebirth and hope themes of Yule.
- Although it’s traditionally a “New Year’s Resolution”, Yule is the time to be considering things you want to change or make happen in the following year. You can do a small ritual for these resolutions or intentions to give them a magickal boost.
- Tis the season! Meet with family and friends, share a meal, share gifts, and sit by the fire. Just know that this has been done for thousands of years at Yule and was NOT invented by the toy companies.
- Volunteer at a shelter or other charitable institution, give to charity, or in some other way help others and your community.
- Take some time to do a solitary meditation outside. Maybe just for a few minutes. Really breath in the cold air, notice the sounds, smells, and sights of Yule – connect to how the earth has changed and how it will continue to change as Spring approaches.
- Light a few candles and really get in touch with the Yule theme of a light in the darkest night.
- Do any number of Yule crafts – sachets or charms with Yule herbs, ornaments, etc.
- Make Wassail or a Yule Log (see below) as part of your ritual or celebration.
- Listen to ‘Christmas’ carols and really take the time to hear the Yule themes and symbols in them – could be a fun unofficial game!
- Drink some tea with a friend by the fire. I offer this Yule Blend, a tart, fruity, yet warmly comforting mixture.
So many recipes…Again, I decided to go traditional here. Because the last two herbs weren’t edible. I’m giving you two recipes for the Yule post. One is for Wassail, the traditional apple-cider spiced drink that was carried by carolers as they were wassailing. Easy to make and delicious! The other recipe is for a Yule Log. The Yule Log has a long history of its own, as does the dessert version, so here I’m included just one set of instructions on how to make it. It is a decadent treat that is beautiful and can be decorated and tweaked as you like! Enjoy.
Yule Log Recipe and Video