What is Yule? Are you familiar with the word but unsure of it’s meaning? Or know a bit about Yule but unsure as to how to celebrate the festival or of the meaning behind the celebration?
Yule is the time in the calendar also known as Winter Solstice or Midwinter. It is the pre-christian, pagan celebration of the return of the sun. The precursor to the modern day, christian celebration of Christmas. It was honoured and celebrated across much of northern Europe, particularly in Celtic, Scandinavian/Nordic and Germanic cultures (known as Jul).
Here in the northern hemisphere, this time of year is very dark with only a little sun light each day, but on the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, some places see no sun light at all. To get through these dark times, people came together to feast and make merry; to make offerings to the Great Mother (Mother Nature/Gaia/Goddess / local deities) and to honour the sun to ensure its return once more. With the sun’s rebirth comes lighter and warmer weather to farm, grow food and livestock thus enabling their very survival. The welcome and vital sunrise was celebrated as a festival as it was believed to truly be a miracle and people rejoiced that they had been blessed by the light once more. The festivities lasted many days and more recently have been referred to as the 12 days or nights of Yule/Yuletide which gave forth to the 12 days of Christmas.
Living in tune with nature, the cycles of the earth and seasons of the land, the people of the day were at the mercy of the weather and of the Great Mother and would ensure they pleased Her with their offerings, in both thanks for what they harvested and in hope for success for the next year coming. The best of the produce would be served at these revelries and the rest would have to keep families going throughout the winter, lest they starve until the new crops began to grow and the new animals were of an age for slaughter. Spring was a lean season for eating, but a good successful harvest secured a hearty and abundant winter and a pleased Mother.
As well as a time of celebration, Yule was also a time of peace and quiet contemplation of the lessons learned. Gratitude and joy was shared for the year just gone and hope was encouraged for the year to come. The festivities were steeped in observed rituals and reverence as well as helping lift the communities through the bleak midwinter lull in work and idle hands. Instead of working the land, evergreens were gathered and brought inside, the branches, boughs and trees or bushes (Christmas tress and garlands by today’s understanding) were adorned with candles, lit to to give encouragement to the vegetation to grow and thrive in the coming year, and remind the sun to grow bright and strong, as well as to keep any fae, housed in the boughs, warm during this cold dark time.
Many traditions from the ancient ways are still in practice today, some have been modified to accommodate modern living but the essence remains true. This is not a commercial festival, with the business of busyness, but rather a meaningful time to make like nature and find the stillness in the dark to turn inwards in contemplation of what has gone before; give thanks and release what no longer serves or has expired, to say farewell to those souls who have departed this earthly plane in the past solar cycle and to also create, plan and make space for what is to come in the following cycle. It’s cold outside so connecting with kith and kin hearthside, round the Yule log, sharing in communal ritual and togetherness, gift giving and feasting is as important today as it was way back when.
So how do modern day pagans celebrate this important time in our Wheel of the Year (calendar)?
I can’t speak for anyone else but thought I would give you an insight into what yule looks like rounds at mine. A quick pinterest search will open to millions of pins of ways people across the globe are honouring the sun’s return. In the Northern hemisphere, December 21st (approx) is Winter Solstice, but in the Southern hemisphere, it is Summer Solstice that parties with Christmas, while their Winter festival is in June.
Our Yuletide celebrations begin at sunset of the evening of December 20th, Mother’s Night (Modranecht ). I say “our” celebrations, but I really mean mine! I’m the only pagan in the house, but my family share in some of the celebrations with me which is beautiful and has become traditional in our own wee family. All work must be complete by this evening, there is no “work” during Yuletide. This night is not too dissimilar to Samhuinn in that it is time for me to acknowledge and honour the Mothers who have come before me, my motherline ancestral thread. I have names for these women now, but in years gone by I didn’t so my ritual was more a prayer/blessing to all Mothers, and Mother-like women I know, knew and respected. I like to take time for myself and dedicate this time to meditation and a small ritual involving naming my ancestors and giving thanks.
The day of Solstice or Yule will fall on 20th or 21st or 22nd December. This year our shortest day is 22nd and the light will be reborn at sunrise on 23rd. We have a special meal – ALWAYS Nigella’s Christmas Ham (her Christmas cook book is the only bible I ever owned – it comes out every year without fail since I bought it in 2008) eaten by candle light, we have a small gift exchange – the gift has to be crafted (usually food! Once again thanking the Goddess that is Nigella) or be a second hand purchase or books – books are the best gift in my opinion, and if second hand then even better, especially if they are old and have an inscription in the inside cover. My copy of Little Women that my husband gave me for yule about 10 years ago, has an inscription from Elsie to Alice in pencil from April 1911 – who were Elsie and Alice?? Anyways, I digress. We watch the sunset into the longest night of the year, exchange a small gift and give thanks for the year gone and make a wish for the year to come. It’s such a cozy evening with just the twinkly tree lights and candles. This year, weather depending we are hoping to get the fire going and can sit outside for a bit as the sun goes down and burn our wishes and a makeshift yule log (as well as enjoying the chocolate variety for pudding). In ancestral times, the fires were extinguished and hearths were cleaned out. The communal village Yule log was lit from a taper saved from the previous year’s log to continue the luck and good fortune into the new year, and then each household’s new fire was lit from a flame from the blazing communal log. The following morning I will witness the sunrise, as it returns in welcome to join it as we dance its next dance.
A traditional Scottish Blessing for Solstice’s returning sun :
I welcome you,
sun of the seasons,
as you travel the skies aloft;
your steps are strong
on the wing of the heavens,
you are the glorious
mother of the stars.
A modern twist on the rejoicing the light is when my son and I jump in the car (usually the evening of 22nd or 23rd) and drive round all the local villages and look at all the lights people have decorated their homes and garden with, and bring along hot chocolate for our nighttime road trip. Over the course of the next couple of days, including Christmas day, the time is spent with family and friends celebrating the season, eating and feasting and laughing and enjoying (and stressing and arguing and eye rolling but there is always mulled wine and/or rum!) which is tempered by quiet moments of time to myself each evening (sometimes, especially on 24th or the 4th night of Yuletide, that quiet time is literally 5 mins before bed!).
But it’s the betwixt days between Christmas and New Year that are my favourite; lots of time for contemplation, working out the kinks and plans for next year, eating leftovers and rich foods, sleeping and resting, not keeping any routine or “normal hours”, seeing friends, getting outside into nature and cleansing (redding) the house ready for 12th Night, Hogmanay. The festivities all leading up to “The Bells” and steak pie and the traditions that come with this night. I prefer to have the tree down and the decorations away before The Bells, so as to welcome the new year in fresh and clean but I know I am in the minority for that.
Some other ways to honour the 12 nights of Yuletide could be to spend each of the 12 nights reflecting on a month of the year just gone i.e. first night, what lessons did January hold, 2nd night for February so on and so forth. Welcoming the sunrise with yoga sun salutation. Baking and sharing sun bread. Having a potted tree or an evergreen tree in your garden that you can decorate with birdseed, nuts and berry garlands and icicles for our feathered friends. I’m sure you have plenty of ideas that suit your needs/beliefs/wishes.
I love Yule and actually would happily fore-go Christmas in favour of yule but that would take some explaining to the family and result in hurt feelings and misunderstandings that quite frankly just aren’t worth the hassle – who needs more stress in December? So I will continue to celebrate both and maybe my 9yo will develop my same love for a low key Yule over the extravagant Xmas as he grows up but for now he is still all about Santa and the excess of the season. To him it’s magical and when I was his age, it was pure magic for me too.
Solstice Blessings to you