It’s December 21st and the shortest day of the year and the longest night.
But what does it mean for us who honour this festival of Yule and celebrate the winter solstice? Learn from the White Goddess (www.whitegoddess.co.uk) here are some Yule and Winter Solstice origins, rituals and traditions.
The origin of the word Yule, has several suggested origins from the Old English word, geõla, the Old Norse word jõl, a pagan festival celebrated at the winter solstice, or the Anglo-Saxon word for the festival of the Winter Solstice, ‘Iul’ meaning ‘wheel’. In old almanacs Yule was represented by the symbol of a wheel, conveying the idea of the year turning like a wheel, The Great Wheel of the Zodiac, The Wheel of Life. The spokes of the wheel, were the old festivals of the year, the solstices and equinoxes.
The winter solstice, the rebirth of the Sun, is an important turning point, as it marks the shortest day, when the hours of daylight are at their least. It also the start of the increase in the hours of daylight, until the Summer Solstice when darkness becomes ascendant once more.
Cycle of the Year
Yule is deeply rooted in the cycle of the year, it is the seed time of year, the longest night and the shortest day, where the Goddess once again becomes the Great Mother and gives birth to the new Sun King. In a poetic sense it is on this the longest night of the winter, ‘the dark night of our souls’, that there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.
Fire festivals, celebrating the rebirth of the Sun, held on the Winter’s Solstice can be found throughout the ancient world. The Roman festival of Saturnalia was held on the winter solstice, boughs of evergreen trees and bushes would decorate the house, gifts where exchanged and normal business was suspended. The Persian Mithraists held December 25th as sacred to the birth of their Sun God, Mithras, and celebrated it as a victory of light over darkness. In Sweden, December 13th was sacred to the Goddess Lucina, Shining One, and was a celebration of the return of the light. On Yule itself, around the 21st, bonfires were lit to honour Odin and Thor.
That Yule is another fire festival, should come as no surprise, however unlike the more public outdoor festival of the summer solstice, Yule lends itself to a more private and domestic celebration. Yet like its midsummer counterpart, is strongly associated with fertility and the continuation of life. Here the Goddess is in her dark aspect, as ‘She Who Cuts The Thread’ or ‘Our Lady in Darkness’, calling back the Sun God. Yet, at the same time, she is in the process of giving birth to Son-Lover who will re-fertilise her and the earth, bringing back light and warmth to the world.
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” And the Yule-log cracked in the chimney,
And the Abbot bowed is head,
And the flamelets flapped and flickered,
But the Abbot was stark and dead.”
H.W. Longfellow ‘King Witlaf’s Drinking Horn (1848)
Played an important role in the celebrations of the winter solstice and later Christmas, a large oak log was ceremoniously brought into the house and kindled at dusk, using a brand from the previous years Yule Log. It was deemed essential that the log, once lit, should burn until it was deliberately extinguished. The length of time, varied from region to region, from 12 hours to several days and it was considered ill-omened if the fire burnt itself out. It was never allowed to burn away completely, as some would be needed for the following year.
In England, it was considered unlucky for the Yule log to be bought, and had to be acquired using other means, as long as no money changed hands. Often it was given as a gift by landowners, and sometimes decorated with evergreens. In Cornwall a figure of a man was sometimes chalked on the surface of the log, mock or block. In Provence, where it was called the tréfoire, carols were sung invoking blessings upon the women that they might bear children and upon the crops, herds and flocks that they might also increase.
The ashes from the Yule log were often used to make protective, healing or fertilising charms, or scattered over the fields. In Brittany, the ashes were thrown into wells to purify the water, and in Italy as charms against hailstones.
In some parts of the Scottish Highlands, a variation of the Yule log was observed, here a figure of and old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich, was carved from a withered tree stump. At dusk, the figure was brought into the house and laid upon the burning peat of the house fire. The family would gather round the hearth and watch the figure consumed into ashes, the rest of the evening was spent in games and merriment. The figure, represented, not fertility and life but of the evils of winter and death, the figure had to be totally consumed if misfortune and death were to be averted in the coming year.
Mistetoe from the Old English misteltãn, is a parasitic plant that grows on various trees, particularly the apple tree, it is held in great veneration when found on Oak trees. The winter solstice, called ‘Alban Arthan’ by the Druids, was according to Bardic Tradition, the time when the Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the Oak. The mistletoe is cut using a golden sickle on the sixth day of the moon. It is often associated with thunder, and regarded as a protection against fire and lighting. In Scandinavian mythology, Balder the Beautiful was killed from an arrow made of mistletoe and wielded by the blind god Hoder. Shakespeare, in Titus Andronicus II calls it ‘the baleful mistletoe’.
It is interesting to note that mistletoe was excluded from church decorations, probably due to its connection with the Druids and pagan and magickal associations. This ancient ban on mistletoe is still widely observed.
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This was an ornamental candle of great size, once widely used at Yule throughout Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. It was often coloured red, green or blue and decorated with sprigs of holly or some other evergreen. The candle was lit either on Christmas Eve, its light shedding on the festival supper and left to burn throughout the night or early Christmas morning, to burn throughout the day. It was rekindled on each successive night of the twelve day festival, and finally extinguished on the Twelfth Night.
While the candle burnt, it was believed to shed a blessing on the household, it was considered a sign of ill omen or misfortune for the candle to go out or blown out. It was also considered unlucky to move it, or blow out the flame, when the time came to extinguish it, it was done by pressing the wick with a pair of tongs. In some households only the head of the family could perform this task, it being considered unlucky for anyone else to touch it whilst alight.
Up until the middle of the last century, chandlers used to present regular customers, with Yule Candles of various sizes, as a gift.
Wassail, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon wes hál, meaning ‘be whole’, or ‘be of good health’, or Old Norse ves heill, and was a salutation use at Yule, when the wassail bowl was passed around with toasts and singing. Wassail carols would be sung as people would travel from house to house in the village bringing good wishes in return for a small gratuity. The Apple Tree Wassail, sung in hopes of a good crop of cider the following year, other such as the Gower Wassail carol still survive today.
Recipe for Yule Wassail
3 red apples
3 oz brown sugar
2 pints brown ale, apple cider, or hard cider
1/2 pint dry sherry or dry white wine
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger strips or lemon peel
Core and heat apples with brown sugar and some of the ale or cider in an oven for 30 minutes. Put in large pan and add rest of spices and lemon peel, simmer on stove top of 5 minutes. Add most of the alcohol at the last minute so it heats up but does not evaporate. Burgundy and brandy can be substituted to the ale and sherry. White sugar and halved oranges may also be added to taste. Makes enough for eight. Wassail!
A Celtic Yule Blessing
The food is put away for the winter,
the crops are set aside to feed us,
the cattle are come down from their fields,
and the sheep are in from the pasture.
The land is cold, the sea is stormy, the sky is gray.
The nights are dark, but we have our family,
kin and clan around the hearth,
staying warm in the midst of darkness,
our spirit and love a flame
a beacon burning brightly
in the night.
– Blessed Be