Yule Traditions and the Magic of the Winter Solstice
Being the longest night of the year, the winter solstice has held a lot of significance in agriculturally-based societies. Many people today look forward to the winter solstice for the simple reason that after this one particular day, the amount of daylight and sun will start increasing again! It only increases a few minutes a day, but those minutes add up. Generally, we can feel a shift in energy during those last few days leading up to the December 25th holiday that we have come to adore. Christmas is generally 2 - 5 days after the winter solstice, it is the first day when the shift forward toward the light of spring is more pronounced.
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Ancient Cultures and Their Traditions
Some of the most ancient aspects of Pagan Yule rites still survive to this day. The concept of the Yule log makes its presence known in some parts of the world with regional and individual variations. Singing “wassail” around the yule log or the Christmas tree with a cider made of oranges, apples and holiday spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg) has a long history. These fruits (particularly oranges) have been looked upon as representing the Sun itself.
Plants and trees associated with Yule hold spiritual significance as well. The well-known Christmas song “The Holly and the Ivy” speak of these two traditional plants with a reverence that goes beyond the Christ child. In northern cultures, Holly was kept by the front door of people’s homes to bless the house with good fortune and prosperity for the coming year.
Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? This is a plant sacred to the Druids, it is also emblematic of spiritual blessings, for it was seen as the Seed of the Gods. Somewhere along the line, the idea of kissing under the mistletoe developed, but in times past placing the clump of white berries in a door frame was thought to encourage welcoming and helpful energies to promote good health and well-being.
Some cultures did have unsavory Solstice rites, such as the ancient Romans. Yuletide was the time of year was one to honor the God Saturn with the festival that bears his name “Saturnalia.” This festival was not unlike the later Mardi Gras festival which created a mock king and reversed class and gender roles. The thing about the Saturnalia however, was that the mock king who was feted during the seven days from December 17 through the 23rd would be allowed to run amok for that time, and then at the end of it would be killed as a blood sacrifice. Today, this term is often used interchangeably with “Bacchanale” to denote festivals of licentiousness and general decadence.
Other cultures have their own remembrances of the Solstice. (It’s worth a search on Google to discover their celebrations.) The Quechua Indians in South America, hold simple pilgrimages to sacred sites during the Solstice. In Mexico, the Mayans had a more elaborate rite involving some young men climbing a tall pole where there is a rope attached at the top. A man would wrap the rope around his foot and then take a flying leap toward the earth. Depending on how the man landed, there would be a celebration of potentially good luck depending on the result of the leap.
Create Your Own Yule Traditions
Turning to these older cultures for inspirations about Yule traditions is incredibly fascinating, but there is no reason why we can’t conceive of our own as well. As the second festival associated with winter in the agricultural calendar (Samhain being the first), this is a time when the veils between the worlds are thin. Our connections to our beloved ancestors are strongest during the winter months. In my own life, I have used this time to spend in meditation upon my own sacred dead and to commune with their spirits around the ancestral campfire.
Introspection continues to be a particularly strong theme of the season. Many people choose to stay up all night on the longest night to mark its passing and also to welcome in the energies of increasing sunlight. The long-delayed dawn of the morning is a high moment indeed. Some people choose this evening to perform their yearly tarot readings, to utilize the sacred energies of this highly charged day to inspire divination toward happier and more positive possibilities.
If you’re interested in seeing how the upcoming year will unfold, enter into sacred space as you shuffle the tarot deck. When you’re finished putting your intentions into the deck, fan them out and select 13 cards at random with your non-dominant hand. The first card will be the theme of the entire year and each of the remaining cards will pertain to the months upcoming from Capricorn through Sagittarius.
You can also create a sacred rite for this time of year using some of the sacred herbs and scents that are associated with Yule. Pine, cedar bayberry, cinnamon, and nutmeg are excellent choices. The expected colors of green, red and white are good choices for candles, but so too are silver and gold.
It goes without saying that for those that are Christian, asking for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and of the Christ Child is helpful, but so is calling on St. Thomas whose feast day is December 21st. Asking for the help of one’s angels is always a way to bring you inner peace as well. For those people with more pagan sensibilities: call upon Brigid, the Dagda, Amaterasu, Odin, Freyja, Apollo, or Athena for good fortune and prosperity in the new year.
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Out With the Old in With the New Year
Yuletide comes near the end of the year and always encourages us to connect with our past while looking towards the future. It so happens that Mercury goes retrograde on December 19th, right before the solstice. It will definitely allow us the time to pause and reflect on our lives and evaluate what us bringing us joy, and what isn’t. it allows us to bring in the new and throw out the old to start the new year fresh.
What are your own favorite Yule traditions? What intentions will you set with this week’s winter solstice?