Yule on or about 21 December
This is the celebration of the Winter Solstice or Midwinter, the time when the light returns to the earth and often seen as the start of the light half of the year as days begin to become longer. Yule and Yuletide have become associated with Christmas, this has happened due to the early Christian church adopting Pagan festivals to celebrate their own Holy Days. The church leaders saw that their Pagan converts were still attending the old Pagan festivals and sought a way to equate the 'new' religion with the old.
Our Saxon ancestors introduced the word Yule to describe their midwinter festival around the winter solstice or the full moon in December. In our beliefs this is where the Wheel of the Year has it's natural beginning. The word comes from the Nordic joi or jol, and is related to the Anglo Saxon hweal, meaning a wheel. The Saxons celebrated the winter solstice with a festival called Mother Night on 24 December. This was dedicated to the goddesses Holda and Freyja. It marked their New Year.
Our Celtic ancestors also celebrated winter solstice. At Newgrange in Ireland their is a passage grave built so that on the winter solstice a ray of sunshine penetrates the inner sanctum and illuminates three spirals carved on a stone slab. The may have signified the sun fertilising the body of the Earth and so wakening her after her winter sleep to the renewed cycle of life. It may also represent the (re) birth of the sun child in the womb of the Great Mother Goddess.
A similar event occurs at Maes Howe in Orkney and several other stone circles throughout the British Isles. Perhaps these places were seen as gateways to the 'Otherworld' where the dead could be contacted or the living pass between the worlds.
Esoterically the midwinter and solstice period of Yule and the Twelve Days is known as 'the in-between time' or 'the time between time'. As the sun appears to stand still in the sky the old year is dying and the new year waits t be born. It is a strange and magickal time, still seen in secular society's tales of 'Christmas Magic' and 'miracles'. These are folk memories of the ancient past when midwinter was a magickal and unearthly time.
Many folk rituals were performed at Yule to welcome back the sun or to encourage it's return with sympathetic magick. These often involved the lighting of fires and one custom which has been adopted by modern witches is the Yule Log. This was traditionally a log of ash or oak, the male tress of the God, it was a large branch collected from the woods on Christmas Eve and taken home. On the way home, any stranger passing it had to bow and raise their hat to the log, otherwise it was believed that bad luck would follow in the New Year.
In Scotland, the Yule Log was called the 'Christmas Old Wife'; the log was collected by the head of the household and then carved to represent an old woman. When it was thrown on the fire, it represented the ritual burning of the Cailleach or winter hag goddess. In Cornwall the log was chalked to represent a male figure (the God).
In some urban areas the Yule Log was replaced with a Yule Candle, this was a large red or white candle decorated with holly. This was burned for a short period each day of the Twelve Days. This has been adopted by some traditional witches today where central heating has replaced open fires in homes.
The God at midwinter is represented as the sun child and in folk mythology by the magickal figure Father Christmas. In 17th century England he was known as Lord Christmas or Old Father Christmas and was an old gentleman in a furry, hooded gown. He carried a knobbly stick or club and wore a crown of holly leaves. As such he was a representation of the spirit of midwinter, or the Old God as the Holly King. In 1809 the American writer Washington Irving 'invented' the modern version of Father Christmas. He depicted him as a jolly, fat old man with a long white beard, dressed in fur, and riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer. This was a combination of the old English Father Christmas and the European Saint Nicholas.
As an archetype this midwinter folk figure has links with Odin or Woden who rides through the night sky on his eight legged horse Sleipnir at midwinter. He brings gifts to his followers and is also the male leader of the Wild Hunt that rides the skies to collect the souls of the dead. The female leader of the Wild Hunt was Dame Holda or Frau Holle. She also rode at midwinter with a company of spirits known as 'Good Women' and distributed gifts.
The practice of placing evergreens and trees in the house at Christmas dates from paganism. The most popular were holly, ivy, mistletoe, rosemary and box. The Holly and Ivy were seen as 'male' and 'female' trees. The practice of cutting down young living trees and decorating them in houses is a modern practice, and to our minds is a depressing and sad thing to do. So much better to have a tree in your garden, and decorate that for Yule or Christmas, leave the tree where it is, it is alive as we are and is better kept as a living thing giving us earth energy and simple joy in it's growth.
This magickal time of the year is one of hope and joy, in the grip of midwinter we know that the God has been re-born and light will return t the land. Whatever your interpretation of Yule or Christmas, we wish you joy and may the magick of this time bless you and yours.
© Traditional Witch 2006