The Winter Solstice marks a point of dramatic natural change on Earth and is unique among the days of the year-the time of the longest night and the shortest day. This is simultaneously a time of balance and change. The dark triumphs, but only briefly. For the Solstice is also a turning point. From now until the Summer Solstice the days grow longer as the dark wanes and the Sun waxes in power. From the dark womb of the night, the light is born.
The word "Yule" means wheel, referring both to the Wheel of the Year and the wheel of the Sun. The Sabbat was often referred to as "The Turning Time". Solstice means "the Sun stands still". Since Midsummer's Day, the sun has been rising and setting further south and staying lower in the sky for a shorter time each day. Our ancestors would wonder "Will this continue? Will the Earth grow darker and colder and will the Sun disappear into the South and only darkness remain?"
But on Yule, a wonderful thing happens. The Sun, in His most Southeastern point over the Tropic of Capricorn, stops His decline and for a few days has no apparent Southward or Northward motion. The Sun stands still and everyone waits for the turning. Then the Sun starts North again, rising earlier each day and adding a little more of His light and warmth to the cold and silent days of Winter. The light has returned. This is indeed something worth celebrating and it has been celebrated for thousands of years, (some anthropologists believe as long as 12,000 years) long before the birth of Jesus.
The most important part of the celebration, of course, is light. The meaning of the light varies from culture to culture, but what is important to most Pagans is bringing the light into our homes, knowing that it is also coming back into the world.
When the Wheel of the Year brings us to Yule, the God, who dies at Samhain, is reborn of the Virgin Goddess. The God is represented by the Sun, which returns after this darkest night of the year to again bring warmth and fertility to the land.
Yule was a Sabbat of primary importance in the Norse and Roman traditions, and it is from these cultures that many of our own Yule customs originate. For both of these civilizations, this was the time of the New Year, when the Goddess turned the Wheel of the Year to its beginning point once again.
Interestingly enough, the word "virgin" is one which was mistranslated and misrepresented by the early Christian church. The term "virgin" was first applied to priestesses in Mediterranean temples, especially during Rome's pagan period. The term identified a woman who was a complete entity unto herself, who was not bound by secular law, who had no husband and was free to take all the lovers she chose; an independent woman, whole unto herself. She needed nothing else and no-one else for completeness. Paganism remembers this original meaning of the word when the Goddess, a complete and whole being unto Herself, gives birth to Her son, who will be Her lover at the Spring Sabbats and also the father of Her next Yule incarnation. (This is so for all Pagan traditions except for the Celtic tradition, where the God is born at Imbolc having been conceived at the Beltane fires.)
Yule has been the most widely celebrated of all the Sabbats, because its customs and lore have so deeply invaded popular cultures and mainstream religions as virtually every culture in the Northern hemisphere celebrated the return of the Sun at its weakest point.
To our Pagan ancestors, the Winter Solstice was an entire night, the darkest one of the year, which was followed by a day that dawned just a little earlier. Today, we can know the exact time of the Winter Solstice, that precise moment when the days stop growing shorter and begin to lengthen; a moment decreed by Nature, not by men.
THE OAK KING AND THE HOLLY KING
The Winter Solstice is the time when the waxing Sun overcomes the waning Sun and this is symbolized by the struggle between the Oak King and the Holly King. Myth tells us that these two brothers are locked in an eternal struggle for power. At Yule, the Holly King, king of the waning year, is killed by the Oak King, king of the waxing year.
The Oak King then reigns supreme until Midsummer, when the two battle again, this time with the Holly King as the victor. The Holly King is the death aspect of the God and the Oak King is the aspect of rebirth, the Divine Child.
The symbols still in use at Christmas today reflect this myth. Vestiges of the Holly King's image can be seen in our modern Santa Claus. He wears red, dons a sprig of holly in his hat and drives a team of eight (total number of solar Sabbats) reindeer, an animal sacred to the Celts. Holly decorations represent the power of the Holly King at his height, while mistletoe, which was always most sacred when found growing on oak trees, symbolizes the rebirth of the Oak King and his coming return to power. The "ivy" of "The Holly and the Ivy" is the Goddess who gives birth to the Oak King and sustains him in his infancy.
The Oak King and the Holly King are mortal enemies at Yule and Midsummer, but they are two sides of a whole and neither could exist without the other. The significance of Yule lies in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth-even during the longest night of the year, we can anticipate the return of the Sun in its glory. The God of Summer and the God of Winter are twins, aspects of the same power, as are life and death. At Yule we celebrate both the power of the Holly King-the spirit of death-and the birth of the Oak King-the spirit of life. It is one of the Crone's riddles: the height of power contains the seeds of destruction and the darkest night is the birthday of the Sun.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a tradition that has come down to us from the Druids, although altered somewhat as it came through the Christian era. Originally, it was an important part of handfasting. Because of its significance, all legal matters were sealed beneath its boughs. Hence, a couple who kissed beneath it were announcing their intent to be married.
Mistletoe was sacred to the ancient Druids, who gathered it from high branches of the sacred oaks with golden sickles. White cloths were spread beneath so that none of the mistletoe would touch the Earth. Mistletoe was also gathered at Midsummer, although at that time, it does not have berries and was probably used as amulets of protection, whereas mistletoe gathered at Yule bears white berries that make it an amulet of fertility. Mistletoe is evergreen and its rootlets are golden, symbolizing the Sun, and give it the title "the golden bough". Its white, translucent berries are thought to represent the semen of the Lord of the Forest.
The Wheel of the Year is often symbolized as a wreath. Wreaths have been used in this way for over 4000 years. Its circle has no beginning and no end, with everything coming back to its point of origin and travelling onward, over and over again.
Because the symbolism of the wheel is so important to this Sabbat, it became a day sacred to Goddesses of the spinning wheel. In Germany, the Goddess demoted to witchy-woman, Frau Holde, was believed to ride on the wind on a wagon on Yule Eve and give gifts of gold to her faithful followers. She especially awarded spinners of fine cloth. On this night, no rotary action of any kind was permitted. People had to walk or travel by sleigh; they could not spin, nor run their mills or mortars.
There is no written account of the first Christmas tree, but its beginnings go back to pre-Christian times. In ancient Greece the fir was sacred to Artemis, the Moon Goddess who presided over childbirth. To the ancient Celts, certain sacred trees were called "Bele-trees" or "Billy-Glas", meaning evergreen or immortal trees. They are thought to have been associated with Bel, the Sun God reborn at the Winter Solstice.
The origin of the Christmas tree is generally ascribed to Germany, and Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, is often given credit for it. The German word for Christmas tree is not Kristenbaum, as might be expected if that were true, but Tannenbaum, a word related to Tinne or Glastin, the sacred oak trees of the ancient Celts. The name Tin or Tinne or Tannen was applied to a species of oak. Tinne or Tannen is also the root of such words as tanning and tannic acid, which comes from the bark of the oak.
The Druids decorated trees at Yule with all the images of the things they wished at the waxing year to hold for them: fruits for a successful harvest, nuts for fertility, coins for wealth, and charms for love and happiness. Even on today's Christmas tree, some of these images are still intact, although their original meaning is long forgotten. The blown glass ornaments that are so popular today originated in Germany in the 1880's. Other decorations were candles, forerunners of today's electric lights.
The Yule log, another ancient symbol of the season, came to us from the Celts. The log is usually cut from the God-related oak tree, but sometimes from an ash. Originally, these logs were brought into homes with much dancing and ceremony before being lit in fireplaces. Its burning symbolized the blazing of the new-born Sun. The Yule log is traditionally kindled with an unburned portion of the Yule log from the previous year.
Later, Yule logs became smaller altar pieces with three holes drilled into them representing the Triple Goddess. The entire log was decorated with holly, mistletoe, ivy and evergreens to represent the intertwining of the God and Goddess who are reunited on this Sabbat. The evergreens represent the never-ending cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The ivy represents the Goddess, the mistletoe is a symbol of fertility, the holly represents the Holly King, and the oak log itself represents the Oak King who now reigns.
The familiar words of the old English carol "Deck the Halls" still preserve for us the Pagan meaning of the Yule log.
Music is another important part of Yule, and Christmas carols are yet another idea taken from Paganism. "Carols" are from an old French word meaning "joyous songs" and were also the name of round dances celebrating the rebirth of the Frankish pagan gods.
The Welsh Christmas carol mentioned earlier, "Deck the Halls", doesn't contain one Christian religious image. We sing of decorating with holly, singing Yuletide carols, dancing and the telling of Pagan myths. Another example is the old French carol "I Saw Three Ships". The third verse contains the line "Three pretty girls were in them", which seems to be a reference to the return of the Triple Goddess after her crone age and period of mourning. Yet another example is "The Holly and the Ivy", with its reference to the Holly and Oak Kings. "Good King Wenceslas" talks about the young stag of the Oak King, and the fountain of Brigit. There are many other 'Christmas' carols that have Pagan origins.
Wassail carols, with their sprightly tempo, are sung by revelers who travel from door to door carrying a wassail bowl and asking for gifts in exchange for a drink from the bowl and the blessings of health and prosperity. The word "wassail" comes from the Old English "waes hael" which is literally "be whole" or be of good health. Wassail is a popular drink of ale and apples.
The ancient Romans celebrated from December 17th to December 24th with a festival called Saturnalia, during which all work was put aside in favor of feasting and gambling. The social order was reversed with masters waiting on their slave. This festival was named after Saturn, who is often depicted with a sickle, like the figures of Death or Old Father Time. Astrologically speaking, Saturn is "saturnine"-gloomy, old, dutiful and heavy. He was the god who ate his own children rather than let them surprise him. For new life to flourish, for the sun to rise again, it is necessary to vanquish this old, gloomy fellow. Therefore, the feasting and merriment of the midwinter season are mandated in order to combat the forces of gloom. The day following the Saturnalia, December 25th, was the Juvenalia, a holiday to honor children who were entertained, feasted and given good luck talismans. This makes sense. After vanquishing the old King it is time to celebrate the new in the form of children.
GODDESSES OF THE SEASON
- Amaterasu: She is the Japanese sun goddess and myth has it that she quarrels with the storm god Susano-O, bringing winter to the world. Two reasons are given for her annoyance with him: one is that he murdered her sister and the other is that he deliberately antagonized her over and over. Finally, she left this world and shut herself up in a comfortable cave away from harm. Without the sun, the entire world was blanketed with unending blackness. Despite many pleas, the goddess remained in her cave. Finally, Uzume, goddess of merriment tok matters into her own hands. She turned over a washtub, climbed on top anda began to dance and sing and shout bawdy remarks. Soon the dance became a striptease. Everyone shouted with delight and Amaterasu, hearing the noise, called out to ask what was going on. Someone said that they had found a better goddess than the sun. Provoked and curious, she opened the door to the cave just a little. The people had installed a mirror directly outside the cave. Amaterasu had never seen her own beauty before and was dazzled. While she stood there, dazed with delight, they grabbed the door and pulled it open. Thus the sun returned to the winter-weary earth.
- La Befana: On the eve of the 12th night, La Befana flies about the Italian countryside on a broomstick, bringing presents to good children and leaving lumps of coal for naughty ones! In Tuscany, the same ancestral spirits who protect crossroads also guard the family and live in hearths where children still hang brightly colored stockings to be filled by La Befana. La Befana literally means "epiphany", the original meaning of which is "manifestation or appearance of a divine or supernatural being" or "sudden understanding as to the nature of something".
- Frau Holde: In Germany, beautiful Frau Holde descends to Earth at Yule in her goose-driven wagon full of presents. She is famous for rewarding strangers who show her kindness during her travelswith gifts of good fortune and health. It was said that feathers that fell from her goose-down cape would become gold coins at her command. It was also said that she caused snow to fall when she made her feather bed.
- Lucia: In Scandinavia, Yule festivities get off to an early start on December 13th. In the early morning, the oldest daughter in each household puts on a long white dress and places an evergreen wreath adorned by eight lit candles on her head. She goes from room to room carrying a tray of hot coffee and special buns called lussekatter and, starting with her parents, serves her entire family breakfast in bed. She signifies the Sun Child who brings back the light. If you fly on Swedish airlines on this day (December 13th), the crew will still perform Lucy's Feast for you.
HERBS OF YULE
- Yellow Cedar: Known as the tree of immortality, it is used as a ritual herb in funerals. The scent is said to allay grief. It is good for purification and enhancing psychic powers.
- Ash: An herb of the Sun, ash brings light into the hearth at the Winter Solstice. It is a traditional wood used in healing wands and protective staffs.
- Bay Laurel: Bay leaves were used by the priestesses of Delphi. The incense and leaf are said to induce a prophetic trance. Carry the leaf or place it in the home to ward off illness or hexes.
- Blessed Thistle: An herb of protection, use it in ritual baths. It brings spiritual, physical and financial blessings and is used to counteract hexing. Carry one to bring joy, energy, vitality and protection.
- Chamomile: Brings the power of the Sun to love potions, money spells and rites of purification.
- Frankincense: Sacred to the Sun God Ra, frankincense is burned in rites of purification and protection. It is said to accelerate spiritual growth.
- Holly: Holly is an herb of protection. Bringing holly into the home symbolizes a willingness to allow the nature spirits to share one's abode during the harsh, cold season. Newborn babies are often sprinkled with holly water to keep them safe and happy.
- Mistletoe: Mistletoe will aid and strengthen all magickal workings, but it is best called upon for healing, protection and beautiful dreams.
- Pine: Pine is the "tree of peace" of the Native American Iroquois confederacy. Burn pine to purify the home and decorate with its branches to bring healing and joy.
- Ivy: Another evergreen, ivy is symbolic of eternal life, and also represents the Goddess.
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 egg, beaten (or equiv. egg replacement)
1/4 cup milk (or Soya milk)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 400F. Mix dry ingredients and the oil together in a large bowl. Beat remaining ingredients until light and fluffy, then add to dry ingredients and stir together. Allow the mixture to chill for at least two hours-overnight is better. Divide the mixture into four sections for easier handling. Roll out the dough on a generously floured cutting board until is about 1/8 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters and place the cut-outs onto an un-greased cookie sheet. Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, or until cookies are stiff and a light golden color. Makes about 2 1/2 dozen.
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 baked apples, cut into small pieces
5 egg whites
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
8 whole cloves
1 quart ale
1 cup sherry
1 cup Irish or Welsh whiskey
Bring the water and cream to a slow boil and remove from heat. Beat the egg whites well and add to the water and cream. Thoroughly mix in all the remaining ingredients EXCEPT the alcohol. Allow the mixture to cool slightly- enough so that the heat from it will not crack the punch bowl. Blend in the alcohol just before serving. Offer the traditional toast to the old apple tree before drinking.