The Winter Solstice, or Yule, is one of the Lesser Wiccan Sabbats. It is the shortest day of the year, and hence the longest night. This usually takes place on December 20th or 21st, although it does sometimes occur on the 22nd or 23rd (check your calendar as it changes from year to year).
The word Yule is derived from the old Norse word Iul, meaning wheel (as in the wheel of the year). Various other names for Yule include Winter Solstice, Midwinter, Yuletide (the Teutonic version), Alban Arthan (Caledonii Tradition, or the Druids), Feill Fionnain (Pecti-Wita Tradition, which falls on December 22nd). Yuletide lasts from December 20th through December 31st.
It begins on “Mother Night” and ends twelve days later, on “Yule Night”, hence the “Twelve Days of Christmas” tradition. Alban Arthan, unlike all the others, is not considered a fire festival. Some other names for this Sabbat that are used less commonly are: Sun Return, Pagan New Year, Saturnalia (Roman), Great Day of the Cauldron, and Festival of Sol.
Yule is a time of the greatest darkness and is the shortest day of the year. Earlier peoples noticed such phenomena and supplicated the forces of nature to lengthen the days and shorten the nights. Wiccans sometimes celebrate Yule just before dawn, then watch the sun rise as a fitting finale to their efforts.
Yule is a time of the Goddess of the Cold Darkness and the birth of the Divine Child, the reborn Sun God. It is a time of renewal and rebirth during winter, and the turning of the Earth force tides. A time when the waxing Sun overcomes the waning Sun. In some traditions, this is symbolized by the struggle between the Oak King (King of light) and the Holly King (King of darkness). The Holly King (representing the death aspect of the God)is overcome by the Oak King (representing the aspect of rebirth) the Divine Child. At Yule, he is reborn as the Oak King, and the daylight hours start to grow in length. The Goddess embodies the Mother.
Since the God is also the sun, this marks the point of the year when the sun is reborn as well. Thus, the Wicca light fires or candles to welcome the sun’s returning light. The Goddess, slumbering through the winter of Her labor, rests after Her delivery.
Yule is probably best known because of its close coincidence with the Christian festival of Christmas. This is in no way an adaptation of Christianity. Many of the so-called Christmas traditions are actually derived from those of Yule. The Christmas celebrations which we are familiar with today flourished during the Victorian era – for example, decorating a christmas tree, having a ‘Yule’ log and kissing under mistletoe. Interestingly, it was also during the Victorian era that the ‘myth’ of Santa Claus was brought to England from its Scandinavian origins. Today our perception of Father Christmas is actually the result of a wide range of folklore influences, rather like Christmas itself.
The colors of the season – red and green – are of original Pagan descent. Symbols representing Yule include an eight-spoked wheel symbol, evergreens, wreaths, holly, mistletoe, Yule Trees (very similar to the familiar “Christmas Trees”), or a small potted tree, and Yule Logs.
Pagans would bring a live tree into their homes during their Yule celebrations so that the wood spirits would have a place to keep warm during the coldest part of winter. Bells were hung on the branches of the tree so you could tell when a spirit was present, and food (apples, oranges, lemons) and treats (cinnamon) adorned its greenery so that the spirits would not go hungry. The five pointed pentagram, symbol of the five elements, would be placed at the top of the tree and quartz crystals used to simulate icicles. The reason that pine trees and similar evergreens were used is that these were the only trees that still displayed external signs of life during winter. Thus the Christmas tree was born! Even the electric lights we use to decorate our trees are called ‘Fairy Lights’ – have you ever wondered why? Wreathes are placed on our front doors for a similar reason – ‘Look, life is here!’ we say to greet our visitors.
Since this is a Solar Festival, it is celebrated by fire and the use of many candles or the Yule Log. There are a couple of different versions of Yule Logs:
1) Many enjoy the practice of lighting the Yule Log. If you choose to burn one, select a proper log of oak or pine. Carve (with your Bolline) or chalk upon it a figure of the Sun (a rayed disc) or the Horned God (a horned circle). Set it alight in the fireplace at dusk, on Yule. This is a graphic representation of the rebirth of the God within the sacred fire of the Mother Goddess. As the log burns, visualize the Sun shining within it and think of the coming warmer days. Traditionally, a portion of the Yule Log is saved to be used in lighting next year’s log. This piece is kept throughout the year to protect the home.
2) The second type of Yule Log is not burned up, but rather holds three candles for burning. Find a suitable log of oak or pine and cut one side of it so that it will lay flat. Drill three holes in the side that is up, the correct size for holding three taper candles. The candles should be red, green and white (to represent the season), or green, gold and black (to represent the Sun God), or white, red and black (to represent the Great Goddess). You can further decorate your Yule Log however you choose to – using holly, mistletoe, red ribbons and bows, or whatever you prefer.
3) The act of decorating the Yule Tree, wreaths of holly, and the exchange of gifts are also Pagan derivatives. The Yule Tree can be a living, potted tree which can later be planted in the ground, a cut one, or even an artificial one. The choice is yours. Appropriate Wiccan decorations range from strings of dried rosebuds, cinnamon sticks, popcorn or cranberries for garlands to bags of fragrant spices hung from boughs. Quartz crystals can be wrapped with shiny wire and suspended from sturdy branches to resemble icicles. Apples, oranges, lemons, nuts of all kinds and cookies hanging from boughs and branches are strikingly beautiful; and can be real or artificial, depending on your taste. These natural decorations were customary in ancient times.
The reindeer stag is also a reminder of the Horned God. You will find that many traditional Christmas decorations have some type of Pagan ancestry or significance that can be added to your Yule holiday.
Mistletoe is a tradition from the Druids, when the Cheif Druid cut the mistletoe from the sacred oak during the Winter Solstice festival. Deities to honor at this time of year include all Newborn Gods and Sun Gods, and all Mother Goddesses and Triple Goddesses. Appropriate Yule Gods include Apollo (Greek), Ra, Osiris, Horus, (all three are Egyptian), Lugh (Irish-Celtic), Odin (Norse), Father Sun (Native American), and Jesus (Christian-Gnostic), to name a few. Goddesses might include the Morrigan, Brigit (both Celtic), Isis (Egyptian), Demeter, Gaea, Pandora, Selene, and Artemis (all five are Greek), Juno and Diana (both Roman), Astarte (Middle Eastern), Spinning Woman (Native American) and the Virgin Mary (Christian-Gnostic).
Ritually, Yule is a time of ‘rebirth’ – new beginnings, setting new targets for ones self and putting any regrets or unhappiness of the old year behind us. You may want to light fires within the Circle (in the cauldron, for instance), light candles and carry them around the Circle or bring the Yule log into the Circle and include it in your ceremony. We place evergreens such as pine, rosemary, bay, juniper and cedar on our altar. Bayberry candles can be burned to ensure prosperity, growth and happiness throughout the following year. These can be inscribed with runes for health and money, or whatever is desired before lighting. They shall be lit at sunset and allowed to burn until they go out by themselves. An old Germanic poem says “A bayberry candle burned to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.”
Spellwork for balance, beauty, peace, and harmony are great to perform at this time of the Pagan year. Love spells (although I personally don’t recommend ever doing a love spell!) and spells to increase happiness are also appropriate. Key actions to remember for Yule are introspection and meditation.
The most common colors of the season used at this Sabbat are red and green (along with the practice of exchanging gifts) are of Pagan origin, probably due in part to the colours of the holly berries found in abundance. Additionally, gold and white are also quite appropriate. Stones to be used at this celebration include bloodstones, rubies, and garnets. Animals associated with the Yule Sabbat are stags, squirrels, wrens and robins. The reindeer stag is also a reminder of the horned God. Mythical creatures associated with Yule are the Phoenix and trolls. Herbs and plants that can be used include holly, mistletoe, evergreens, poinsettias, bay, pine, ginger, valerian, myrrh, and rosemary. Sacred Gemstones that can be used during this time are cat’s eye and ruby. Bayberry candles are also burned to ensure wealth and happiness throughout the following year.
Traditional foods of Yule include nuts, fruits such as apples and pears, cookies and cakes of caraway soaked in cider, and (for non-vegetarians) pork,and roasted turkey are all traditional fare. Fine drinks for the Yule celebration or meals include Wassail (a hot drink made from wine, beer or cider, spices, sugar, and usually baked apples—served in a large bowl), lamb’s wool (ale mixed with sugar, nutmeg and the pulp of roasted apples), hibiscus or ginger tea, eggnog and apple cider.
And now here is a nice little excerpt for Yule by Silver RavenWolf…
The Yule Wish Tree
Often, the items we truly need cannot ride home with us in a bag from the mall during the holiday season countdown. The day before Thanksgiving, take a trip to the tree nursery and find a small, potted evergreen. On your way home, purchase a few yards of red, green, and white ribbon. During the Thanksgiving supper, introduce the tree to the family and the tribe to the tree. Each member of your clan should tie a ribbon on the tree to represent an intangible blessing they would like for the upcoming Yule season. Wishes could be for peace, enough rest, health, etc. Bless the tree and set it where it will have enough light.
When family and friends visit, explain the purpose of the wish tree to them and give them a ribbon to tie on the tree, too. The tree is for everyone. If you plan to use the tree in ritual, have everyone participating make a small ornament, empowered for strengths like self-esteem, goal planning, security, etc. and hang it on the tree while connecting with the divinity of their choice.
On the first day of February, remove all the ornaments and ribbons. Burn the ribbons and cast the ashes to the winds. Pack the ornaments away. Next year, when you open the box, you can de-Magick the ornaments and return them to their owners, or hang them on your big tree in memory of last year’s prosperity. Continue to take good care of the tree over the remaining winter months. Don’t forget to give it water and plenty of love. In the spring, you can plant the tree outside on your property or on the property of a friend.
(The above “The Yule Wish Tree” by Silver RavenWolf is quoted directly from Llewellyn’s 1995 Magical Almanac, page 264, Llewellyn Worldwide Publications, 1994.)