Just before Christmas we celebrate Yule; the first festival in the wheel of the year and the last of our calender year.
Yule is the festival of the winter solstice, celebrations start between the 20th and 22nd of December (this year it falls on the 21st) . It is the shortest day of the year. The tipping point from darkness and rest, into new life, rebirth and towards spring. A time to be restful and thoughtful in the last nights of darkness in hope of the sun’s return (though we expect it, there should still be some reflection before celebrating it as a certainty)
The word ‘solstice’ means ‘sun stands still’ as the sun seems to rise and set in the same position on the horizon for 3 days in its southernmost position in the sky. A powerful ‘tween time.
Roots, Myths and Legends
Yule is a Sun festival, the sun being The Sun God, consort of the Goddess in paganism (arguably they are one and the same) He is represented as The Horned God, the Holly King, The Green man and many other names. His masculine energy combined with the energy of the Goddess is what brings about the fertility of the land on which all life depends.
Having died in the reaping of summer and moving away from us at Samhain. His energy along with our own and the earth’s, has been waiting in the cauldron of transformation watched over by the Crone. At Yule he is reborn bringing the promise of new life and hope back to the earth.
Journeying Through The Dark
Like many pagan festivals, the myths legends and traditions are apparent in other stories. For example in druidism, Yule is called ‘Alban Arthan’ the light of Arthur. Referring to the legend of King Arthur, the once and future King, who rises and falls like the Sun (more on this to follow). Arth in Welsh means bear. Alban Arthur also refers to the great bear constellation Arthur, who rises in the North during the winter months. I wonder if the two are the same.
To me, Yule can be split into two aspects, the end of the journey through the dark times and rebirth. For a moment let’s focus on the journey through the dark. We have witnessed death and rested in the dark (the cauldron) . Focusing on the transformative power of the dark and what was sacrificed. We have journeyed inwards to seek new knowledge and gifts (ooooh presents) .
As well as our Pagan God who has journeyed through the dark of death and transformation; In norse mythology, the story of journey and sacrifice is told to us through the stories of Odin.
It is said, Odin hung himself from the tree of life, Yggdrasil, sacrificing himself to himself. He hung there for 9 days and 9 nights with a spear through his side taking no sustinance or aid. He remained there, peering into the well of Urd so that he may perceive the runes. This magical knowledge was gifted so that others may use them to understand and harness their power. Odin is depicted as an old man with one eye (another story of sacrifice for the gift of knowledge) a shaman and the all father… Sound familiar? An old man with a beard who sets out on a journey to receive and give gifts.
Rebirth and The Magical Babe
OK, so there’s the big Christian story: the birth of a gods son, sent to bring joy and love. Brought gifts from travellers who have journeyed following a star. Like many stories it symbolises the feel of the festival. A journey and a birth/rebirth. What greater gift is there than new life?
In Welsh mythology; Mabon son of Modron is a name for The God, son of The Goddess. The Autumn Equinox is named in his honour. As a babe he was stolen from his mother. Reminding us, much like Jesus, to seek the childlike joy, hope and rebirth.
Other deities sharing their birthdays at this time are Mithras, Attis and Sol Invictus.
These stories remind us that rebirth is coming. New starts, fresh goals and determinations. At Yule we are given another chance to journey into ourselves, reflect on all that has passed. What will be left behind and shed so that we can be reborn. What gifts have you gained in your journey? What wisdom have you gained that can serve you as you move ahead?
The Holly King and The Oak King
Stories of old tell of the Holly and The Oak Kings who battle for dominion over the land bi annually. They can be seen as two aspects of the Horned God or God’s of their own story.
The Oak King is the King of summer, light and growth. He is Lord of the waxing year from Yule to Litha. The Holly King rules over the waning year from Litha to Yule. He is decay, transformation and wisdom.
Yule is when the Holly King’s energy is at its strongest. These are also his last days before he is yet again defeated by the Oak King. Perhaps it is a battle, perhaps it is an amicable passing of the torch.
The Holly King is depicted as an older man with a kind, white-bearded face (sound familiar?) and a crown of evergreens. The life energy of all that is to come in spring is kept and held safe in the Holly King’s crown. This is why evergreens are celebrated and brought in. To honour the Holly King and remind ourselves that spring will come again.
Mistletoe is sacred at Yule. It is a fertility symbol. Representing the (ahem) virility of the Holly King (OK, it represents his semen. There’s a lot more of it in older traditions. Morris dancers and hankies are another one. Maybe I’ll do a post just on jizz at some point.), Mistletoe is parasitic it grows on other trees. Commonly oak trees, this could be another tie between the two Kings. Some stories depict them as twins so, perhaps this is where the spirit of winter is stored. While the Oak King reigns.
Traditions At Yule
Like the other festivals, there are many traditions still practiced. I usually go on a bit here about how these traditions existed in Paganism long before the rise of Christianity. Let’s assume I’ve done that. Moving on.
As mentioned, the Holly King carries the fertility of the coming year safe in the evergreen leaves of his crown. As such we honour this energy by decorating our homes with it. (seems counterintuitive sometimes) this is also why we bring a tree inside, so we may bring some of this life energy into our own lives. It is decorated and dressed, giving it pride of place so we may worship it. There is a beautiful folk tale from Eastern Europe which is said to be the origins of why we decorate with tinsel. You can read my telling of it here.
The yule wreath shares this evergreen energy. Its circular shape represents the ever turning wheel if the year and everlasting life.
Being a Sun festival we celebrate the sun and its dynamic energy by lighting candles, lights (fairy lights) and solstice fires there is also an aim here to add to the sun’s strength and aid it in its rebirth. (The traditional pomander also represents the sun as it is pricked with cloves in the symbol of the Sun)
Magical practice at Yule.
Yule is a great time to reflect and set new goals. This is where new years resolutions come from. You can do this through divination, meditation or any other way that suits you. The point is to take yourself on explorative journey to identify what transformation has taken place for your rebirth.
Traditional altar decorations would include green and red (of course). Also, shiny things to represent the sun, evergreens, bones, eggshells. Items that represent abundance nuts, fruit etc and light, lots of light.
The Yule Log
I love a good Yule log. Now sadly, they are sold as plastic table decorations in some places. Rather missing the point. Traditionally, a good chunk of last years Christmas tree would have been stored away. As yuletime approaches they are brought in the house and decorated with candles, ribbon and natural materials. On solstice night the log is placed in the hearth fire to keep negative spirits and energies out.
The Yule log is also used to grant wishes. Having reflected in the darkness. Hopefully you now have the knowledge and wisdom required to push forward with your goals. Is there anything you will require as you move ahead? Any gifts you may need? For example, support, motivation, confidence or strength. These things can be carved (or written) upon the yule log before burning. Equally they can be written on paper, ribbon or leaves and burnt in the flames.
Wassailing is to drink to one’s health or a blessing. Like a toast. It is also a drink, usually alcoholic warmed in a pot… Its mulled cider. One magical Yule tradition is to make a big pot of it and invite friends and loved ones to come make merry with you. Story telling and singing are good wassail activities as are parlour games.
As always with pagan festivals, there is a fair amount of partying required. At a time when food would have been stored away to get us through the winter months, we would still have to be careful not to use it all up. The sun is returning but it will be a while yet. So we come together and share what we can.
I fear this message has gotten a little lost in the mass-consumerist-monster that Christmas brings now. A feast would have been created between many people, each bringing something. Now it falls to each family to create for themselves.
This year I am trying to connect more with my witchy ways. Not feeling pressured to go out and spend a ridiculous amount so that Christmas is ‘magical’. Not attending any Christmas party where I will not feel comfortable or worse, on edge.
I choose to focus on what is important. The love and support I receive and give. Sharing an evening together huddled up warm (and maybe a bit boozy).
It is at these times we can reflect and share together, all the previous year had brought, good and bad. We voice our hopes and dreams and aim to help each other with them.
When the sun returns at Yule that’s when we party! Light the fires, play the music, dance and sing. The Sun has returned to us. We are reborn as is the Oak King. Give thanks for all that’s brought us here and look ahead to a new spring, new life, new opportunities armed with all our gifts. I’m sure new pyjamas are great but what about new perspectives?
What other traditions do you celebrate at Yule? Hit me up in the comments below.
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Merry Yuletide and Happy Solstice my Darlings! Blessings upon your homes and loved ones.
Love Kate xxx