December 21st, 2021
“So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
came people singing, dancing,
to drive the dark away.”
– Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day
Yule is the pagan celebration welcoming the winter solstice. For 2021, the shortest day of the year clocks in at only eight hours and forty-three minutes, suspending our northern hemisphere in darkness so cool and still, it entices us to stand outside and breathe with the stars (the southern hemisphere will celebrate Litha – their summer solstice).
Astronomically, the Sun has reached his most southern point in the sky. This means that on December 21st, as he travels from east to west, his arc will be as close to Earth as it will ever get. You can see this in how much taller your shadow is when you walk outside at noontime. After the 21st, the Sun’s daily path begins to move north again, and our days officially start to grow longer. Yule is therefore a celebration of the Sun and the return of warmth and light.
Its roots are held in various northern European traditions, most especially that of the pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic people. There are some inconsistencies and variations when it comes to the start and stop of this festival, as well as the length of days it was celebrated. But generally, it was a 12-daylong event which began with the winter solstice and ended at the beginning of the new calendar year. It is one of the oldest celebrations in the world and cultural customs have been passed down from generation to generation as we continue to observe their traditions. To this day stockings are hung with care as families gather to celebrate, exchange gifts, and share a meal.
As all pagan festivities, Yule honours the rhythm of nature. It marks the first day of winter and the final phase in the cycle of birth, and rebirth. At the time of the winter solstice, bells were rung first thing in the morning to herald the returning warmth of the Sun and chase away any evil spirits and sprites. Homes were decorated with holly and ivy as stores of food were brought out for the community feast. No pagan festival is complete without the symbolic lighting of bonfires and Yule was no exception. Dances were danced, and songs were sung as crops and trees were toasted with mulled apple cider.
Evergreens represent immortality because the green never fades. Bundles of boughs were brought indoors and hung around doorways and windows as they were believed to ward off witches, ghosts and goblins, as well as contain power to defeat winter. They also crafted them into wreaths to represent the Wheel of the Year as evergreen. As the symbol of infinity and goodwill, they were given as gifts, hung on doors and/or laid horizontally and decorated with candles (later becoming the Christian Advent Wreath).
The Yule tree represented the Tree of Life. It remained outdoors where it was decorated with natural ornaments made of pinecones, and fruits such as berries and apple, along with mementos to remember loved ones who had passed. Last, they hung candles within the branches to represent and honour the return of the warmth and light of the sun.
The highlight was the ceremonial Yule log which was carried into the house and placed trunk first in the fireplace. It was then decorated with holly and ivy, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour. It was then lit by a piece of Yule log reserved from the previous year. It burned through the night and left to smoulder for twelve days before being doused; but not before they took a piece for next year’s fire to repeat the ritual.
Above are only some of the more common Yule traditions. As Christianity began to spread throughout Europe, many of these ancient rituals were either blended into their customs or simply forgotten. Christmastide, for example, is also twelve days in length, beginning on December 25th and ending on January 6th with Epiphany (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night takes's place on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany).
Some of the modern ways you can celebrate Yule include:
Go for a walk in nature. Yule is a time to honour Mother Earth and appreciate the cycles of the season on the Wheel. Taking a moment to recognize and appreciate what is truly important - connecting with family and friends. Collect and bring back earthly treasures like pinecones, ivy, berries and scented branches of fir and cedar.
Adorn your home and outdoor spaces with evergreen boughs and potted plants such as ivy and holly.
Make your own yule log or wreath of evergreens. Decorate using pinecones, dried berries, cinnamon sticks, holly, or mistletoe.
Set up a Yule tree and decorate it with lights and ornaments representing the winter solstice such as stars or symbols of peace and hope.
Play holiday-themed music to get in the spirit.
Consider local and sustainably sourced goods and products when purchasing gifts.
Forget the stores and make your own gifts: a candle, a wreath, a handmade card, or a bath bomb. If you’re better skilled in the kitchen even better! Make homemade pies, chutneys, infused vinegars, jams or cranberry sauce. Create coupons to exchange a service like child-care or shoveling the driveway.
In lieu of gifts, consider donating money to one of the many worthy causes near and dear to your heart. Animal rights, children, disability, diversity, environment, poverty, veterans, the choices are endless.
Candles are symbolic of the warmth and light of the Sun, the eternal flame. Place many, or just a few throughout your home. Pick colours that reflect Yule – red, green, white, silver and gold.
Every evening for the twelve days of Yule, light one (or all) of the candles and find a few minutes to think about all you have, and are grateful for. Or perhaps, say a small prayer or intention for someone you care for very deeply who is going through a difficult time. Or perhaps for the world at large which is in dire need of collective positive thoughts and outpourings of love. A candle loses nothing when giving it's flame to another. So light a candle with the intention: "Peace on Earth & Goodwill Towards All".
Gather friends and family for a traditional feast, or perhaps just your favourite seasonal foods - pumpkins, squash, and gourds, oh my! And don't forget to dress up your festive table with nature's offerings brought back from your nature walk.
Carolling used to be a children’s tradition. They walked through the villages, singing door to door. In return, they received a treat like a small present or sweets. Today it's not just for the kids anymore. Many still partake in this endearing practice.
Bake cookies like sugar and shortbread. Gingerbread has a long Yule history and remains a traditional favourite.
Movies are a must-have tradition. From action (Die Hard) to romance (Love Actually), or any of the gazillion choices in between. Whether you choose a classic (It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34thStreet), a nostalgic favourite (A Christmas Story or A Christmas Vacation), or perhaps animation for the old soul (A Charlie Brown Christmas or How The Grinch Stole Christmas), there is a movie out there for you.
Yule is a release of the old in preparation for the new, so it’s the perfect time to declutter and clear-out your home for the upcoming year. If you know someone who’s coveted something you're ready to part with, wrap it up and present it to them. If not, give it to the thrift store or charities who sponsor ‘out of the cold’ initiatives for the homeless or warm clothing for children. Sage your home to cleanse and re-energize after you're all done.
“My idea of Christmas,
whether old-fashioned or modern,
is very simple: loving others.
Come to think of it,
why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?”
– Bob Hope
Mr. Hope brings up a fair point. Why should we wait? Historically the Winter Solstice was recognized as a time to mend old wounds and generate peace between people and within communities. Whether you celebrate Yule, Christmastide, Hanukkah, Kwanza or perhaps another tradition altogether, the symbolism of light banishing darkness is unmistakable and remains current. Yule celebrates the promise of the return of light, of peace, of hope. The Wheel turns and as we enter the season of death and eventual rebirth, we are reminded how truly fragile and ethereal life is. Pause, and reflect, and recognize that the only thing that truly matters is love. May you be blessed today and always.