As Yule approaches, the days get shorter, the nights longer. In the northern hemisphere, winter is beginning to take hold, and it is getting colder. Yule is celebrated on the longest night of the year, which varies, depending on the year, between December 21 and December 22. This is the Winter Solstice and pagans traditionally celebrate the return of the sun at this time, though it is only the beginning of winter and the coldest days are yet to come.
The Pagan Yule Celebration for the Return of the Sun
At Yule (from the Norse word for “wheel”), the sun is reborn. According to Wiccan lore, the Goddess gives birth to the “Child of Promise” and the time of the Holly King ends when the time of the Oak King begins. This is a time of introspection when, in cold climates, everything in nature sleeps through the cold winter. But it is also a time of hope as one becomes aware that as the sun eventually returns, so will everything in nature awaken and be reborn.
The celebrations during Yule reflect all of this, and in the past, pagans would celebrate with rituals, feasting, and festivities. According to D. J. Conway, in his book Wicca: The Complete Craft, decorating the home with holly boughs at Yule is an ancient Pagan custom. Holly was also used for protection and warding off harmful spells. Ivy was used to symbolize the endurance of life, mistletoe for fertility and love.
The Yule tree is an important part of Wiccan tradition for many who practice the Craft, and it is traditionally done with respect and acknowledgement of the spirit of the tree.
Jeff McQueen, Wiccan and Priest, 1st degree with the Wiccan Church of Canada, explains: “If you are following the pagan path and you believe that all plants, animals, rocks, and trees have a spirit of their own, you’re taking a living, breathing tree, and you’re asking to have it; you’re asking it if it can be displayed in your house in a place of honor for Yule.”
Cutting Down and Using the Yule Tree
In the McQueen household, there is a process to cutting down the Yule tree that begins with asking the tree for permission to cut it down, followed by a ritual to “chase the soul down the roots of the tree.”
The person cutting the tree might even leave some of his/her own blood on the tree in payment. There is also rejoicing that the tree agreed to give itself to the family. McQueen explains that this is important because, “If it doesn’t want to give itself to you, it can make life very miserable for you. It’s surprising how dull a saw can get.”
The crux of the message is that the tree is to be cherished and loved. Traditionally, the family then takes it home to be put in a place of honour and decorated.
When the celebrations for Yule are completed, the tree is not simply thrown out. The tree becomes the Yule log for the following year’s celebrations.
In the McQueen household, the tree is saved each year, and the following year, the family cuts a section of the tree from the previous year to use as a Yule log. They carve three holes into the log to place candles in and decorate the log with ivy. The rest of the tree is burned in the fireplace or outside if there is a Yule fire during the celebrations. The Yule tree is never wasted, but used for light and warmth, and always treated with honour and respect.
More Ideas for Celebrating Yule
Some other activities you can do for Yule as suggested in The Book of Shadows: Participant’s Handbook for Paganism 101, by Louise Bunn are:
Placing a wreath on the front door of the home to attract blessings and wealth
- Hanging mistletoe
- Donating food and clothes
- Feeding the birds
- Burning yew sprigs to honour the goddess Hecate
- Ringing bells on the morning of the Solstice as greeting
- Tying ribbons on the fir tree to honour the goddess Artemis
McQueen provides some further suggestions:
- Exchange gifts on Yule morning
- Hang stockings over the fireplace
- Have everyone participate in decorating the tree
- Tell stories relating to Yule, such as about the Roman festivities of Sol Invictus (the celebration of the victory of the sun) and the story of the pagan Child of Promise (the Goddess as Life-in-Death giving birth to the Sun God)
- If you practice ritual, shut down all the lights to symbolize the sun going out during the ritual, and then light the sun candle to symbolize the return of the sun. Light the other candles from the sun candle, beginning with the source candle
There are many ways to celebrate Yule, but the point is to have fun, enjoy the season, and celebrate the return of the sun with friends and loved ones. Celebrating Yule is a fun and sociable thing to do when it’s so dull and cold outside. Any greenery left over from Yule celebrations can be saved to use at the next celebration, as the Wheel of the Year turns again, and brings us to Imbolc on February 2nd.
Image: Holly for Yule Pagan Celebrations — By Emilio del Prado from Valladolid, Spain, España via Wikimedia Commons
Bunn, Louise, Book of Shadows: Participant’s Handbook for Paganism 101, Vancouver: Louise Bunn, 1998.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart, A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook, Custer: Phoenix Publishing inc., 1996.
Gallagher, Ann-Marie, The Wicca Bible, New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2005.
McQueen, Jeff, Priest, 1st degree, the Wiccan Church of Canada.
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