Yule, a Celebration of the returning Sun

Long before Christianity swept across the planet in its effort to save us from ourselves, our ancestors lived a life in union with Mother Gaia. This closeness told our ancestors when to plant crops, when to harvest, and what animals would be available to hunt during different times of the year. Life revolved around the seasons. These seasonal changes were celebrated with festivals. The Winter Solstice is one of those celebrations.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere this happens between the 20th and the 23rd of December. Just about all cultures celebrated observance of this event. Which was the first to celebrate the return of the sun is open to interpretation, but here are a few examples:

  • Ancient Rome celebrated the return of the sun with Saturnalia
  • China celebrates with the DongZhi festival
  • Japan has the Toji festival
  • Iran celebrates Shab-e Yalda
  • The Inca celebrated Inti Raym
  • The Zuni Indians of North America celebrate with the Shalako dance
  • Egypt’s Karnak temple was built facing the Winter Solstice sun in order to get the light on the Sun God

The traditions we associate with the Christian celebration of Christmas have their base in the traditions of the Winter Solstice celebrations of Ancient Europe, and it began with Emperor Aurelian. In the third century he decided that December 25 would be the birthday of the Sun God, Sol Invictus “Invincible Sun” and it was incorporated into their week long Solstice celebration of Saturnalia. In 273 the Christian church made December 25 the day Jesus/Yeshua was born as a way to stop what they considered our pagan beliefs. He wasn’t born in December, but that is a different blog topic!

The Germanic term Yule was the name of the festival celebrating the return of the sun. At that time the Germanic people covered many cultures spread across Europe. Some of these are the Celts, Norwegians, Goths, and the Saxons.

The celebration began with the lighting of bonfires at sunset on the day of the Solstice. The fires represented the sun and would be kept burning throughout the festival. In homes, Yule logs would be lit. The Yule log itself had requirements. The log was to be harvested off the land of the person whose home it would be burned in. It had to be large enough or long enough to burn for the 12 days of celebration, turning night into day. For the log to be to little or for the fire to go out was bad luck. A Yule Log could never be purchased, so if you had no trees on your property, the only way to get one was to have it gifted to you.

The log was dragged to, and brought into the house with great ceremony by family members. It was sometimes decorated with carvings of rune prayers. The largest end was put into the hearth and lit with a piece of the log from the previous year. The lighting of the fire had to be done by someone with clean hands. I am not quite sure why, I couldn’t find the reason. As it burned more of the log would be pushed into the fire. After the celebration the ashes were gathered and used in charms for protection, fertility, strength and good health.

Yule celebrations had other things going on during the festival. During the depths of winter, livestock was usually slaughtered because it would be too expensive to feed them. This meant there was plenty of feasting and the consumption of large amounts of wine and spiced cider, so there was also some Wassailing going on, which is where the tradition of caroling came from.

The idea of gift giving comes from the tradition of our ancestors taking their children to the homes of friends and family to give them gifts of clove apples and oranges. They would be placed in baskets made of evergreen with wheat and dusted with flower. These baskets had great meaning. Evergreen is a symbol of immortality, the wheat is symbolic of the harvest, the flour is for light, life and triumph. Apples and oranges represent the sun. They were giving the gift of the sun and life to the homes of people they loved!

There were other ancient traditions that became absorbed into the Christian tradition of Christmas, like:

  • The Christmas wreath. In the Northern Cultures a Sun Wheel would be made, set ablaze and rolled down a hill to entice the sun to come back.
  • Decorating with Holly. Holly was sacred to the Druids.  Prior to the Solstice they would go deep into the forest to gather it to be used in the Solstice rituals, and in homes. Sprigs would be hung by the door to protect the family from evil and to bring good fortune. The Druids believed that on the Solstice the Holly King would do battle with the Oak king. The Oak King would win and the sun would return. On the Summer Solstice the Holly King would win and the days would grow shorter.
  • Mistletoe was gathered and hung in homes in the hopes of enticing sprites to the celebration. If they came so would the sun. Kissing under the mistletoe comes to us from the English tradition. As a fun FYI. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant. The berries are consumed by birds or small animals and deposited by them onto trees. So, the word literally translates to Poo on a stick! LOL
  • The Christmas Tree is also a part of the Winter Solstice traditions. Evergreens were decorated with carved runes, Gods and food. The belief was that during the dark, cold time of year the tree spirits would leave, and decorating the trees would encourage them to come back.
  • The tradition of the Christmas ham also comes from the solstice festival. Some of the northern cultures would kill a wild boar and roast it for the feast.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the celebration of Yule and the Winter Solstice. Our Solstice is extra special this year for two reasons. First it is coinciding with the full moon. The peak of the full moon won’t actually happen until the 22nd but being in the cycle of the full moon is significant. The other special event is we have a meteor shower coming from the Ursa Minor area of the sky! The full moon could make seeing the shower difficult but what is most interesting to me is the synchronicity of these three things coming together. Something big is about to happen. Until the next festival…

Blessed Be ❤ Sharon





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