Whether you’re a practicing pagan or just someone who enjoys learning about different religions and cultures, odds are, you’ve heard of Yule and may have even celebrated it recently. So what is Yule? What do pagans believe and do on this day? And what importance does it have in the overall magical realm, both historically and currently?

The season we now know as Yule (or the winter solstice) was once the most important holiday of the year for our ancestors. It marked the shortest day of the year, when the days would finally begin to get longer once again. It was a time of great celebration and feasting, when families and communities would come together to honor the return of the sun and the season of plenty that would follow. Today, Yule is still a time of great significance for many modern Pagans and Wiccans.

The word Yule is derived from the Old Norse term jól (pronounced “youl”). Scholars generally agree that the festival originates from Germanic pagan solstice celebrations, which later departed into a Christianized form of holiday, resulting in Christmastide.  Most people associate Yule with Christmas, but the holiday actually has pagan origins.

Christmas is celebrated on December 25. It is a religious holiday as well as a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. It has been observed for two millennia by Christians, who celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.

Today, we have all but forgotten the true significance of the winter solstice. But why bother? There is plenty to enjoy about any day at the end of December. We’ve got presents, Christmas cards, family and friends, and that most important meal of the year – turkey and ham. 

While a vast majority of the evangelical Christian world will deny the connections between modern Christmas and Yule, for those of us that practice a form of Paganism or Wicca to this day, we must learn and understand the importance within our own faith, rather than just following a Christianized version of one of our holiest of days. 

What Yule Celebrations Were Christianized? 

  • During the midwinter feast, festivities lasted 12 days. Sound familiar? 
  • Vikings decorated evergreen trees for Yule by hanging fruit and other gifts on the branches of the tree. The Vikings also left food, carvings, and other offerings for tree spirits to ensure their return in the spring.
  • In Norse mythology, Mistletoe is linked with the birth of Balder, the God of Light and Goodness. When he was killed by a spear made of mistletoe wood, his mother’s tears brought him back to life. Celts considered Mistletoe to have healing powers, too, and thought it could ward off evil spirits.
  • In Norse tradition, a visitor called “Old Man Winter” would visit at the beginning of December, bringing gifts to children and food to their elders. It is said that Odin, the Viking god, wore a long beard and appeared as a wanderer.  He might not have said “Ho Ho Ho” but, he certainly fits the description of a certain Jolly Old Elf. 
  • It was a time to light the Yule log and put out the shoes that have been left by the door for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, in hopes that he will bring good luck for the coming year.
  • So many more parallels exist between modern Christmas and traditional Yule. 

 

What Other Non-Christian People Celebrated During This Season? 

The Romans

The Roman holiday of Saturnalia celebrated the agricultural god Saturn. During the sowing season, people would exchange gifts, eat, and make sacrifices to various gods in order to ensure fertility. Even people who were enslaved would get the day off from work and school. Romans would decorate their homes with wreaths and other greenery, much like a Yule celebration. 

The Incan People

Around the world, groups have celebrated the beginning of winter with festivals that include sun worship. The Inca Empire fasted for three days before the solstice, which was in June in the southern hemisphere, and then they made offerings to their sun god. Some people believe that Stonehenge may have been a site of ancient winter solstice festivals, which are celebrated there today.

How Can We Celebrate Yule, Today?

  1. Make a Yule Wreath!  Traditionally, one would make this wreath out of pine, holly, mistletoe, yew, or ivy.  However, I am of the belief that any plant or tree that has “donated” it’s fallen branches or twigs is a valid gift to the gods and goddesses of old.  Personally, I like to make a pentacle wreath, as it symbolizes the four elements of the world around us, as well as our own individual spirit. 
  2. The Yule Log today is much different from its ancestor, but it is still commonly used.  In the days of old, a whole tree would be added to the hearth during the Yule Festival and would slowly be fed as it burned.  Of course, today, we understand that something like that would be incredibly dangerous (and none of us here on this blog would ever recommend it today).  You can still burn your Yule Log.  These can sometimes be purchased already made, but I prefer my items to have a more personal touch.  Take a log (preferably one that has already fallen or broken off from a tree – we don’t want to take from the tree if we don’t have to, after all) and adorn it with pinecones, berries, mistletoe, holly, etc…basically, whatever you associate with this season.  Then, burn it in your fireplace or safely outside in a fire pit!  
  3. Did Someone Say Feast?  The twelve day festival was about so much more than burning logs and trying to coax the sun from its hidden space.  There was often feasting for the ENTIRE twelve days!  We aren’t recommending a twelve day food coma, though.  However, during the season, we should always make sure to have a day of feast between the Yule season.  (In 2021, it begins on December 21 and ends January 1).  I live alone, and will personally be making a smaller version of a Christmas dinner, complete with ham, potatoes, green beans, fruit, vegetables, and of course, homemade mead.  What’s on your menu? 
  4. Leave out shoes and hay for Sleipnir (if you follow a more Norse path), or any other tradition regarding gifts for the gods.
    • A delicious porridge is a great gift for the Yule Goat (an evolution of the goats that pulled Thor’s chariot) who now carries the Yule Elf as he delivers presents.
    • In the Celtic side, you might believe in the visit of the Holly King.  He enjoys gifts, just like Santa – so be sure to leave him an offering of some kind (be it food, alcohol, or sweets).  He will help to make your resolutions become reality! 
    • More a believer in the hooved pal of Santa Claus, Krampus?  Be sure to leave out your shoes with a little candy inside as an offering!  
  5. Prepare your resolutions for the year.  Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to just make the resolution as others do, but for a very great effect if you are a practitioner of Wicca or other magical faiths, take it up a notch with a ritual to bind the resolutions.  Thereby getting assistance from deities and Spirit in completion of these goals.  Burn a candle (I use white) and write the resolutions on paper.  While focused and thinking about your desires for the year, burn the paper (again, safely – we’re a safe and family-friendly blog here).  
  6. Protect your household with bells!  (Jingle, Jingle, Jingle!) The sound of the bell was traditionally thought to drive away the dark creatures/spirits of the Yule time which were stronger with the demise of the Oak King and the Rise of the Holly King (in Celtic belief).  
  7. Caroling is not just for the Christians!  In fact, the idea of caroling comes from the children that would honor the Winter Solstice by going door to door and singing songs.  They would often be rewarded with treats or warm drinks.  

 

Regardless of how you choose to celebrate, the time of Yule is all about the hope that is brought by the promise of longer days, more light, and the birth of the spring to come.  As we all know, the Pagan and Wiccan Paths are all about a sense of self in our worship, celebration, and ritual, so feel free to create your own symbolic traditions or use ones that we discussed!  

Blessed Yule from all of us at Queen of Cups Metaphysical!