Birds and flowers

Yesterday evening, Bob and I went for a walk. There were red-winged blackbirds, cranes, loads of flowers (a pink & white vetch that smells nice; a white mallow; a white campion; water lilies coming out on the millpond; a big pink convolvulus). We saw ducklings with a mother duck. And away from the river, we saw a pair of cardinals feeding on a bird feeder. And a beautiful sunset.

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Beltane fires and maypoles

Beltane is coming, and with it, the celebration of love. Spare a thought for those who are left out of all the joyous coupling, and those who are marginalised by less inclusive ways of celebrating love.

Fertility can be re-purposed into a theme of caring for the environment, or of general creativity. And as Doreen Valiente wrote in The Charge of the Goddess, “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”.
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Wassailing

One of my favourite folk rituals is the practice of wassailing. This is done in apple-growing districts to wake up the apple trees and encourage them to produce plenty of fruit in the autumn. I love it so much that I planted an apple tree in my garden so I could wassail it.

Apple blossom. Photo by Maky Orel on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

Apple blossom. Photo by Maky Orel on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

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Colours of Paganism

Paganism is an umbrella term for a group of religions that venerate the Earth and Nature, and the ancient Pagan deities. These religions include Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Animism, Shamanism, Eclectic Pagans and various other traditions. All of these traditions share an urge to celebrate life and to honour our connection with all other beings on the planet. Pagans often emphasise the cyclical nature of reality, and so enjoy the cycle of the seasons and the dance of Sun and Moon.

Green is the colour everyone immediately associates with Paganism. It is the colour of nature, of trees, and all growing things. It is associated with the Green Man, a symbol of our connection to Nature, and a manifestation of the life-force. Many Pagans also like the colour purple for its spiritual connotations (it is associated with the crown chakra). Interestingly, purple and green were also the colours of the suffragette movement.

The Long Man of Wilmington, Autumn Equinox
Photo by OceanBlue-AU [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The metals are traditionally associated with the heavenly bodies: gold for the Sun, silver for the Moon and the stars, mercury for Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter and lead for Saturn.

The white, red and and black colours of the Triple Goddess owe a lot to Robert Graves’ seminal work The White Goddess. He derived it from the tendency of the Irish myths to declare those “otherworldly” colours in combination, such as the red-eared white cow that was Brigid’s only food as an infant, the red, white and black oystercatcher that is called “Brigid’s bird” or the red-eared white dogs that occur in so many stories as Otherworld animals.

The four elements are very important in Paganism, and different mythological systems associate them with different colours. Earth is associated with stability, fertility, strength and nurturing, and can be represented by green, brown, or white. Air symbolises intellect, the breath of life, and the spirit, and can be depicted as yellow, white, or black. Fire represents energy, intuition, passion and vitality, and can be orange or red. Water represents love, emotion, fluidity, and healing, and can be blue or green.

The rainbow is an important symbol for Pagans. To Heathens, it the symbol of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between the world of deities (Asgard) and the world of humans (Midgard). For many Pagans, the colours of the rainbow correspond to the colours of the chakras (borrowed from Hinduism). It is also the symbol of LGBT sexuality.

Colors of the Rainbow
Photo  by Nicholas_T [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Diana Paxson and her branch of Asatru (a Heathen tradition) associate colours with deities: Oðinn is black and blue; Thor red; Freya and Freyr green and gold, or sometimes brown.

White is the colour of light, and is associated with the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. It is also the colour most often chosen for Druid robes, because of its association with the Sun.

Black is the colour of darkness, but for Pagans, darkness symbolises a time of rest, dreams, and the hidden powers of Nature. It is also a symbol of the fertile earth, in whose dark depths seeds can germinate. It is also the colour of death and the underworld, but death is seen as part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and so is not to be feared. For some Pagans, black is the colour of the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and so represents the wisdom of old age. It is also the colour of women, of the cycles of the human body, and of those people considered “non-white.” Black speaks to our love of mystery, night, and the realms of the unconscious and “starlight” consciousness. It’s the color of soil, dirt, compost. It represents wholeness.

Important Pagan Dates

There are different Pagan festivals depending on which Pagan path you follow, but many Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wiccan and Druid Wheel of the Year.

Samhain or Hallowe’en falls on 31st October, and is a festival of the ancestors and the otherworld. Its colours are autumnal: the orange skin of pumpkins, the rich reds and golds of autumn leaves, and the brown colour of the bare fields. Heathens celebrate the festival of Winternights around this time; historically this was a big sacrificial feast at which gods, elves and/or ancestors were welcomed. Nowadays Heathens make offerings of mead to the deities and wights (powers).

Yule or Winter Solstice is on 21st or 22nd December, when we celebrate the return of the light as the days begin to lengthen again. The colours of Yule are red and green for the holly and its berries, dark green for the evergreens that are brought into the house, the green and white of the mistletoe, gold for the returning Sun. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at this time, which is where the customs of the Lord of Misrule and giving presents come from, as the masters had to serve their slaves and give them gifts.

Imbolc, celebrated on 2nd February, is when the ewes begin to lactate, and it is associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid, lady of smithcraft, healing and poetry. The colours of Imbolc are white and red; white for the ewes’ milk and the swan, which is the bird of Brighid, and red for the new growth on the trees, and for the fire of Brighid.

Red Branches Covered with Ice
Photo by Juggling Mom [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Spring Equinox usually falls on 21st or 22nd March, and is often represented as being darkness and light in dynamic balance, because the days and nights are equal – but the light is in the ascendancy. The goddess of this festival is only known from a reference by the Venerable Bede, but it has been suggested that she may have been a goddess of Spring and of the Moon, since hares are sacred to the Moon and are associated with this festival.

The Festival of Beltane falls on 30th April and 1st May, and celebrates life, love and fertility. Its main colour is green – the fresh green of the leaves on the trees. This is the time of year for Maypoles (traditionally decorated with multicoloured ribbons) and for leaping over the Bel-fire with your beloved.

Maypole Beltane
Photo by yksin [BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Summer Solstice usually falls on 21st or 22nd June, and its colours are yellow (for the Sun and for the St John’s Wort flower, which is the flower of Midsummer) and red (for the heat of the Sun).

Lughnasadh or Lammas is the Harvest Festival, and is celebrated on 31st July and 1st August. Its colours are the colours of the harvest: the gold of ripening wheat and the harsh light of the Sun, and sometimes red for the poppies that grow among the corn.


This post was originally published at the Colour Lovers blog on 14 November 2007. It was part of a series on colour symbolism in different religious traditions:

See also: The Colorful Diwali Festival of Light

Acknowledgements and Sources

Paganism for Beginners: Festivals

Different Pagan traditions have different festivals. The Heathen community celebrates its own cycle of festivals. Wiccans, Druids, and many eclectic Pagans celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year. Polytheists have their own festivals too, usually based on the particular ethnic tradition they are working with.

The festivals of specific Pagan paths

  • The Eightfold Wheel of the Year & the Druid Festivals by Philip Carr-Gomm. An exploration of the Druidic symbolism of the festivals of the Wheel of the Year.
  • Heathen rites, festivals and practices – BBC religion page introducing Heathenry, its festivals, rituals, and practices.
  • Traditional Heathen Festivals (UK) – WikiPagan. A list of festivals celebrated by Heathens in the UK based on historical festivals and festivals from British folklore. Other festival lists exist based on the solar year, the lunar year and monthly festivals dedicated to individual gods and goddesses. The celebration of festivals varies greatly between groups and individuals who will only celebrate the festivals they consider the most relevant to their path. Typically a festival year will include three, eight or twelve of the following festivals.
  • Calendar of Religio Romana festivals – Nova Roma. There were many festivals in ancient Rome, dedicated to various different deities, and commemorating mythological events. Some of them were major events involving the whole city; others were small local affairs for the devotees of a particular deity.
  • Kemetic festivals – Kemet.org. The Kemetic Orthodox faith celebrates many festivals, both ancient and modern. These include major holidays such as Wep Ronpet (the Kemetic New Year), Aset Luminous, and Wag Festival. All of these festivals and many more (there’s nearly one for every day of the year!) can be found in the ancient calendars. While they do celebrate the ancient traditions, it’s not always known exactly how every festival was celebrated or all of the ritual events which took place. As a living and modern faith, Kemetics find as much information as they can on these ancient traditions and celebrate them in a modern way, both together in person and from afar. They’ve also created some entirely modern celebrations to honor the Gods. 

The Wheel of the Year – Wiccan and Druid

Samhain (31 October) – Samhain

Samhain is a festival honouring ancestors. It is also the “harvest of meat” when cattle would be slaughtered before the winter.  To the ancient Celts, however, Samhain was a festival of liberation from oppression.  In East Anglia, it was known as Hollantide. Many Wiccans use Samhain rituals to honour, remember, and commune with our loved ones who have passed on.

Samhain is the Irish word for the month of November.  The ancient Irish festival held at this time was about the renewal of freedom – legends associated with it tell of heroes who freed their people from bondage.  So the association with the dead was probably imported to this country by Christianity, as this was the feast of All Saints and All Souls.  After the Reformation, of course, the importance of these festivals was downplayed, and by the early 20th century, folklorists were speculating that the origins of All Hallows were actually Pagan.  The first stirrings of the Pagan revival started in the early 20th century, so the idea of Samhain being associated with the dead was imported into Paganism.

Pagans tend to focus on the preciousness of this life, not some future one beyond death.  Hence we want to celebrate and remember the lives of our ancestors.  Ancestors can be relatives and friends who have died, or people from the past whom we admire (we often honour both).  These people have shaped who we are now – given us life, given us inspiration, guided us, comforted us, and nurtured us – and it comforts us to remember them and commune with them.

Many people believe in reincarnation, and that the consciousness resides in an in-between place between lives.  In Paganism, the dead are seen as not being very far away – only a heartbeat away – and many Pagans say that “the veil between the worlds is thin” at Samhain, because the tides of life are on the ebb as winter approaches, and because the encroaching darkness of winter is seen as a time for contemplation, remembrance, and introspection.

Pagans do not see darkness and death as evil, but as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  If there was no death, there would be no growth, no change, and no birth.  If there was no darkness, the seeds could not gestate in the warm darkness of the earth; if there was no night, there would be no sleep, and no stars and moonlight.  If there was no winter cold, there would be none of the beauty of autumn, the seeds would not germinate, and germs would not be killed by the frost.  Darkness is the Yin spoken of by the Taoists – one half of the divine dance of the cosmos.

Samhain or Hallowe’en is part of the dance of the elements around the wheel of the seasons, one of the many interlocking cosmic cycles of which our lives are an intimate part.

In many cultures, especially in Mexico, All Souls is the Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – when people go to visit family graves, and set up altars for them in the home. This is not a morbid practice, but an acknowledgement of death in the midst of life, death as part of the natural cycle.

So why should we reintegrate this festival into our spiritual practice? Because in Britain, death is swept under the carpet, ignored and feared. If we acknowledged it (at least once in the year), it would be an invitation to live more fully and mindfully. If we ignore it, it becomes part of the shadow, the part of our psyche that we reject and that contains our fears and follies, and which we project onto other people: the Other, the outsider, the transgressor.

Whereas if we recognise death as being part of the natural cycle, like the seasons of the year, then we can live more integrated lives, living in and for the moment.

Samhain is also the time when, as the nights get longer and the winter grips the land, we descend into our own depths. Summer is a time for being extrovert, creative and expansive; winter is a time for curling up by the fireside and going within oneself to find the poetic, the spiritual and the quiet side of ourselves – the forgotten aspects, perhaps even the side of ourselves that we have repressed and need to examine.

The presiding deity of winter is the Crone Goddess. She has been feared and denigrated in recent centuries – people speak of old wives’ tales, haggard old witches muttering in corners, and so on. But traditionally, old women were the ones who were the keepers of stories and other traditional wisdom such as herb lore and midwifery. She is the midwife and the one who washed, anointed and laid out the dead, the one who cuts the cord of both life and death. She represents merciful release; but she also possesses the wisdom of old age. Wisdom is traditionally represented as a feminine being or quality. Wisdom is the joining together of instinct and experience and knowledge. It is the wisdom of the body, the knowledge of when to act and when to refrain from acting, when to speak and when to keep silent. Wisdom comes from reflection upon experience and knowledge.

The Crone is also the Goddess of the Waning Moon, which represents a time of letting go and ebbing away, so it is traditional at Samhain to let go of aspects of your life that you do not need or want any more.

Yule (21 December) – Alban Arthan

The winter solstice is the point in the year when the day is at its shortest. The sun rises at its furthest south, and rises in roughly the same place for three days, hence the name “solstice”, meaning “Sun stands still”.

When I was a kid, I was told that ancient pagans used to light bonfires on top of hills at the winter solstice because they feared that the sun would not return after the longest night. I don’t know if there is any truth in this idea, but I remember finding it thrilling.

The Anglo-Saxons called the festival Yule; the Old Norse word was jól.

The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). It has been speculated that the word means “turning point”, but the etymology is unclear.

At Autumn Equinox, we begin the descent into winter. At Samhain, we meet the ancestors and the beloved dead. At Yule, the furthest point in the descent of the Sun, we begin to emerge from the creative and introspective phase of winter, and start thinking about the first stirrings of Spring. The sun represents the core aspect of the personality in many esoteric symbol-systems, and so its descent into the underworld represents a journey into our own subconscious, our own depths, to bring up fertile material to feed a time of creativity. Of course we know that the Sun doesn’t literally descend into the underworld, but in many mythologies, that is where the Sun god goes.

Yule is also a time for enjoyment; the harvest is over and done, there is little work to do in the dark time of the year, so it is time to feast, sing, dance, make merry, and kindle plenty of lights (to make up for the lack of sunshine, and to remind the sun that we would like it to start rising further north again!)

Imbolc (2 February) – Imbolc

Imbolc is a festival celebrating the lactation of ewes, the coming of lambs, and the first stirrings of spring. The name means either “ewes’ milk” (Oimelc) or “in the belly” (im bolg).

In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint.  The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft.  The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare – which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times.  There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.

Candlemas (also on 2 February) is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Torah.

Both these festivals have traditionally focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud.  They are also a celebration of goddesses.

Spring Equinox (21 March) – Alban Eilir

Spring Equinox is a festival of balance, as day and night are equal (but after this the days get longer). It’s also the time when the coming of spring is really becoming apparent. According to Bede, the ancient Germanic pagans honoured a goddess called Eostre. She was later conflated with Ostara by the Brothers Grimm, who said she was associated with hares and the Moon and eggs; however there is no reference to this goddess in any other text, so much of the modern mythology associated with her is extrapolated from Bede, and does not have any basis in older mythology. That does not mean that it is not valid as mythology, just that people should not claim ancient origins for it. There are also some other, more interesting, myths around the Spring Equinox, such as the Easter Fox.

Beltane (1 May) – Beltane

Beltane is a festival celebrating sacred sexuality. It is typically celebrated by jumping over fires and dancing round maypoles. Pagan rituals often include symbolic expressions of sexuality.

A celebration of Beltane could include celebration of sexuality in all its forms. It could also include celebrations of the senses, and something to honour the coming of spring and the renewal of life.

Midsummer (21 June) – Alban Hefin

Midsummer is a festival celebrating the Sun. At this time of the year, the days are at their longest, so the Sun is said to be at the height of its power. However, after Midsummer, the days will get shorter, so the Sun is said (symbolically) to descend into the underworld. The Sun is a metaphor for our consciousness; as we descend into the depths of winter, the self goes inward and becomes more introspective.

A celebration of midsummer could focus on the aspects related to consciousness, and emphasise the shift from outward to inward preoccupations.

Lammas (1 August) – Lughnasadh

Lammas commemorates the death of John Barleycorn, the dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god. The corn was believed to be inhabited by the corn-spirit, which was killed at every harvest and resurrected in the planting of the new corn. In Ireland, Lammas was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu, the mother of Lugh the sun god, and was called Lughnasadh. The harvest is an important symbol of cyclicity, growth, and change. The wheel turns, and what has grown must die, so that the seeds can be planted for the new cycle of growth.

Autumn Equinox (21 September) – Alban Elued

At the Autumn Equinox, day and night are equal (but after this the nights get longer), so most rituals focus on this, and on the importance of balance. The festival is also said to honour the Celtic god Mabon, who was imprisoned in a tower for many years. It’s also the fruit harvest; for this reason, I associate it with the Roman deities Pomona and Vertumnus. A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on the sensual delights of food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.

In China, they see life as the balance of opposites – yin and yang, night and day, life and death, eternally cycling around each other in the great dance of existence, the dynamic equilibrium of nature.  Equilibrium means “equal freedom” – freedom to move, to grow and to change; freedom of choice.

This dynamic balance of opposites can also be seen in the dance of the seasons.  The wheel of the year turns; falling in the autumn, rising in the spring.  As it falls in the autumn, and the nights draw in, we turn inward, towards home, and hearth, and spiritual things; baking, and making jam and wine; creative projects.

In British folk traditions, there are three harvests; the corn harvest at Lammas; the fruit harvest at Autumn Equinox; and the harvest of meat at Samhain, when some of the cattle would have been slaughtered and preserved for the winter.

A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on gratitude for food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘.

 

Lupercalia

It seems that Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated around the world, despite many cultures having their own festivals of love. In some countries, public displays of affection (whether same or opposite sex) are frowned upon, which is rather sad.

As you celebrate Valentine’s Day with your significant other, remember that in many places, it is still not safe for same-sex couples to hold hands in public. And remember that V-Day is also devoted to stopping violence against women. It’s also the day when Eve Ensler’s stage show, The Vagina Monologues, is often staged.

However, it is quite possible that Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love should actually be on 3 May. Chaucer wrote a poem celebrating  the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, mentioning Valentine’s Day. The engagement took place on 2 May, the eve of the festival of St Valentine of Genoa. The Pagan festival of May Day (now generally referred to among Pagans as Beltane), which celebrates love and springtime, is on 1 May, and May day revellers were known to take to the woods to make love, gather may blossom, and wash their faces in the dew. (We know about these customs because Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes railed against them in The Anatomie of Abuses.) Chilly February hardly seems a good time to be celebrating romantic and/or erotic love – expansive and blooming May seems like a much better time.

Whatever the origins and timing of Valentine’s Day, 14 February was originally the eve of a very different festival – the festival of Lupercalia on 15th February. This was a fertility festival honouring the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. It also honoured Lupercus, god of shepherds. The festivities were presided over by the priesthood of the Luperci, who were dedicated to Faunus. They sacrificed two goats and a dog. There was then a sacrificial feast, and the Luperci cut thongs called februa from the skins of the animals, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city. They struck all those who came near with the thongs. Young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from the thongs. This was reputed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility, and ease the pains of childbirth.

There seem to be several themes running through Lupercalia:

  • a celebration of wildness in the form of the wolf;
  • male bonding (whether in the form of friendship or same-sex love);
  • purification and cleansing;
  • a celebration of Spring, fertility, new life, and childbirth (though fertility doesn’t have to mean producing children – it can also mean creating new ideas and projects);
  • the celebration of the founding of Rome (which could be extended to the founding of all cities);
  • the relationship of city and countryside;
  • and a celebration of consensual kink.

In an article from 2004, Robin Herne has some suggestions for how to adapt Lupercalia for contemporary Pagan celebrations.

The Pagan Library suggests that the festival was originally dedicated to Rumina, the founding she-wolf of Rome. It also points out that “The name of the month comes from the februa, anything used in purifying including wool (used for cleaning), brooms, pine boughs (which make the air sweet and pure), etc.”  So if the other aspects of Lupercalia do not appeal to you, you could always celebrate Lupercalia by giving your house a thorough spring-cleaning.

The wolf was, until the late twentieth century, mostly a symbol of the ultimate predator. It was associated with desolate wilderness and the fear of being eaten by wild animals. More recently, as civilisation encroaches on the wilderness, and with the rise of deep ecology and animistic understandings of the rights of non-human beings, wolves have been celebrated as a symbol of wildness and freedom. They are highly social animals, and there are accounts of them taking in and caring for lost human children. The excellent book by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves, emphasises the importance of wildness and instinct for both women and men. The importance of connecting with Nature and the wild was also emphasised by Thoreau:

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

The wildness aspect of Lupercalia reminds us that each of us is an unfathomable mystery, that we have the right to sovereignty over our own bodies, and above all, the right to consent, or to refuse consent. If only everyone was taught about what “enthusiastic consent” means. If only millions of Valentine’s cards were not inscribed with the phrase “be mine”. People are not possessions. Misogyny and violence against women is intimately connected with the notion that women are possessions, that men have a right to sex, and that men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable. Misogyny and the subjugation of women are also connected with the patriarchal idea of controlling, subduing, and taming Nature, often personified as a woman. The Pagan reverence for Nature is aligned with promoting the equality of women.

As humanity’s relationship with our environment is flawed, we need to recover the sense that the city and the countryside are both ecosystems, and need to operate in harmony with each other. The recent floods have shown that cities are not isolated from their surrounding river systems, and that we need to exist in harmony with Nature, not trying to conquer and subdue it. So perhaps we need to rediscover Lupercalia as an exploration of the relationship between city and countryside. Cities can be beautiful places, and need not be a blot on the landscape or a drain on natural resources.

The kink and fertility aspects of Lupercalia can teach us about embodiment and being aware of physical sensations and what they mean. Many people don’t listen to their bodies and dismiss physical symptoms and sensations. The very physical aspects of Lupercalia remind us to be in our bodies.

UPDATE: corrected the post because Lupercalia was on 15 February, not 14 February. Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus, expert on all things Roman.

Yule

Dice players at Saturnalia - wall painting from Pompeii (Wikipedia)

Dice players at Saturnalia – wall painting from Pompeii (Wikipedia)

The winter solstice is the point in the year when the day is at its shortest. The sun rises at its furthest south, and rises in roughly the same place for three days, hence the name “solstice”, meaning “Sun stands still”.

When I was a kid, I was told that ancient pagans used to light bonfires on top of hills at the winter solstice because they feared that the sun would not return after the longest night. I don’t know if there is any truth in this idea, but I remember finding it thrilling.

The Anglo-Saxons called the festival Yule; the Old Norse word was jól.

The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). It has been speculated that the word means “turning point”, but the etymology is unclear.

Yule customs and symbols

The exchange of gifts comes from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. People gave small gifts to their dearest friends, and larger gifts to others, as a sign of the inversion of normality that was part of the festival. The giving of gifts at Christmas was suppressed by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.

Bringing greenery into the house is also Roman in origin (Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton).

The origins of the Yule log are lost in the mists of time, but it probably dates back to ancient Germanic paganism.

Carolling may originally have been a round dance with singing, but the first specifically Christmas hymns for Christians appeared in fourth century Rome.

Wassailing, on the other hand, is much more ancient, and very likely to have pagan origins.

Feasting at Yuletide is definitely Pagan, and was actually discouraged by several Christian traditions.

A full list of Yule customs, and an explanation of their origins, can be found in the excellent Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton.

The idea of the birth of a child of light at the winter solstice is found in several mythologies – Mithras, Christ, Horus, Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus are all born at the winter solstice. The Romans referred to 25th December as Dies Natalis Sol Invictus (the birthday of the unconquered Sun).

The inner meaning of Yule

Saturn was syncretised with the Greek god Chronos, god of time and old age. Hence Saturnalia represents the old year, and the birth of the new sun god at the solstice represents the birth of the new year. That is why the old year is often depicted as an old man, and the new year as a baby.

For Pagans, the whole year is a cycle, and the movements of the Earth around the Sun, and the resulting changes in temperature and day length and vegetation (in short, the seasons) are a core part of Pagan festivals.

At Autumn Equinox, we begin the descent into winter. At Samhain, we meet the ancestors and the beloved dead. At Yule, the furthest point in the descent of the Sun, we begin to emerge from the creative and introspective phase of winter, and start thinking about the first stirrings of Spring. The sun represents the core aspect of the personality in many esoteric symbol-systems, and so its descent into the underworld represents a journey into our own subconscious, our own depths, to bring up fertile material to feed a time of creativity. Of course we know that the Sun doesn’t really descend into the underworld, but in many mythologies, that is where the sun god goes.

Yule is also a time for enjoyment; the harvest is over and done, there is little work to do in the dark time of the year, so it is time to feast, sing, dance, make merry, and kindle plenty of lights (to make up for the lack of sunshine, and to remind the sun that we would like it to start rising further north again!)

UPDATE: Excellent comment from P Sufenas Virius Lupus with corrections to the history of Roman solstice celebrations.