Anarchic Yule

Yule is a distinct festival, often overshadowed by its younger sibling, Christmas. If you’re a Pagan or have Pagan leanings, the chances are that everything you love about Christmas is actually because it’s a Yule thing. If you love the tree, the holly, the greenery being brought into the house, the feasting, and the reciprocity of thoughtful gift giving (as opposed to obligatory gift giving dictated by social norms), then you love Yule. Yule is not “Christmas with the serial numbers filed off”, and Christmas isn’t “Yule with added Baby Jesus”, Yule is far more exciting and wild and numinous than that.

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Pagan festivals

Pagan festivals (and traditional, Indigenous, Earth-based festivals around the world) are mostly about the cycles of the year. If you were a pastoralist, you had times when the sheep went up to the high pasture and times when they came down again. If you were a grower of crops, your cycle of festivals revolved around when you planted the crops and harvested them. There were times of plenty and times of hunger. Festivals marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another.

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An inclusive wheel of the year

Some versions of the Wheel of the Year (the eight festivals of Wicca and Druidry) can feel excluding, particularly those that focus on the God and the Goddess interacting through the cycle of the seasons. This mythological construct excludes both polytheists and LGBTQIA people. Some versions of the story are uncomfortable for feminists, as they don’t exactly promote consent culture. It is worth noting that the “cycle of the God and the Goddess” doesn’t appear in any early Gardnerian Books of Shadows (e.g. November Eve, 1949, February Eve, 1949, May Eve, 1949, August Eve, 1949). The solstices and equinoxes were added to the Wiccan year-wheel in the 1950s.

For all sorts of reasons, then, I prefer to go back to the original mythology and symbolism associated with the festivals.

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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.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

After the Longest Night

Rising Sun over national park scenic by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Last night I observed the solstice and kept vigil with two different groups of people. In one, we celebrated a simple ritual drama where the waning sun of the old year was transformed into the waxing sun of the new. The other was an informal, all-night gathering where the group committed to having at least one person awake at all times to tend the fire, ensuring that the sun would rise again in the morning. My night was full of hugs and kisses, homemade soup and bread, and gifts of chestnuts and blessed gold coins. An old friend led singing with his guitar, and we giggled our way through carols and folk-rock essentials, making up new harmonies and sometimes coming together in moments of soaring beauty.

The world didn’t end yesterday: at least, not in a different way than it usually does. But the winter solstice always offers opportunities for reflection on the year that’s passing away, and a reorientation to the future — at least, if we don’t let the hustle and bustle of secular holiday culture overwhelm us. I feel blessed to be part of communities that focus on love and relationship, music and meaning during this delicate time of turning.

My friend Grove Harris says that at the solstice, paradigm shifts are possible. This morning, I’ve awoken refreshed, full of plans for the year ahead. May ’13 be a lucky number for us all!