Yule is a naturally sacred time, especially if you reach back to its simple yet profound seasonal origins. The three traditional rites come from the reality of long and dark Northern winters — lack of greenery, lack of light and lack of warmth.
Yuletide or Wintertide are ancient names for the season of the Sun’s rebirth at Winter Solstice. This happens around December 21st, but sometimes a day before or after.
The sight of verdant green was a tonic for the winter weary. And it’s a merry reminder that though most of nature is in its dead-phase, Spring will come again.
One of my own traditions this time of year is to take fragrant tree trimmings from the big box hardware store. This is a budget-minded way to deck the halls, and the stores usually have a box of branches, where you’ll see other frugal decorators.
You’re familiar with the evergreens of Christmastime, like the Fraser Fir, holly, and the aphrodisiac mistletoe. Other greens of the season are rosemary, bay, ivy and yews.
I learned from Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun book on the ritual year, that Yule had traditional rites of purification and blessing. One that stood out is the Scottish Highlands tradition of the burning of the shrub juniper, as part of a “saining” ritual to protect the home and barn animals from “trows” (trolls).
The description reminds me of today’s smudging with sage, since, writes Hutton, it involved “all openings being stuffed to hold in the acrid smoke, as a literal and spiritual fumigation.”
So bring some green into your realm this season, as a reminder that like nature, you’re able to regenerate, and be reborn with the new Sun.
Torchlight processions are incredible sights, and recently seen in Europe with the re-invigoration of ethnic identity. In more recent times, on the Shetland Islands, the Yule tradition was for men to carry torches, and pull a Viking long boat to the water, and then set it on fire.
Winter is known as the Season of Lights, and so many rites are to do with lighting candles. One of my favorite things as a child were the luminaria lit all along our neighborhood. In those totally unsupervised days of the 1970s and 80s, we actually created small blazes with them, and then stamped them out.
St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries has the lovely tradition of wearing a candle wreath or girls dressed in white carrying candles.
The long nights really bring out that instinct to light candles or sit by the fire. Why not quiet down, unplug and spend some time staring into the eternal flame. All you need is a candle, and the will to disconnect from the artificial flickering lights of our time.
This could signify the beginning of a new year drawing more from your internal light, than from outer input. And it could be a symbolic reminder of the deep natural background rhythm and solar year that’s always there, under the artifice.
The Yule Log harkens back to the days of the old-fashioned open hearth. They would pick one big enough for the whole day of feasting and reunion.
The need for warmth makes us think of those in need, and traditionally it was a time for neighborly charity. Wassailing comes from a Anglo-Saxon that translates to “be thou hale,” as in hale and hearty.
To go wassailing was go around to the wealthy, like the landlord in feudal England, and offer wassail from the bowl, in exchange for gifts. They would sing songs, or carols….and carolers are the remnant of that tradition.
The generosity would extend to the orchard, where cider would be spritzed on the trees, and wishes conveyed for protection and a good harvest.
There are many ways to be generous to other people, to animals or other growing things, and not all of them require a credit card. What is yours?
Winter Nights – When Does Yule Begin?
Does Yule begin when the Sun is more fully in its waning, after the Solstice?
The Venerable Bede was a chronicler of Anglo-Saxon customs, and wrote in 730 AD of a great feast on December 24th called Modranicht, or Mother Night. But was that the already-Christianized date?
Seana Fenner of Odinia.org writes on Yule that, “Our Nordic ancestors reckoned ritual dates in terms of nights rather than days, and celebrated in advance of the day in question, and Yuletide in particular is thought of as a series of sacred nights, as we can see, for example, in the case of the still surviving Heathen German greeting, ‘Fröhliche Weihnachten’. Weinachten means ‘sacred nights.'”
Seana makes the case that our Nordic ancestors would not have celebrated the day when the Sun “stood still” at solstice. They would’ve waited until it was on the move, turning, she writes, toward “light, warmth and fertility.” She notes that King Hakon I of Norway moved the Yule dates up 3 days to coincide with Christmas.
Seana writes, “The Winter Solstice is the beginning of what was, for our ancestors, an adventure of the spirit and a trial of nature, followed by rejoicing.”
This makes sense to me, as there’s a deep hush at Solstice, that I find is a more inward, contemplative setting. The upside then is enjoying an extended season that mirrors the Sun’s stillness, and then its motion.
In Closing – Happy Yule!
In mid-1800s England, there was a renewal of celebrations to do with Christmas, as a time of protecting children, and childhood innocence.
That is a noble pursuit in our time, and it begins with bringing our annual rites back in line with nature and the purifying Sun. If you keep it simple with greening, lights and warmth, there could be new traditions that roll out from those essential seasonal markers.
However you celebrate this turning point of the Sun, I hope it’s a merry and meaningful one!