Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanza aren’t the only holidays celebrated in the winter time. Yule is a midwinter festival celebrated by Germanic people, a celebration to the Norse God, Odin and a Pagan holiday called Modraniht. It revolves around thanking the Gods and Goddesses for what you have as well as celebrating nature and its changes.
Webster’s dictionary has Yule defined as an “archaic term for Christmas.” Yule, also known as Yuletide, does have many commonalities to Christmas. That can probably be attributed to the fact that Yule is the archetype for the popular holiday. Yule is celebrated for twelve days, starting on the Winter Solstice. A holiday celebrated for twelve days, now where have I heard that before? During the twelve days of Yule, crops are harvested to make a meal, trees are decorated with pinecones, foliage, and candles and gifts are exchanged with love ones. The Yule Log is also decorated with candles and berries which gets placed on an altar. Ringing any sleigh bells yet?
When Yule became the Christian holiday Christmas, anyone who didn’t believe in Christ was labeled a Pagan. Taoism, Satanism, Buddhism and Wicca are all considered Pagan religions. Since there is a negative connotation associated with pagans, they were called witches and the centuries old misconception that witches are evil is still prevalent today; even in woke 2017.
After coming to an understanding about what Yule is; I began to ponder something else, “What is Yule like now and how is it celebrated?” To find out, I interviewed two local Wiccans, Amanda W of Germantown, Tiffany P of South Philly, along with a local practitioner of witchcraft, Wendi M, about Yule and what the holiday means to them.
What are the holidays like for you and your family?
Amanda: I practice alone so holidays are normal with my family. In my own house I plan to do my own rituals and such.
Tiffany: I am the only Wiccan in my family, so I spend it mostly just in my own company. Holidays are peaceful and very meaningful to me. Wiccan holidays have taught me to find beauty and comfort within my own solidarity.
Wendi: My husband is a nurse, so he is usually working on the actual holidays that most Americans celebrate; and since our “Holy Days” can fall on different dates each year, we just go with the flow and try not to get stressed out. So, we use the entire month of December to share with our families and friends. I decorate for the season and listen to Tori Amos’ “Midwinter Graces” and Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” almost exclusively. I try to remain creative rather than to hibernate. For several years, we hosted a Yule Salon at our home in Jersey City. Each guest would bring a potluck dish and a piece of art or music to share. This year, I’m starting a very small Full Moon Circle in my home, for just a few people I know personally and trust working magick with. Maybe this time next year, there will be a little baby coven!
Can you describe to me in your own words what Yule/Winter Solstice means to you?
Amanda: The winter solstice is probably the most popular pagan holiday. I don’t have traditional Wiccan beliefs, I just kind of do my own thing, whatever feels right and serves my highest good. I don’t ever celebrate anything too intensely, I’m simple.
Tiffany: Yule is the celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun as this day marks the longest day when the hours of daylight are at the least, where the Goddess once again becomes the Great Mother and gives birth to the new Sun King. Because it is a celebration of light, this is a day of lighting candles, using bonfires and surrounding yourself with solar symbols. Bring light back into your home and your life. Many western based cultures refer to this day as Christmas but most of the customs, lore, symbols, and rituals associated with Christmas are linked to Winter Solstice celebrations of ancient Pagan cultures.
Wendi: There’s sort of a few separate-but-intertwining stories regarding the Winter Solstice’s mystical purposes and they all involve life, death, and rebirth. They’re also kind of confusing and vague. Astronomically, it is the longest night in the year. It is also, however, when we start seeing more daylight. So, it is a celebration of being in the middle of winter, but knowing the days will get longer again soon.
Are there any rituals, family traditions, certain foods you eat for this holiday?
Amanda: Baking festive foods help put me in the spirit! I do a few rituals and spells, usually using candles, crystals, incense, sage, etc. The most important thing is making your intentions clear or else it could have negative consequences. This time of year, is about reflecting on the past year and being thankful for all that’s happened, and looking towards the coming year and focusing on what you want to manifest.
Tiffany: My normal rituals are spent in praying to Demeter for a safe and short winter, on taking time to cleanse and de-clutter my spaces, and burn a yule log. Foods normally consumed are cornbread, plum pudding, and buttered rum. Normally after dinner I turn off all the lights and think about what the return of the sun means to me in silence before lighting all candles again to welcome back the sun.
Wendi: They have their similarities with Christmas traditions, though we are vegetarian in our home, so we don’t do the turkey or ham that is common. I would say the main difference is in our home altars: we have one set up all the time for our ancestors, passed-on loved ones, and beloved pets. We decorate that with the things they loved in life about the holidays. For example, my great-grandmother smoked cigarettes and loved chocolate liquors; I might buy her a pack of Benson & Hedges and set out some cherry cordials. We also have an altar dedicated to the Native Americans who used to live on this land. At this time, and at every turn of the Wheel, we honor those who lived here before us, the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware tribes. So, we might put out gourds, squash, beans, corn, cornmeal, tobacco, coffee, with figures made of corn husks for the Spirits of the land to enjoy. Then our personal altars are decorated with greenery and herbs of the northeastern winter season, including pinecones, hazelnuts, cranberries, and of course mistletoe! My family is Irish and Welsh, so I make lots of dishes with potatoes currently. My husband just started pickling and making relish for this year’s gift-giving.
Lastly, do you exchange gifts?
Amanda: Yes, I usually buy a present for my closest friends and my immediate family.
Tiffany: I have only recently last year started to exchange gifts for yule, and since I have no Wiccan friends to share with, I just normally give my close friends candles to brighten up the dark months.
Wendi: We do exchange one or two gifts, but it isn’t compulsory, and we stay away from materialistic purchases. We usually hand make these gifts instead of going out shopping. We make jams or preserves; magickal soaps, salts, sugar scrubs, washes, perfumed anointing oils; jewelry, altar items… it’s another way to share our “craft” and to be thoughtful in what we choose to give.
As you can see, Yule is another holiday filled with love, family and friends. It’s about be thankful for what you have, giving to others, and cherishing each other. Though you may not see any Yule commercials, or cheesy movies, it’s still a holiday that coincides with the more mainstream ones. So, the next time you hear a Christmas song with the word “Yule” or see a Yule log, think about Yuletide; the archetype of Christmas.