Here Comes The Sun! Wishing You a Blessed Yule.
The winter solstice of 2015 will occur in the United States on December 21 at 11:48 pm, Eastern Time. This is a cause for celebration! It means the return of light, longer days, more sunshine, and relief for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Plus, you get to enjoy all the lovely, fantastic light displays which I hope are gracing your neighborhood and your home!
What exactly is the winter solstice? It marks the longest night, and the shortest day of the year. In scientific terms this means the earth is now angled at the farthest point away from the sun. (To clarify, I am speaking of the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere now celebrates the summer solstice, exactly the opposite. All the Aussies down under have been enjoying summer as we in the north have been shriveling away. Now we switch!) The northern hemisphere will gradually move closer and closer towards the sun as the year goes on.
In Pagan terms, the winter solstice is called Feast of Yule, and is part of the calendar of eight that divides the wheel of the year. This is, in effect, the Pagan New Year. Yule was a big deal among our ancestors. They worshipped the sun. Of course they did! What else can give such enormous sustenance of life? When the sun began gradually disappearing in the autumn, our ancestors panicked. The sun was their livelihood and surely they would die without it. However, careful observation taught them; the sun started its decline with the summer solstice in June, and by mid December it was at its weakest. Ancient Pagans learned to trust and rely on its return. Some archeologists believe that structures like Stonehenge were built as temples and designed to catch specific angles of sun light.
The original name of Yule was ‘Juul’, so-named by the pre-Christian Scandinavians. The Scandinavians, as you can imagine, had many reasons to celebrate the return of the sun, living in 24 hour winter darkness as they did. The Scandinavian winter solstice was celebrated by lighting great bonfires, which symbolized the sun and called for its return. There was a custom of cutting a huge log from the forest which was brought to the hearth to honor the Norse god Thor. The Juul or Yule log was then burned for 12 days. In medieval times Christians began celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, which is really a remnant of this Norse custom. (More on that later.)
In Celtic tradition, it is believed that the Oak King or the Green Man is reborn to replace the Holly King as ruler of the forest.
The Oak King and the Holly King are thought to be dual aspects of the Horned God, each aspect ruling for ½ of the year. The young Oak King, as new ruler, will warm the earth as the days grow longer. Astrologically, December 21st marks the beginning of the month of Capricorn, the Goat, also a representation of the Horned God. ‘Saturnalia’ was another ancient Pagan festival celebrated at this time. The sign of Capricorn is ruled by the planet Saturn.
In Greek mythology, the Horned God can be represented as Dionysius, Pan and Robin Goodfellow. (Or anyone who happens to have hoofs!) And yes, in case you are noticing a pattern here — horns, hoofs — the goat was given a bad reputation. Completely undeserved!
The ancient Celts also celebrated Yule by lighting bonfires. Apples and other fruits were made into ‘wassail’, a hot punch seasoned with cloves. The tradition of ‘wassailing’ meant going from house to house and singing songs for the neighbors. Your pay was then a refill of punch. This eventually morphed into the tradition of Christmas caroling.
The Celts decorated their homes with evergreen, holly, ivy and mistletoe. Evergreen, which never died, was a symbol of immortality. Holly, ivy and mistletoe were symbols of fertility. In the 19th century, Victorians began the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
This, of course, is ironic, because the Victorians were known for their chastity. Just goes to show you – everything is the opposite of what it appears to be 🙂
Yule, like many other Pagan holidays, was assimilated into Christian culture. It is interesting how this happened. In case you don’t know I will explain it: Sometime around the 4th century, Emperor Constantine, who basically ruled the world, decided to convert the Roman Empire (which was then all of Europe and the U.K.) to Christianity. The Christian Church decided to conveniently place the birth of Christ on December 25th, a few days after the beginning of Yule. That way, they did not upset the apple cart too much. People were already celebrating.
I have heard many modern-day bible scholars insist that NO WAY was Jesus born in December! They apparently have scientific methods of calculating this. I have been told that proof is the fact that shepherds were out and about on the night of Christ’s birth, and shepherds cannot be out and about in December. Way too cold. However, December 25th was the day Constantine chose, and so it was. After all, he was the Emperor! Who could argue?
I should note – Pagans celebrated the return/ rebirth of the SUN – whereas the Christians began celebrating the birth of the SON (Jesus Christ, son of god.) See what they did there? Clever. English and many Germanic languages have this similarity.
Medieval and Renaissance Europeans also celebrated the twelve days of Christmas. This was an exchange of gifts which began on December 26th and ended on January 6th (which was also called Twelfth Night. Yes, yes! Shakespeare wrote a play called Twelfth Night, but that is another topic for another blog!) Thus, the original Pagan custom of burning the Yule log for twelve days became the Christian custom of the twelve days of Christmas.
Sometime in the 18th century, they published a song about the Twelve Days of Christmas, something involving a partridge in a pair tree, etc… You may have heard it.
The 6th of January, or Twelfth Night, became known as the Feast of Three Kings. It was believed that it was on this day the Magi first arrived to visit the Christ child. (Which, some bible scholars argue, was actually impossible, because Jesus was not born in December.)
Other celebrations occurring at this time of year include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. In Judaic tradition, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple. It is also a festival of light, which involves daily lighting the eight candle Menorah. Kwanzaa is a pan-African festival which celebrates family and community. During Kwanzaa’s seven day duration, the seven candle ‘kinara’ is lit. Iranians celebrate the ancient Yalda, or Shab-e Chelleh (‘night of forty’ the ‘longest and darkest night of the year’.) Families gather together to eat traditional foods, stay up past midnight and read poetry.
No matter which holiday you celebrate, the return of the sun is a sacred time of year.
What can you do to celebrate Yule in modern times? If you do not have a fireplace for a Yule log, try burning some incense. Pine or cedar would be great. Use scented candles, colored red and green. Cinnamon will make your home smell delicious! Give gifts of apples and oranges, which symbolize the sun. Hang sprigs of mistletoe and holly berry, boughs of evergreen or a wreath, which represents the circle of life. If you cannot get to Stonehenge, create your own stone circle. Use colorful stones; green aventurine for prosperity, red carnelian for health, and quartz crystals to magnify your power and desires!
Meditate with music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbltFs7G8UQ
If you are really ambitious, try your hand at a traditional wassail punch.
Whatever you do, enjoy this winter season, and Blessed Be!