The Pagans celebrate a number of different festivals throughout the year, but none have quite the cultural history that Yule does.
Traditional Celtic, Nordic and European cultures structured their lives around an agricultural calendar which modern pagans call The Wheel of the Year. It marks eight distinct seasonal celebrations; four fire festivals, two equinoxes and two solstices. The one we’re going to explore in this article is the Winter Solstice, which occurs around the 21st of December in the Northern Hemisphere and June 22nd in the South.
In the Scandinavian and Germanic countries, Christmas is still called Jule (pronounced Yule) and indeed, a lot of what we know to be traditions of Christmas are far more pagan in their origins than Christian. After all, the church had to try and sell a new mainstream religion to a society which had ingrained generational practices they would not easily forego.
The actual time of the birth of Jesus (that a historical person existed is actually supported by documentation, whether he was the Christ incarnate is open to speculation) is unknown but a lot of theologians estimate it was probably in March, so why was it amalgamated with the winter solstice?
That has a lot to do with the main theme of the festival; The Return of the Sun.
A lot of people would expect that a celebration marking the shortest day and longest night of the year would be about death, however it is the exact opposite. The solstice marks a turning point from the darkest days of the year, to a time when the sun starts to come back and warm the earth once more.
This fits into a lot of myths similar to the Christ story, such as the legend of King Arthur. A lot of people had faith that when things were at their darkest, a leader would be born who carries an eternal light which can guide people out of it. At the winter solstice pagans believe that a Child of Light is released from the darkness of a cave and he’s known as Mabon.
Mabon is also a separate celebration of the Autumn Equinox and the legend goes that the Child of Light is born at this time, but is stolen away and seconded in a dark cave. His mother grieves for him and the earth withers in response, rather like the legend of Persephone and Demeter from Greek mythology. Eventually she finds him and he is released at the time of Yule.
For an agricultural society, seasons and their timing were of vital importance and they looked to the skies for patterns they could recognise in order to keep track. As part of this, standing stones were often built in alignment with the solstices and large gatherings would be held to mark those auspicious events.
We know a lot about the celebration of winter solstice thanks to Stonehenge.
In recent years archaeologists have examined the isotopes in pig bones over 4000 years old found at various settlement sites surrounding Avebury and Stonehenge. They discovered that all the bones in question were killed at a specific time of the year, namely the middle of winter. They also discovered that those pigs had lived all their lives in various areas of the British Isles as far away as the north of Scotland. They concluded that people of the Neolithic in Britain would muster their excess livestock, take them all the way to Salisbury Plain, slaughter them and enjoy a large feast in celebration of the winter solstice.
What makes them think it was specifically held on the solstice? Because even to this day the stones perfectly mark the rising and setting suns of both the winter and summer solstices. In the winter solstice, the sun will set in direct alignment with the south-west trilithon and it will rise again directly in the middle of the south-east trilithon. The alignment is so perfect it still baffles scholars to this day as to how they did it.
The main reason why livestock were slaughtered in large numbers at this time of year was to put less pressure on feeding them from grain and hay stores. All they really needed were the good breeding stock, especially the pregnant animals, in order to replenish their numbers in the coming spring. Again, there was a lot of practical consideration for agricultural needs behind a lot of the festivals.
Asides from the livestock management side of Yule, there was a lot of symbolism in plants which have carried over into Christmas, where their meaning is a bit obscured.
Evergreen plants were venerated at this time of year because it was generally so bleak and lifeless. Coniferous plants, holly and mistletoe featured as decoration in the home as symbols of hope for the return of life to the land. Holly in particular symbolises the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King for supremacy of the wheel of the year. At the summer solstice the Holly King is triumphant and the world descends into the dark half of the year, then at the winter solstice the Oak King is victorious and virility is restored.
The Oak King is also sometimes portrayed as the Green Man and both Holly and Oak Kings can be considered split personalities of the horned god, Cernunnos.
Male fertility is a recurring theme in Yule and you may be surprised to know what kissing under the mistletoe actually means. This information will either put you off doing it, or spur you on…
For the druids, mistletoe was a plant associated with divine male fertility because it resembles… issue. That is, it hangs from the boughs of trees like god-jizz.
Being a plant which grows from above the ground after being excreted by birds and forming a parasitic attachment to a host tree, it was considered to be sent from the heavens and so retrieving it was a ceremony in and of itself. The High Druid would climb the host tree and cut down the mistletoe with a golden sickle. This represented the feminine deity (the moon goddess) harvesting the seed of the god in order to create new life. Kissing underneath the bough of a tree laden with mistletoe was believed to bring fertility to the couple and make the man more potent.
Another tradition was the Yule Log. This was the largest possible log a household could find, and outdoor fires were not a thing at this celebration, so it had to fit the family hearth whilst also lasting a full 12 days of burning.
The ritual goes that in the lead-up to Yule the log would have pride of place on the family table where it would receive sprinklings of libations (alcohol) along with wishes for the season ahead. On the evening of the solstice it would be lit from a piece saved from last year’s log and then kept burning for 12 days which ended up about the 1st of January. At that point a piece would be saved for the next year.
This ceremony was believed to bring plenty of food, good fortune and warmth to the household for the rest of the year.
Very little has changed about a lot of the traditions we now associate with Christmas, especially the feasting. Whether a pagan is marking this event in December or June, the most important thing is to gather friends and family together for a good time when the season can be at its bleakest.
Traditional foods are roast meats (especially pigs and ducks), fermented vegetables, starchy goods, preserved fruit, nuts and… booze! For a real winter warmer, try making a mulled wine or mulled cider to go with whatever feast you have planned.