A Yuletide Celebration

by Tracey Couto


Toll the ancient Yuletide carol …

It’s December once again and the joyous holiday season is upon us once more. This is the time of year when many people around this great big world decorate trees, sing Christmas carols, sip eggnog and exchange gifts with their family and friends. Many call this holiday season by the name of Christmas, but others, especially those in the neo-pagan community, call it Yule. It is said that many of the Christmas traditions celebrated today actually originated from ancient pagan rituals of Yule.

The word Yule derives from the Norse language, and the pre-Christian Scandinavian Feast of Juul was dedicated to the Scandinavian god Thor. Similar celebrations took root in Celtic lands when the festival cycle revolved around nature and the pagan people’s seasons of planting and harvesting.

In that cycle, as reinterpreted by modern Pagans and Wiccans, Yule is one of the eight Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year and is celebrated at the winter solstice, the time of greatest darkness, on December 21st. The rebirth of the Sun God from the Goddess is celebrated, not unlike the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ the savior from the Virgin Mary. Both kings are believed to save the world from death, and are honored at this time of year. At Yule, a few days before Christmas, the celebration of the Sun’s return begins at sunset and carries on throughout the longest night.

In ancient times, people feasted and lit bonfires in the fields, gathering around and toasting with spiced cider in celebration of the rebirth of the Sun. In Yule traditions over the years, children were escorted to each home carrying apples spiked with cloves that symbolized the Sun and its return in one hand, and corn dollies in the other, singing carols. Homes were decorated inside and out with holly, mistletoe and ivy, which represented fertility and everlasting life. Fertility rites were performed under the mistletoe and gifts were exchanged.

The highlight of the festivities was the lighting of the ceremonial Yule log cut from an ash tree and lit from a piece of last year’s log. Before being ceremonially lit, the Yule log was placed within a hearth decorated in the fine greenery of the season, then splashed with ale or cider and sprinkled with flour, and finally, a wish was made upon it. The log was burned for 12 hours to symbolize the hope and belief that the Sun would indeed return, and to ensure good luck. It was left to smolder for 12 days before being ceremonially put out, much like the 12 days of Christmas celebrated and sung about today. (The 12 days of Christmas last from Christmas until the Epiphany, the celebration of the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus at Bethlehem, traditionally celebrated January 6.)

Yule night was about introspection and making plans for the future. It was a time to tie up loose ends, put an end to problems, and heal the self. Magic was performed, riddles were posed and solved, renewal and rebirth rituals were practiced, and divination was used throughout the night. It was even believed that you could see the face of your true love in your dreams on winter solstice night. In later eras, the Yule log became less central to the celebration and the Yule tree, decorated with berries, cinnamon sticks, and candles representing the soon to be reborn Sun, came into fashion.

I always like to do a little ritual at Yule to clear out the old energies of the past year and make way for the one approaching. The weekend before Yule, I usually sort through all of my belongings and put the things I no longer need or use into a pile, and throw out the old success-hindering thought patterns, perceptions and notions along with it. This helps to make room for the positive energy and good fortune of the upcoming year. I then go about the house with a broom and sweep away the blocks and stresses of life along with the dirt and cobwebs. Then I put out my candles and Christmas decorations.

On the morning of Yule, I set up my altar by covering it with a green cloth and placing a symbolic Yule log on the north side. I then get out a white and a red candle, as well as a black one (to represent the darkness), and a yellow or gold one (to represent the Sun) and place them on the altar. If other people join in this ritual, each should have his or her own candles. I then decorate the altar with holly, ivy, mistletoe, poinsettias, pinecones, and ribbons of red and green. For incense or oil, I burn myrrh. About an hour before the ritual, I steal away from people and modern-day conveniences, light some candles and silently reflect on the year that has passed. At sunset, I begin the ritual given to me a few years ago by a fellow “Knowflake” from the discussion forums, Mermaid, that I will share with you now.

The Ritual

Begin by taking a few deep and cleansing breaths and a moment of silence to reflect on how the winter solstice has been celebrated across time and cultures. Write a note of intent for this ritual on a piece of paper and add it to the altar.Then turn off all the lights in the house to simulate the darkest time of the year. Start at the opposite end and work your way back towards the altar, turning everything off as you go.

Focus on the energy of the season. Feel the darkness around you; recognize the power of creation found in the darkness. Say quietly:

      Tonight is the winter solstice
      The night that we celebrate Yule.
      Tonight is the longest night of the year
      The night when darkness will rule.

Pause for a moment to feel the energy pulsating around you. Then say:

      But on this night, light will return
      And turn the dark to light once more.

Now, one at a time light the candles and say:

      White I light for the Maiden,
      Red I light for the Mother,
      Black I light for the Crone.
      Maiden, Mother, Wise Old Woman
      Dance within my Sacred Circle

Now gaze at the flames. See the energy of each aspect of the Goddess, present for the birth of the Sun Child.

Take the yellow or gold candle in your hands and empower it with the energy of the Sun Child, he who is born in the dark of the winter to bring the promise of spring and rebirth. When you feel the candle pulsate with power, light it from the black candle. Place the Sun Child’s candle beside the black candle. Feel the mystery of life from death and say:

      Since Midsummer the Wheel has turned
      Bringing us into the dark time.
      But tonight the dark ends.
      It is Yule, the winter solstice.
      And from here the days will get longer
      The Sun will start to grow stronger
      Winter’s hold will be loosened
      And soon spring will come back.

Extinguish the black candle. Allow the Sun Child’s candle to glow brightly and know that, although the darkness is still prominent, the light will grow ever stronger from this day forward. Say:

      The Wheel is turning
      The light is returning!

Now is the time for meditation, divination and any spell workings of your choosing. Spells associated with Yule include those for peace, harmony, love, and happiness. I myself like to do a nine-card tarot reading: three cards for the past, three for the present and three for the future, and ask the Goddess for her advice and insights to the coming year while I shuffle the cards. When I am finished, I thank her for sharing her wisdom and write down my reading for later reference.

When you are ready turn all the lights back on. I mean ALL the lights. Every light in every room should be turned on to drive away all the darkness and shadows. Then return to the altar and say:

      Winter is a time of darkness,
      But it doesn’t last forever.
      It is only a stop on the Wheel
      And soon the Wheel will turn again
      And bring us back to spring.
      This is the lesson the Earth teaches us,
      That no matter how dark it gets
      The light always returns.
      The night will always end
      And a new day begin.

Extinguish the other candles, excepting the orange one. As you do so say:

      May the light of the Yule candles
      Burn in our hearts
      All throughout the winter
      And through the coming year.
      Blessings of the Season on us all.

Then bid farewell to the Goddess, thanking her for bringing forth the light of the God. Keep the Sun Child’s candle burning alone on the altar as you meditate on the power of creation. Extinguish the Sun Child’s candle when your meditation is over. This candle should be lit every night at the same time from Yule until January 6 to ensure luck and to encourage the return of the Sun’s light. As you light it, utter the area of most need over it.

It is tradition to feast on cakes and mulled wine at the conclusion of this ritual. Yule is also about gifts. If there is more than one of you taking part in the ritual you could buy each other a small gift. If it is just you, perhaps you could treat yourself to a small gift of something you have wanted. The gifts should be opened at the end of the ritual.

Grains and seeds, and the feeding of creatures, have been associated with Yuletide holidays for hundreds of years in Europe. It is also tradition over the next 12 days to scatter some sunflower seeds in your garden (or other outdoors place) for birds or small wild animals. This is a way of saying “Thank you” to nature.

I hope you enjoy the ritual as much as I do. Have a wonderful Yule and a very happy and prosperous New Year, everyone.