The holiday of Yule takes place on the winter solstice, the shortest day and the darkest night of the year. On the calendar the date is December 21, but this year the actual solstice falls today (the general calendars found in stores don’t exactly pay attention to astrological or astronomical calendars and dates).
The Yule holiday celebrates the return of the God after His death at Samhain (secular: Halloween). The Goddess gives birth to the God, who is represented by the sun, after the Yule night has passed. And so the God is reborn from a virgin Goddess. Sound familiar? It’s a theme found in a number of other religious traditions, both the rebirth scenario and the virgin birth.
One of the old traditions of Yule was lighting candles and leaving lights on through the night to lure back the sun in the morning. In ancient times, the winter was harsher than it is for us now. Those people didn’t have heating other than their fire and the sun’s warmth in the daytime. Danger was everywhere, and the cold sapped strength and happiness from people’s souls. On the longest night of the year, people hoped the sun would return the next morning but they didn’t necessarily have any guarantee that it would–they didn’t have science to tell them that the sun would still be there, would still burn, even after the longest night. Some of the more advanced cultures, such as the ancient Greeks, did have some astronomical knowledge, and the solstice celebrations were symbolic rather than factual, while for other cultures the ceremonies were factual rather than symbolic. Leaving lights or flames on through the night provided hope to the people and lured back the sunlight.
Other traditions of Yule include wreaths, trees, giving gifts, and bells. Wreaths are symbolic of the Wheel of the Year because there is no beginning or end to the wreath, just as the Wheel of the Year has no beginning or end. The hanging of wreaths on Yule is a Scandinavian tradition, for whom Yule was also the new year. The wreaths were made from winter plants, pinecones, berries, even twigs to add stability. Trees, a prevalent and favorite tradition in modern culture, originated in a number of areas, including Germany, Scandinavian countries, and from the Celts. The evergreen trees they brought inside symbolized the hope for the sun’s returning influence on the earth, turning the earth green again every spring after the solstice, and the eternal aspect of the Goddess, as evergreens do not die like deciduous trees do.
Bells come from the Norse who used them to frighten away the powers of darkness and any dark influences that come to the fore on the darkest night of the year, and also used bells to welcome the dawn and the sun on Yule morning. We still use bells today through the images of sleigh bells and jingle bells. Gift giving, a VERY popular tradition today, was a tradition of counteracting the darkness and harshness of those ancient winters, of lifting the spirits and having something to celebrate and find joy in when the world around them was dark and depressing.
Ways to celebrate the Yule holiday include: meditation on the previous year and the coming year, meditation on the meaning of the holiday, celebrating with friends and family, lighting candles in honor of the sun, decorating a Yule (Christmas) tree, and if you can manage it, stay up all night and wait for the dawn and the glorious rising of the ancient sun that has seen so many Yules.