The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world.
Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives. Because of this, many ancient people had a great reverence for, and even worshipped, the sun.
The name ‘Yule’ actually comes from the pre-Christian festivities of Germanic tribes, and is believed to have been handed down to us from the ancient Norse in particular.
The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come. At mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.
Yule is a time of celebrating the return of the light. From this point forward, the days will gradually grow longer again, until we reach the height of the Sun’s power at the Summer Solstice. The waning half of the year is over, and warmth, growth, and light will reign again!
The significance of the Winter Solstice has been recognized for thousands of years, ever since human beings first observed the ever-changing patterns of sunrise and sunset over the course of the seasons.
Northern Hemisphere History
The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Persians all held festivals at this time, many of which celebrated the birth of one or more gods. Of course, the leaders of the early Christian church decided that this was a good time to celebrate the birth of Jesus as well, since one of their strategies for winning converts was to align their holidays with already-existing pagan festivals and the Roman Saturnalia. This happened in around the fourth century AD.
Southern Hemisphere History
I have also found that the winter Solstice (in June of course) was celebrated by ancient cultures in the Southern Hemisphere. On June 24, in time with the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, the Inca Empire celebrated Inti Raymi, a festival that honoured the Inca religion’s powerful sun god Inti and marked the Inca new year. The festival is still celebrated throughout the Andes, and since 1944, a reconstruction of Inti Raymi has been staged in Cusco, Peru, less than two miles from its Inca Empire home.
Back to Yule
And we have all heard of or eaten the chocolate Yule Log.
However, the Yule Log was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony. The largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room! The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been carefully stored away and slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was considered important that the re-lighting process was carried out by someone with clean hands. Nowadays, of course, most people have central heating so it is very difficult to burn a tree!
The custom of the Yule Log spread all over Europe and different kinds of wood are used in different countries. In England, Oak is traditional; in Scotland, it is Birch; while in France, it’s Cherry. Also, in France, the log is sprinkled with wine, before it is burnt, so that it smells nice when it is lit.
In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people have a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This comes from a local legend that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were very cold, when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn to keep them warm.
This is known as the Ashen Faggot.
Video of Dunster Ashen Faggot from 2015
Many Christmas Traditions Are ‘Borrowed’ From Yule
Many of the traditions we use at Christmas time today are borrowed from Yule traditions of old. Whether they’re from myths, feasts, folklore, ancient beliefs, oral stories told, or festivals, they’ve been woven into the fabric of our modern-day customs.
- The midwinter feast usually lasted 12 days.
- Vikings would decorate evergreen trees with gifts such as food, carvings, and food for the tree spirits to encourage them to return in the spring.
- Mistletoe, combined with a mother’s tears, resurrected her son, the God of Light and Goodness, in a Viking myth. The Celts believe Mistletoe possessed healing powers as well and would ward off evil spirits. The Druids held the mistletoe in great reverence in their ancient yule traditions, because of its mysterious birth. When the first new growth was discovered, it was gathered by the white-robed priests, who cut it from the main bough with a golden sickle never used for any other purpose.
- In Norse tradition, Old Man Winter visited homes to join the festivities. The Viking god, Odin, was described as a wanderer with a long white beard, and is considered the first Father Christmas.
- Viking children would leave their shoes out by the hearth on the eve of the winter solstice, with sugar and hay for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Children would traipse from house to house with gifts of apples and oranges, spiked with cloves and resting in baskets lined with evergreen boughs.
- The Celts believed the sun stood still during the winter solstice. They thought that keeping the Yule log burning for these 12 days encouraged the sun to move, making the days longer.
- The food peculiar to this season of rejoicing has retained many features of the feasting recorded among the ancient yule traditions of earlier people. The boar made his appearance in mythological circles and ancient yule traditions when one was offered as a gift to Frey, god of rain, sunshine, and the fruits of the earth.