Practical Paganism: Yule

Dates: December 21st – January 1st 
Observed by: Germanic peoples, Heathens, Neo-Pagans, Wiccans 
Practices: Bonfires, Yule Trees/Logs, Burning candles
Herbs and Plants: Evergreens, Holly, Mistletoe, Yew, Ivy, Frankincense Colors: Green, Red, Gold, Silver 

There are many theories on the origin of the term Yule ranging from Old Norse and Proto-Germanic to Old English. Records indicate that it was celebrated from modern day December to January.

Yule has roots in many European traditions making it difficult to determine which traditions stem from what specific regions. Germanic peoples made sacrifices and burned Yule logs. Druids venerated Evergreens as a symbol of life triumphing over death. Romans held a festival called Saturnalia in which they made sacrifices to the God of Saturn in the name of a coming golden age. 

While local traditions varied, the theme of rebirth was always a focus of the festivities. 

The Christian church would later appropriate the holiday season to create the 12 days of Christmas. The themes of rebirth would be retooled to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Celebration

Yule is the festival held to celebrate the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It varies yearly by a day; however, it is generally celebrated from the end of December to the start of January. This festival marks the darkest day of the year and the rebirth of the sun that occurs afterwards.

The Yule Log

The Yule log was a large log that was meant to be burnt in sections throughout the Yule season. The fire itself and the ashes from the fire were thought to convey a protective effect on the home. The modern day practice of lighting candles inset into a decorative log progressively over the 12 days of Christmas mimics the burning of the Yule log. 

The Yule Tree 

Druids venerated Evergreens because, unlike deciduous trees, they did not appear to die every season. This was thought to be a physical incarnation of the divine life. Originally live trees, particularly Evergreens, were decorated with omens of what they wished for in the next year including charms, coins, fruits, nuts, etcetera. The practice of cutting trees down to bring them inside was introduced later for the purpose of appeasing the beings inside them, such as the fae.

To incorporate this theme into our modern day myths and practices one could plant an Evergreen. However since Yule is not the ideal planting season for a tree one should start a sapling in a planter. Additionally we should abandon the practice of cutting down trees on a yearly basis. In 2017 alone Americans cut down 15,094,678 Christmas trees. 

Mistletoe

Phiny claims that the Druids would celebrate the season by sacrificing a white bull and engaging in mistletoe ceremonies. These ceremonies consisted of gathering under trees that mistletoe grew on while Druids cut the vines. Participants would catch the mistletoe as it fell to guarantee fertility. The roots of this tradition likely stem from the Germanic gods Baldur and Frigg. Mistletoe was also hung above doorways by Romans during Saturnalia.

Note: One should exercise caution if attempting to cultivate mistletoe. It is considered invasive in many places and can damage ecosystems due to its parasitic nature. 

Saturnalia

The Roman Saturnalia festival had many different practices; the most noted of which is the very different treatment of slaves for the duration of the festival. While accounts vary, it is clear that the slaves were, at the very least, allowed to dine with their masters. 

While this form of slavery is no longer practiced in our society en masse, there are forms of slavery that our society depends upon to continue to operate in it’s current state (such as prison labor). We must take time to reflect on this and work to help the less fortunate. 

Other practices during the Saturnalia festival included: legalized gambling, gift giving, and guising.

Conclusion 

On Samhain we thanked the Earth for the harvests of fall and prepared for the darkest days of the year. During Yule we celebrate the rebirth of the sun and the days getting longer once again. 

Suggested practices may include:

  • Planting an Evergreen 
  • Burning a Yule Log
  • Decorating a Yule Tree
  • Celebrating the return of the sun
  • Make a wassail
  • Hanging mistletoe
  • Making a wreath
  • Helping the less fortunate 
  • Playing games of chance

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