The winter solstice, Yule, is rapidly approaching. Many Pagans celebrate Yule, and while I was researching the holiday, I wondered where the traditions came from. I knew a few things, such as that the Yule log and wassailing came from Norse culture. But when I researched more, I found out that Yule is an amalgamation of several cultures, from Roman to Egyptian to modern-day Christmas.
This post is an exploration of modern-day Yule. I’ll go into the history of where certain celebrations came from and how they gathered to create the holiday. Then, I’ll discuss how you can celebrate Yule today.
NOTE: For this post, I will call ancient Pagans “Pagans” and modern Pagans “NeoPagans.” I don’t usually do this, but I’m making an exception for clarity.
The Ancient Germanic Jól
The first written record of Yule we have comes from fourth-century Germany. During that time, the Yule festival began after the first day of autumn. In the tenth century, Haakon the Good of Norway shortened Yule to 12 days at the end of the year. The ancient calendar did not encompass 365 days, so the 12 “extra” days became the celebration.
The word Yule comes from the Old Norse jól and Old English ġēol. It was pretty clearly a Pagan holiday. One name for Odin, jólfaðr, literally means “Yule Father.” The holiday celebrated the winter solstice, and it was a time to make oaths, such as marriages and rulership.
The Old Norse practiced a form of trick-or-treating on Yule. Children would ask their neighbors for treats such as figgy pudding. For dinner, communities would traditionally eat boar (ham), wine, and nog.
In the Middle Ages, people practiced wassailing. It was similar to Christmas caroling where people would sing at neighbors’ doorsteps with a wassail bowl. The bowl was filled with some kind of drink, usually cider, wine, or ale blended with honey and spices. They offered their drink in return for gifts.
Ancient Pagans also believed that the trees slept through autumn. During Yule, they would pick orchards and lay them near trees to “wake them up.” Mistletoes were considered to be sacred and a symbol of Freya. If they spotted a mistletoe, the ancients would let it fall onto a white cloth. Then, they would give parts of the mistletoe to each household to ward off evil.
The Yule Log
The Yule log is perhaps the most well-known holiday tradition. And no, we’re not talking about the French dessert. We’re talking about a log that is burned throughout Yuletide. Today, NeoPagans often decorate logs and place candles in them in honor of the tradition.
For the ancient Norse, however, the Yule log was an entire tree. Communities would take great care to choose a sacred tree to chop down. After cutting off the branches, they would haul the trunk into a long hallway. Instead of lighting the entire tree on fire, they only lit the end. Over time, the ancients would push the trunk into the fire, burning the entire thing throughout the 12 days of Yule. In Holland, Pagans gathered the tree’s ashes and placed them under their bed for protection.
The Roman Festival Saturnalia
The ancient Romans had their own solstice festival, Saturnalia, which went from December 17th to December 23rd. There are many interesting facts about Saturnalia, but I’m going to focus on the factors that likely influenced modern-day Christmas and Yule.
Saturnalia is widely credited as the origin of “Christmas cheer.” The holiday was created to imitate the rule of the Titan Saturn (Cronos in Greek), who governed a golden age. During this time, the Romans practice “role reversal” where their usual societal rules did not matter. Slaves ate with their masters, wars would go on pause, and all political squabbles would cease.
Partying and gift-giving were huge aspects of Saturnalia. On December 19th, the Romans would give each other sigillaria, or gag-gifts. For regular gifts, children often received toys, and adults could get expensive gifts such as a farm animal. A common gift was a cerei, a wax candle that signified the sun returning after the solstice.
People decorated their homes with greenery and wore colorful clothes called synthesis during dinner.. Singing, dancing, gambling, and playing games were common celebrations, as well as large feasts. I’m sure that you can see the similarities between Saturnalia and modern-day Christmas/Yule.
The Ancient Egyptian Winter Solstice
The ancient Egyptians also celebrated the winter solstice. For them, the return of the sun was closely associated with their sun God, Horus. However, in the Middle Kingdom, this festival celebrated the births of five deities over five days: Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.
I want to address the common myth that Horus was born on December 25th. This is incorrect. According to Plutarch, Horus was born on the winter solstice, which can land between December 20th and December 22nd depending on the year. Although these dates are close, they should not be conflated.
The Egyptians frequently associated deities and pharaohs with the sun. They built their shrines so that the sun would rise in between two pillars on the solstice. They knew that they could not live without the sun and welcomed it back in winter.
The Mysterious Origin Of Christmas Trees
Although some NeoPagans say that Christmas trees were appropriated from Paganism, the truth is not so black-and-white. Historians still aren’t sure where the Christmas tree tradition began. However, we do know that ancients from several cultures decorated with evergreens.
The ancient Celts used to decorate temples with green boughs, the plant of the sun God, Baldr. The boughs symbolized everlasting lift and the return of the sun. The ancient Egyptians also placed greenery over doors and windows to ward off malicious spirits and illness.
So when did people start hauling trees indoors? Historians still aren’t sure. The first record of a decorated Christmas tree came from Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation. Luther reportedly came up with the idea to place candles near a tree after lights outside of his church.
Many historians believe that people were likely bringing trees indoors for many years before Martin Luther. Perhaps Luther was the first well-known figure to decorate a tree. But as for where Christmas trees come from, we’re not quite sure.
Did Christians Steal Christmas?
The claim that Christians stole Christmas from the Pagans is everywhere, especially in Pagan communities. I can’t talk about the history of Yule without addressing these accusations.
First off, the claim that December 25th came from the winter solstice is not entirely correct. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria claimed that Mary conceived Christ on March 25th (the same day as his future death). Therefore, Jesus was born nine months later, on December 25th.
When missionaries aimed to convert Pagan populations, this date came in handy. The most effect method of conversion was to take previous holidays, locations, and figures and change them from Pagan to Christian. Although Christmas was already being celebrated, it was close enough to the winter solstice that the celebration made sense to many Pagans.
In my opinion, the most common misconception about the Christian conversion is how long it took. Many people assume that conversation was quick; it wasn’t. Conversion took hundreds of years. In the Norse, Nordic, and Celtic countries, areas were constantly being taken over by Viking clans before returning to missionaries. So one area would become Pagan, then Christian, then Pagan again over hundreds of years.
This is why we see so many Pagan traditions blended into Christian ones. People took old Pagan celebrations, such as decorating with evergreens, and continued them with a different religion. On top of that, the government eventually became Christian, and it enforced how people should celebrate holidays.
Now, I’m not trying to relieve the missionaries from blame. They absolutely forced people to convert, and there are cases where the word “stealing” is appropriate. For instance, in Ireland, the Goddess Brigid was so popular that missionaries transformed Her into Saint Brigid. But for Christmas, I personally believe that the answer is more complicated than “Christians stole it.” The Christian holiday already existed, and Yule traditions eventually blended in and became Christian.
Wiccan Yule and the Holly and Oak Kings
In Wicca, Yule is a Sabbat, or a celebration of the sun. In some traditions, Yule honors the rebirth of the Horned God. The God passed away on Samhain (Halloween) and is reborn on Yule.
In other traditions, Wiccans celebrate the legend of the Holly King and the Oak King. Although some claim that this myth is ancient, we have no record of it before Robert Graves’ 1948 book The White Goddess. Graves compared the legend to other myths such as Lugh and Balor and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Similar comparisons came from the 1890 book The Golden Bough by anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, but the Oak and Holly Kings story did not arise until later.
According to the story, the Holly King and Oak King battle throughout the year. The Holly King represents darkness and gains power during the autumn equinox. On Yule, the Oak King, which represents light, overthrows the Holly King. In some traditions, these kings are aspects of the Horned God, and the Oak King fights for the Goddess.
How to Celebrate Yule Today
You might have read about all of these traditions and gotten confused. How can we celebrate modern-day Yule when it has so many origins from so many cultures? Fortunately, many of these holidays have overlap, and we can decide which traditions we want to celebrate.
How do you celebrate Yule? Did I miss any facts or traditions? Are you reading this on the holiday or before? Let me know in the comments below!
Happy belated Lammas of 2019! This year, July's Super Black New Moon occurred the day before Lammas, and these two days could not have fit together better.
If you haven't noticed, I haven't posted in a long while. Recently, my life has become unbalanced and hectic. This month signals the hottest point of summer; it's the period where many of us feel like the heat will never end. Couple this month with a new Mercury retrograde, and suddenly you're grappling with impatience and frustration.
Throughout the month, I've been prayer journaling to work through my consistent impatience. The topic of gratitude popped up within the last week, and I was surprised to learn that both the new moon and Lammas emphasize this idea as well. Gratitude is the quality of being thankful and appreciative for what you have.
If you cringe a bit at the concept of gratitude (likely from New Age spiritual overuse), I don't blame you. But know that practicing gratitude is heavily backed by research.
Here's my point: If you want to feel happier, you should be practicing gratitude. But how do Pagans incorporate gratitude into their worship? For this post, I'm going to use the recent new moon and Lammas as an example.
Lessons from the New Moon and Lammas
As many witches know, the new moon signals a beginning: the ideal time to embark upon new journeys and hobbies. This year's Super Black New Moon enhances these energies. This moon phase encourages two perspectives at once. One is a positive outlook on the future. As the new moon develops into waxing crescent and gibbous, so too will your energies grow. Waking up early will grow easier; a tough work project will slowly crawl toward its end; the hottest month of the year will cool down. When we envision "beginnings," we see ideal opportunities. Pain does not last, and if you've been experiencing several hurtful days in a row, know that they will eventually end. After all, life constantly changes, just like the moon phase.
The second message of the new moon is a focus on the present. The beginning is now. If you want to become an avid reader in the future, you won't become one unless you have that goal today. This isn't to say that the now is always positive. If you're struggling with rent, summer heat, and a slimy coworker all at the same time, the present feels like a bad omen. But remember: the new moon is a beginning. Today is a beginning. Not only do we have the opportunity to change things, but we have the resources to enact these changes. Remember this, because this idea from the new moon bleeds into Lammas.
Lammas, also called Lughnasadh or the Grain Harvest, is the summer harvest festival. In Wicca, harvest is one of the Greater Sabbats, or the most important of the Celtic festivals. Why? Because it signals a time of abundance. Although we may feel like the Earth is wilting in the heat, it's actually producing more than it's taking away. Vine vegetables, like tomatoes, corn, squash, and cucumbers are ripe for the picking. Grain sprouts during this holiday, and tropical fruits grow plump. In fact, the ancient Celts celebrated this abundance by cutting the first grain and sharing bread with their community.
However, the tale behind the name Lughnasadh grants us a perspective on the holiday that many Pagans don't know. Most understand that Lughnasadh derives from the Irish God Lugh, a master craftsman and just king. But do you know why Lugh designated the holiday? It was actually in honor of Tailtiu, wife of the last Fir Bolg High King of Ireland, Eochaid mac Eirc. Tailtiu cleared all the plants and plains of Ireland so that its people could grow crops. After she finally died of exhaustion, Lugh established a harvest festival in her honor, including funeral rites and games.
Lammas and gratitude go together like grain and sunshine. During the harvest, we celebrate the Earth's ripeness, and all who have sacrificed their hard work to feed us. We couldn't eat without farmers and butchers. They couldn't provide food without the Earth. Grains can't grow without the sun. And the sun and Earth cannot work in harmony without the Gods.
Remember this lesson from the new moon: We have the opportunity to create a new beginning. And from Lammas, we know that we have everything we need to do so. We are alive. We are fed and sheltered. The Gods gave us an entire Earth to pull from and celebrate. What's there not to be grateful for?
How to Practice Gratitude in Paganism
When I learned all these lessons from the new moon and Lammas, I realized that I had been perceiving my life in detrimental way. It's so easy to envision the future negatively when your past and present have been difficult (to say the least). Not only does the "everything sucks" mentality not reflect reality, but it also omits every blessing we have. We take the sun and the crops for granted almost every day. These are both products of the Gods, and when we recognize that, we grow closer to Them.
Needless to say, when we rehearse what we're grateful for more often, we'll feel less hopeless about our lives even during rough times. But how do we do that? Over the past two weeks, I've been rehearsing methods to incorporate more gratitude toward the Gods. And I'm ready to share some of those methods here.
As a disclaimer: I'm Wiccan, so all my examples will have a Wiccan tone. Please change them in a way that suits your own religion.
TAKE MORE BREAKS. At work, I tend to let deadlines determine my schedule. I consistently think, "I'll take a break later, and push through now." By the end of the day, I'll be worn out, hungry, and left with a mind full of "fuck fuck fuck let this be over soon please fuck." That sucks. And I know I'm not the only person who does that.
When I started taking more breaks--say, a couple 10-minute breaks instead of one 30-minute one--my day felt phenomenally better. Breaks encourage gratitude because you're focusing on your needs now, not when you finish. If you have trouble sticking to set times, schedule alarms that will force you to step away from your work desk or studies.
I recommend walking outside for your break. You can soak in all that the Gods offer and recite a gratitude prayer, which is my next tip.
RECITE A GRATITUDE PRAYER. Remember when I mentioned that repeated affirmations make people happier overall? Thanking the Gods acts as an affirmation because it reminds us of what we have.
In order for your prayer to work, it has to represent something you actually believe. For example, saying "my day is great" might not make you feel better if you know that your day has been frustrating. But reciting "the Gods have blessed my day" helps more, because no matter how your day has felt, the Gods have likely gifted you nourishing food, nice weather, good sleep, etc. It also encourages us to know that a higher power is on our side.
Make your prayer short and sweet. You don't have to memorize it, but you might want to write it down somewhere. I kept mine on a phone note that I always kept open. That way, whenever I unlocked my phone on my break, I'd see it. You can also set the prayer as your lock screen,
I made mine a poem, because rhymes and meter make verses easier to memorize. Mine is based off of one of Scott Cunningham's example prayers, but revamped (let's face it; he wasn't the best poet, bless his soul). Here is mine:
"Divine Mother, Father Divine,
Blessed am I,
to share my day with both of You."
See how short this is? It makes life a lot easier to only recite three lines rather than a page. Also, you can change any line you want. For instance, you can say "Blessed am I / to share my meal with both of You." Or, you can switch it from Wiccan deities to your own. I'm only listing my prayer as an example, or hopefully inspiration.
If you need more inspiration, look up historical prayers, such as Delphic Maxims or magical chants that correspond with your religious views.
JOT DOWN YOUR THANKS TO THE GODS. In the past, I've mentioned Pagan prayer journaling and using this topic as a potential prompt. But you don't need to have a "Pagan prayer journal" to do this; you can simply have a gratitude journal. Again, science proves that writing down what you're grateful for lifts your overall mood and outlook on life.
Every night, I like to write down five things I'm grateful for in my day, bullet-point-style. But you don't have to limit yourself to five; you can do one, or ten, or however many you want. Writing one thanks to the Gods is better than none.
You can begin with, "Dear Gods, Thank You for ___." Or possibly, "Dear ____, I am grateful that You gave me ____ today." As with all prayers, don't feel constricted by formal speech. Thanking and praising the Gods is effective in any language.
These are all the tips I have for now. This is a longer, more in-depth and personal post than I usually write, so please let me know if you enjoyed it (or even made it this far). And as always, message me about any topics you'd like me to cover. Best of luck to you and your path.