The Winter Solstice, or Yule, occurs this year on December 21. One of the most ancient celebrations in the world, it honors the year’s shortest day and longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. It is also recognized as the first day of winter.
Scholars believe the celebration of Yule spread to the British Isles through the conquering Southern Scandinavian and Germanic tribes who became known as Anglo-Saxons. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the traditional customs of Yule were absorbed by the new religion to encourage conversion, and many of those customs are still utilized during the Christmas season.
With the waning of the soft winter sun, light was one of the hallmarks of all such celebrations throughout Europe. Bonfires not only provided warmth and a festive glow for the revelers, but in many cultures, they also symbolized the rebirth of the sun and the promise of spring to come. The cycle of life and death was greatly honored during Yule. The Scandinavians are thought to have been one of the first cultures to adorn the evergreen trees that dotted their snowy landscape and to bring boughs of evergreen inside to decorate their homes, acting as a visual reminder that life itself always endures.
Even our beloved Santa Claus has pagan roots. While the modern Mr. Claus was born of the deeds of the 4-Century Greek Bishop named Saint Nicholas, some of his most noted attributes come from tales dating as far back as the First Century BCE. For example, the Wild Hunt, a Norse myth, tells of the ghostly ride of the great G-d Odin (or Woden), whose white beard whipped in the wind as his great steed galloped through the winter night sky.
Today, many cultures still honor the Yule, and it’s very likely that you already do as well, whether you realize its ancient roots or not. But if you’d like to take a more mindful and intentional approach to commemorating the Solstice, below are a few ideas. First, however, a note: regardless of your religious affiliations, Yule is simply about honoring the winter season. The icy bellows of the wind and blankets of snow can be beautiful, but cruel; the weather beseeches us to stay inside, light the hearth and honor our loved ones with food that warms and songs of love and hope. Whether celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas, or perhaps even Yule, remember that ultimately, we are celebrating light – the light that will give birth to the earth come Spring, the light of our homes as we take a moment to slow down together and the light that our love and kindness can spread throughout the world.
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1. Create a Yule Log.
The Yule Log is one of the most iconic symbols of the Solstice. Its corresponding rituals are believed to have originated in Scandinavia, but they were practiced throughout Europe as the Yule traditions spread with the Anglo-Saxon tribes. There are a variety of ways to practice the Yule Log custom, but our favorite is simple; the day of the Solstice, we gather a large branch (as opposed to a log, which would realistically need to be dried out and cured before burning successfully) and ceremonially add it to our hearth that we already have burning. We give thanks for a blessed year, attempt to see the lessons in our trials and send prayers into the universe for the light to shine brightly within each of us in the coming seasons.
2. Light candles.
One of my daughter’s favorite traditions is to turn off all of the lights on Solstice Eve and light candles throughout the house. Just before the lighting, we spend a quiet moment in the darkness, acknowledging its presence – both metaphorically and physically. Then, we welcome the light of the coming season by igniting the candles throughout our home. It’s such a beautiful and cozy ritual.
3. Decorate the tree.
We decorate our Solstice Tree on the eve of Solstice. As we hang our ornaments that we’ve gathered over the years and the pinecones and dry flowers from our garden, we tell the tale of the Holly King. By now, our children can take turns describing the battle of the two brothers, the Holly King and the Oak King – each Solstice, they clash to the death for rule of the land, and the Holly King dies to give way for his brother to bring life back to the land. We set out homemade shortbread and mead or whiskey to warm his journey, along with notes that we will meet him once more at the Summer Solstice when it is his annual turn to prevail.