11.723 Southlight 44. First of all, a most festive Yule and Winter Solstice. And a festive Litha and Summer Solstice to those south of the Equator. As I write this, my area faces a winter storm and blizzard warning spanning the next two days. Temperatures are supposed to plunge to -20 C and wind chills to -30 C. This is the time of the shortest days and longest nights. But within the darkness, the promise of the return of spring can lighten our hearts.
Welcoming Yule and the Winter Solstice
This is a time for contemplation. What makes this an interesting Yule and Winter Solstice holiday is that the new moon (the last one for 2022 CE and the second one for 11.723 EE) will come in at 10:16 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, formerly Greenwich Meridian Time) this Friday, December 23. This is significant because both Yule and the new moon mark times of renewal. I plan to celebrate both separately in front of my altar, focusing today on the significance of the Winter Solstice and on personal renewal on Friday.
In most of the rest of the Western world, a more modern holiday inflates the part of the Christmas story involving the offering of gifts by the Magi. This little piece of the story is now one of the most predominant parts of the Christmas celebration. The rush for gifts dominates the season. Until, finally, a quiet finally settles over much of the land on the evening of December 24th. Those of us celebrating the Winter Solstice get to benefit from the silent night that settles upon the land around us.
And so now we mark the festival of Yule and the Winter Solstice. The Earth’s tilt and rotation around the Sun now brings direct sunlight to the southernmost point it can reach—the Tropic of Capricorn, 23.4 degrees south of the Equator. This line is so named because this Solstice begins the astrological month of Capricorn. In the coming months the Earth’s tilt and rotation will direct the most direct sunlight to the Equator itself in March and the Tropic of Cancer in June.
History of Yule
The Germanic and Nordic peoples who were the first to celebrate Yule didn’t have this scientific understanding of the seasons. But they did know when the shortest day and the longest nights would occur. Just as Samhain translates to November in Gaelic, Yule referred to the second lunar month of winter in the old Nordic calendar. In the old Norse language, Yule translates to parties—yes, parties, plural. Because these were lunar months, they did not align with our solar calendar. This makes it difficult to nail the precise days of Yule. The celebrations also varied, sometimes depending on local conditions.
One sixth century CE Byzantine writer, Procopius, observed an island in what was likely Norway. Here, the sun, due to its far northern latitude, would completely disappear from the sky for about 40 days. He observed that thirty five days into this, islanders would be sent to the top of the mountain where a small sliver of sun might be seen. Upon seeing this sliver of the sun, these islanders would bring the good news to the rest of the people on the island. Everyone would rejoice and celebrate the return of the Sun for a number of days.
There are other Yule traditions appropriated by modern Christianity. These involve the mistletoe–reportedly important to both Celts and Norse. Some have alleged that Santa Claus is actually related to the Germanic/Norse god Odin. Romans exchanged gifts on Saturnalia—a festival eventually replaced by Christmas. It’s worth noting though that these were small gifts and not part of a huge shopping season. Caroling has occurred around the Winter Solstice for hundreds if not thousands of years.
There has also been a role for a reindeer being involved in the darkest days of he year. An ancient parable of the Deer Mother describes her as carrying the life-giving Sun between her antlers through the darkest days of Winter.
Yule and Winter Solstice today
But what of today? We connect with these pieces of tradition because they are a part of us. It connects us with a simpler time when human beings didn’t consume so many of the Earth’s resources. A time when our lifestyles collectively didn’t challenge the Earth’s ability to sustain us.
Most modern day Pagans of European origin use some version what has become known as the Wheel of the Year. This wheel includes the Solstice and Equinox celebrations many Europeans have celebrated. It also includes the Celtic Fire holidays which have tended to be close to the halfway points between the equinoxes and solstices. Many people rightly criticize the Wheel of the Year as cultural appropriation. They argue that these holidays have been taken out of the context of their original meaning. Given the English origin of Wicca and the historic English mistreatment of the people of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, this is unfortunate. I feel that more Wiccans need to show respect for the origins of these traditions. In my own practice, I’ve replaced Mabon (an autumnal equinox celebration named after a Welsh deity) and Litha (a holiday whose authenticity is unclear) with the Baltic holidays Dagotuves and Rasos respectively.
We are all free to use these tools how we wish or not use them at all, but in addition to the Wheel of the Year, we Earth-oriented Pagans need to also address the reality of our Earth in crisis. This is something we are still figuring out how to do.
So far, what that means to me is regaining the sense we have for the Earth and the community of life that inhabits it. This is something most humans have lost over the last 10,000 years as we’ve adopted slash and burn agriculture. This closer relationship to the Earth also means asking the Earth for permission to take of her bounty and knowing when she says “no.” For me personally, it involves getting out into nature more often. It also involves me continually evaluating how I am living my life compared to what the Earth needs. It is overwhelming to contemplate these things, which is why I am a work in progress with these matters.
So these are my thoughts on this Yule night. A blessed Yule to you all. God Rest Ye Merry Pagan Folk!