Winter solstice observances were held by virtually every culture in the world. Solstice rites were practiced among such diverse groups as Native South Americans, Celts, Persians, Orientals, and Africans. Solstice was known as Sacaea to the Mesopotamians, as the Festival of Kronos to the ancient Greeks, and as Saturnalia to the Romans. According to Norse traditions, the Valkyrie looked for souls to bring to Valhalla during Yule. Norwegians abstained from hunting or fishing for the twelve days during Yule as a way of letting the weary world rest and to hasten the revived sun’s appearance. In old Russia it was traditional to toss grain upon the doorways where carollers visited as a way of keeping the house from want throughout the rest of the winter. Ashes from the Yule log were mixed with cows’ feed in France and Germany to promote the animals’ health and help them calve. In Baltic regions today, corn is scattered near the door of the house for sustenance and ashes of the Yule log are given to fruit trees to increase their yield. Romanians bless the trees of the orchard on Yule with sweetened dough to bring good harvests. Serbs toss wheat on the burning Yule log to increase livestock bounty.
The most significant Yule tradition to persist over the centuries is the Christmas tree. Although the origin of the Christmas tree is generally ascribed to Martin Luther, its beginnings actually go back to pre-Christian times. Christmas trees are thought to have evolved from the rite of symbolically selecting and harvesting a “sacred tree,” a practice found in many ancient cultures. Evergreens and firs were sacred to early peoples, including the ancient Greeks, Celts, and Germans. The first Yule trees were born when pagans went into the forests during the winter solstice to give offerings to evergreens. Pines and firs remained green while other vegetation lost their leaves and appeared lifeless during the bitter winter cold. Their mysterious survival and vigor seemed to signify a life force within which carried with it the hope of renewed life.
The pinea silva or sacred pine groves that were attached to pagan Roman temples also pre-figured the Christmas tree. On the night before a holy day, Roman priests called “tree-bearers” cut one of the sacred pines, decorated it, and carried it into the temple. In fact, the German word for Christmas tree is not Kristenbaum, or Christmas tree, but Tannenbaum, or sacred tree.
Church leaders from the early centuries of the Church all the way through Puritan society in 17th century Massachusetts condemned the custom of bringing decorated evergreens into the home at Yule time. The custom was so beloved and persistent, however, that repeated attempts to eradicate ‘heathen’ practices ultimately failed-and now these pagan traditions, which largely celebrate nature, are among the most treasured elements of the season.
Decorating the tree with objects resembling fruits, nuts, berries, and even flowers is thought to be a symbolic act designed to bring about the return of summer’s bounty. In this way early cultures hoped to hurry the return of spring, and ensure survival through the rest of the harsh winter months.
Christmas wreaths are also ancient, and were traditionally made of evergreens, holly, and ivy. The wreath’s circle symbolizes the wheel of the year and the completion of another cycle. Holly represents the female element; ivy represents the male. Like evergreens, holly was believed to contain a mysterious life force because it bore berries in the middle of winter. Both holly and ivy were thought to have magical properties, and were used as protection against negative elements.
Kissing under the mistletoe is an old Druid tradition. Mistletoe was considered highly sacred by this culture because, as a parasitic kind of vegetation, it never touched the earth (growing instead on oaks and other trees), and also because it bore berries in winter when everything else appeared dead. Druids gathered the leaves and berries from special oaks with sickles made of gold. They called mistletoe “all-heal” because they felt it had the power of protection against illness and bad events, and also because they believed mistletoe spread goodwill. Legend has it that enemies meeting under the mistletoe cast their weapons aside, greeted each other amicably, and honored a temporary truce. White linen clothes were spread beneath the mistletoe as it was being gathered so none of it would touch the ground, lest its power be accidentally released back to the earth. Mistletoe berries were considered to be a powerful fertility substance. A kiss under the mistletoe meant love and the promise of marriage.
Burning the Yule log is perhaps the oldest of all Yule traditions, possibly dating back eons. Since the winter solstice was a solar holiday, fire in different forms was closely associated with it. Fires and candles were lit during Yule to give the waning sun renewed power and vigor-and also surely to provide sources of cheery heat and light during the darkest part of the northern winter. Even the burning brandy on plum pudding symbolized the sun’s rebirth. Traditionally the Yule log was made of oak; in northern European countries, the log was massive enough to burn for the entire twelve days of Yule. It was selected early in the year and set aside, then at winter solstice decorated with sprays of fir, evergreen, holly, ivy, or yew. A piece of the previous year’s Yule log was used to light the new Yule log. Once the ashes were cold they were gathered into powerful amulets, or scattered throughout the garden and fields to ensure fertility and bounty in the coming year.
Spirituality of Solstice
The spiritual ramifications of yule are profound for both neo-pagans and Christians. For Christians, the birth of Christ means a turning point between eternal death and eternal life. Devout Christians celebrate Christmas as the beginning of a new spiritual age of eternal life.
For neo-pagans, Yule is also a time of spiritual beginnings. Jul, or Yule, is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “wheel.” The winter solstice is the turning point in the natural cycle of the year; this darkest night in all the year is followed by a day that will dawn just a little bit earlier.
Because Yule signifies the completion of the wheel of the year, the period around the winter solstice is considered to be a good time for spiritual work. Some neo-pagans believe the dark nights of winter are when the veil between the spirit world and the living world is the thinnest. It is therefore an appropriate time for self-examination and meditation on hidden energies-both the energies lying dormant within the earth, and also those within ourselves. Yule traditions celebrate nature’s renewal, and help affirm our connection to the energy and power of the earth and the cosmos.
Nature’s Enduring Cycle
The winter solstice demonstrates the enduring cycle of the heavens by an event that has been directly observable, year in and year out, century after century, for millions of years. The new year begins with the turning point of the winter solstice, as it has down through eons-an unending cycle of dark and light, waning and waxing, ultimately representing nature’s birth, death, and rebirth. The winter solstice is a time to affirm our spiritual ties to nature through celebrations and traditions that are thousands of years old.
Whether celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or Yule, we can all delight in the season as a time to renew family ties, take joy in our natural environment, reflect on the events of the old year, and look forward in anticipation to the new. As the winter solstice demonstrates to us, every ending is a new beginning.
How do you celebrate Winter Solstice, leave me a message and let me know how you celebrate and what traditions you have.