Ready to celebrate? The pagan celebration of the winter solstice is popularly known as Yule, one of the oldest winter celebrations. Yule (also called jól, Jul, or joulu) is historically celebrated by the Germanic people and was incorporated into Christmas during the Christianisation of the Germanic peoples. Now some new religious movements (such as Modern Germanic paganism) celebrate the Yule festival independently of the Christian festival. 

Scholars have connected the celebrations of Yule to the heathen Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht  (“Mothers’ Night”) the Wild Hunt, and the god Odin. The term Yule and cognates are still used in Scandinavian and the English languages as well as in Estonian and Finnish to describe Christmas and other festivals occurring during the winter holiday season. Furthermore, some present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule bear, Yule goat, Yule singing, and others may connect to older pagan Yule traditions. 

Yule is a pagan celebration of the rebirth of the sun. It marks the longest night of the year. It has been celebrated since the late Stone Age when people lived more closely with the natural world and were more affected by the changing seasons than in modern times.

For months, the earth has been getting colder and darker but at the winter solstice, the sun “stands still” and then gradually the days become longer and warmer again.

The ancient Stonehenge monument was built to align with the midwinter sunset and traditionally people gather to celebrate the rising of the sun. This is still celebrated by many who still gather at the monument but this year due to the pandemic there are no gatherings the sunrise was live-streamed this morning!

When is Yule celebrated?

The festival Yule always falls on the winter solstice, which happens on December 21 or 22 every year. Some Yule celebrations around the world begin on the winter solstice and continue for multiple days or weeks. Yule will be celebrated mostly by Wiccans and many other Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere.

Origin of the Yule

Yule comes from Old English géohol and the old Norse jól which is a season of hunting after the harvest was done. This fell in what we now call December so it eventually became connected with the Christmas Holiday. The first recorded use of the noun Yuletide was in 1475. The Yuletide season lasted from the end of November to the starting weeks of January but the celebration of Yule lasted three days over the Winter Solstice and marked the beginning of the new year.

Before the Temple was destroyed, Yule was similar to Passover in Jerusalem. For Passover, the Jewish people would bring birds, lambs, and other animals for sacrifice. The meat cooked for the Passover meal and the blood would be offered on the altar. 

Yule was mostly celebrated in Germanic countries where animals were sacrificed and the sanctified blood was then used to paint the temple posts, altar, and the supplicant himself as part of the ritual. He was literally “washed in the blood”. This was followed by storytelling, feasts, and drinking around a big communal fire. Yule, in Grettis Saga, is described as a time of “greatest joy and mirth among men.”

This was also a time of oath-making. Marriages and business deals were brokered. The godi (priest, chieftain, judge) who was in charge of the hof wore a heavy gold ring around his neck. The people who took the oath put their hands on the gold ring and made their pledge in front of witnesses. Just such a gold ring was found at an excavation of an 11th-century chieftain’s residence on the outskirts of Tissø, Denmark.

Where was it uncovered?

The most famous of them was uncovered in Uppsala, Sweden. The same temple is mentioned in the Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and in Adam of Bremen’s 11th-century travel journal. It is described as housing 3 statues on three thrones. One for Wodan (Odin), one for Fricco (Freyr) and one for Thor. There was a great chain of gold around the building. It drapes from the roofs that flashed in the sunlight from afar.

Other traveller’s accounts also mention this chain. In the Ynglinga Saga by Snorri Sturluson, Uppsala was the place where King Domalde was sacrificed in the Autumn after three years of famine, to fulfil his duties towards his kingdom and their people. The first day of Yule comes on the last day of Autumn.

In the Saga of Hákon the Good, Haakon of Norway changed the date of the Yule festival to the date that Christmas observed in the rest of Europe from the days surrounding Midwinter. Though the religious practices and sacrifices of Yule abandoned, many Yuletide customs continued.

Who celebrates Yule today?

For centuries, Yule was the joyful winter festival for the Germanic tribes, Vikings. Peoples from pre-Christian Europe also celebrate it. Nowadays, Wiccans and other neo-pagan practitioners extensively celebrates it. That said, Yule’s traditions are so underlying with Christmas traditions so many people celebrate it without even necessarily realising it. Think wreaths, Yule logs, feasting, and celebrating. 

Nights are at their longest and the outside world is at its darkest. Yule gives space for our inner realms to expand and come forth. It is the right time to bring in new ideas and visions, make resolutions for the year ahead, and dream bold dreams.

Yule traditions you can celebrate today:

Put up a Yule wreath

Make an evergreen wreath (like holly, yew, mistletoe, pine, and ivy) to represent everlasting life, prosperity and protection. Or go bigger and make a solstice tree or bush by pushing the stalks of these plants into a damp soil pot. Why these plants? Besides being seasonal, the yew tree traditionally associated with eternity and reincarnation. Pine has healing magic, holly and ivy ward off negative energy, and mistletoe brings abundance and fertility.

Decorate your altar for Yule

If you have a home altar, you can make it more adorable with stones, plants, and items associated with Yule. You can make it more interesting with what you have at home, but here are some ideas:

  • Evergreen plants like mistletoe, pine, holly, fir, juniper, and cedar. You can use pine-cones, branches, and berries.
  • Candles, particularly ones in Yule colors of red, green, or gold.
  • Crystals in the same colors, such as emerald, ruby, and carnelian.
  • Symbols of winter, such as snowflake decor or even a bowl of melted snow.
  • Symbols of the Sun, such as the Sun tarot card or a Sun charm.
  • Bells—traditionally used to promote harmony and to drive away evil spirits
  • Winter produce, such as apples, chestnuts, and oranges.

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