By Gweneth O'Brien
Yuletide is upon us, but what exactly does that mean? What's the difference between Christmas and Yule? Well, the truth is, these popular holidays are riddled with similarities and rich lore, far deeper than we're told.
Yule takes place on the Winter Solstice, falling between the 20th and 23rd of December. The Winter Solstice marks the day where the night is longest, and day is shortest. This occurrence incites a celebration of fire, light, and the returning sun. After the Solstice, the days slowly but surely begin to regain their length, so many choose to honor the sun at this time. This spark of light was a common theme across many cultures, and the Yule holiday served as a beacon of hope amidst the darkness.
Many traditions and religions have been known to celebrate the Winter Solstice in some ways, let's explore a few.
Norse: In Norse and Scandinavian culture, Yule was a 12-day celebration where work was abandoned temporarily, and a large feast would commence. Additionally, a Yule Log was burned in honor of the sun. In Norse mythology, the Winter Solstice is said to be when the Wild Hunt began, where Odin and his army would ride out into the night, rounding up all the lost souls and ghosts that crossed their path.
Roman: Saturnalia is the Roman equivalent of Yule, which honors the god Saturn, and also focuses on the Winter Solstice and returning sun. Saturnalia was a week-long festival beginning on December 17th, and ending on the 23rd. During this time, work was halted and even slaves were released temporarily in honor of the holiday. Roman people would decorate with various forms of greenery, and engage in activities such as singing, feasting, and gift-giving. Candles were a common gift during this time, again, symbolizing light and the sun.
Celtic/Druidic/Wiccan: Those of Celtic and Druidic (and much later, Wiccan) paths believed the Winter Solstice to be the time where the Oak King and Holly King battled each year. The Oak King, who represented the Sun, and light, would always win on the Solstice, and from there on out for the next 6 months, he would reprise his role as ruler. Then, on the Summer Solstice, the Holly King would take over once more. Bonfires were lit to commemorate this event, and plants like Holly and Mistletoe were hung for protection and overall merriness.
As you might have noticed, some of these traditions are quite similar to the Christmas traditions we see today. History shows that the ancient celebrations of Yule heavily influenced today's Christmas. You might know the Yule Log to be a popular cake in the shape of a log, but, as mentioned before, it was actually a real log, burned to honor the sun god. Giving gifts goes as far back to ancient Rome, and common decorations like holly and mistletoe have been used for years before Christmas. Who knew the customs had such deep history?
Now, what about the Christmas Tree? Turns out, the use of a Christmas tree goes way back as well. Norse, Druid, and even Egyptian cultures have been found to hang some form of evergreen as a symbol of protection, longevity, and reverence of various sun gods. In Germany, around the 1500's, the most-well known version of the Christmas tree was introduced, when Christians brought evergreen trees into their homes. They would then decorate them with lit candles, which was a beautiful, but far less safe alternative to the contemporary Christmas lights we use today! I've even heard the possibility that years ago, people would hang food on their trees for the homeless and less fortunate to take!
Luckily, because we have a great deal of information on the original celebrations of Yule, we can begin to form our own with a modern twist.
Some ways to celebrate:
Watch the sunrise/sunset
Light colored candles (specifically gold, red, green, and white)
Give thanks to the returning sun and warmth, and whatever else you are grateful for.
Bake/cook with ingredients that correspond to this time of year.
Make a wish for the upcoming year! You can write it on a piece of paper, or make a sigil out of it, burn it with a candle, or carry it with you for the next year.
Lastly, let's get into come correspondences:
Holly - Protection, luck, wards against evil.
Mistletoe: Protection, love, fertility, health. (Be careful when working with this herb, and do not ingest it, as it is poisonous).
Pine: Long-life, protection, healing, money drawing, drives away evil.
Cinnamon: Love, lust, psychic powers, money, healing. The fiery element and taste of cinnamon represents the sun.
Orange: Prosperity, love, luck, cheerfulness.
Red: Fire, passion, courage, love, lust.
Green: Money, stability, good luck.
Gold: Protection, prosperity, wealth, royalty, luxury.
Silver: Purity, strength, clarity, focus.
White: All-purpose, protection, purification, healing, cleansing, amplifying. White can stand in for any color.
Garnet: Strength, vitality, passion, grounding.
Emerald: Truth, abundance, health, awareness.
Clear Quartz: All-purpose, amplifying, mental clarity, connection to the divine.
All in all, the ancient celebration of Yule is full of beautiful symbolism, and is an integral part of the wheel of the year. As we observe the suns' return, may we acknowledge the light, beauty, and hope that it brings. Wishing you a Blessed Yule, Merry Christmas, and happy holiday season all around.
As always, stay safe and blessed be.
The Real Witches' Handbook by Kate West
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham