Midwinter’s Eve: YULE

Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how enthusiastically we Pagans
celebrate the ‘Christmas’ season. Even though we prefer to use
the word ‘Yule’, and our celebrations may peak a few days
before the 25th, we nonetheless follow many of the traditional
customs of the season: decorated trees, carolling, presents,
Yule logs, and mistletoe. We might even go so far as putting
up a ‘Nativity set’, though for us the three central characters
are likely to be interpreted as Mother Nature, Father Time, and
the Baby Sun-God. None of this will come as a surprise to
anyone who knows the true history of the holiday, of course.

In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always
been more Pagan than Christian, with it’s associations of
Nordic divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman
Mithraism. That is why both Martin Luther and John Calvin
abhorred it, why the Puritans refused to acknowledge it, much
less celebrate it (to them, no day of the year could be more
holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even made illegal in
Boston! The holiday was already too closely associated with
the birth of older Pagan gods and heroes. And many of them
(like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus,
Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even Arthur) possessed a narrative of
birth, death, and resurrection that was uncomfortably close to
that of Jesus. And to make matters worse, many of them
pre-dated the Christian Savior.

Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the
cycle of the year. It is the Winter Solstice that is being
celebrated, seed-time of the year, the longest night and
shortest day. It is the birthday of the new Sun King, the Son
of God — by whatever name you choose to call him. On this
darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and
once again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that
on the longest night of the winter, ‘the dark night of our
souls’, there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire,
the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.

That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as
Christians. Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were
rather late in laying claim to it, and tried more than once to
reject it. There had been a tradition in the West that Mary
bore the child Jesus on the twenty-fifth day, but no one could
seem to decide on the month. Finally, in 320 C.E., the Catholic
Fathers in Rome decided to make it December, in an effort to
co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the Romans and the Yule
celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.

There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose
was historically accurate. Shepherds just don’t ‘tend their
flocks by night’ in the high pastures in the dead of winter!
But if one wishes to use the New Testament as historical
evidence, this reference may point to sometime in the spring as
the time of Jesus’s birth. This is because the lambing season
occurs in the spring and that is the only time when shepherds
are likely to ‘watch their flocks by night’ — to make sure the
lambing goes well. Knowing this, the Eastern half of the
Church continued to reject December 25, preferring a ‘movable
date’ fixed by their astrologers according to the moon.

Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one
knew when Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25
finally began to catch on. By 529, it was a civic holiday, and
all work or public business (except that of cooks, bakers, or
any that contributed to the delight of the holiday) was
prohibited by the Emperor Justinian. In 563, the Council of
Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four years later
the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December
25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. This last point is
perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader, who is
lucky to get a single day off work. Christmas, in the Middle
Ages, was not a single day, but rather a period of twelve days,
from December 25 to January 6. The Twelve Days of Christmas,
in fact. It is certainly lamentable that the modern world has
abandoned this approach, along with the popular Twelfth Night

Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to
many countries no faster than Christianity itself, which means
that ‘Christmas’ wasn’t celebrated in Ireland until the late
fifth century; in England, Switzerland, and Austria until the
seventh; in Germany until the eighth; and in the Slavic lands
until the ninth and tenth. Not that these countries lacked
their own mid-winter celebrations of Yuletide. Long before the
world had heard of Jesus, Pagans had been observing the season
by bringing in the Yule log, wishing on it, and lighting it
from the remains of last year’s log. Riddles were posed and
answered, magic and rituals were practiced, wild boars were
sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of liquor,
corn dollies were carried from house to house while carolling,
fertility rites were practiced (girls standing under a sprig of
mistletoe were subject to a bit more than a kiss), and
divinations were cast for the coming Spring. Many of these
Pagan customs, in an appropriately watered-down form, have
entered the mainstream of Christian celebration, though most
celebrants do not realize (or do not mention it, if they do)
their origins.

For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Yula’, meaning
‘wheel’ of the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter
Solstice, which may vary by a few days, though it usually
occurs on or around December 21st. It is a Lesser Sabbat or
Lower Holiday in the modern Pagan calendar, one of the four
quarter-days of the year, but a very important one. Pagan
customs are still enthusiastically followed. Once, the Yule log
had been the center of the celebration. It was lighted on the
eve of the solstice (it should light on the first try) and must
be kept burning for twelve hours, for good luck. It should be
made of ash. Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree
but, instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on it.
In Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther
invented the custom, and Catholics might grant St. Boniface the
honor, but the custom can demonstrably be traced back through
the Roman Saturnalia all the way to ancient Egypt. Needless to
say, such a tree should be cut down rather than purchased, and
should be disposed of by burning, the proper way to dispatch
any sacred object.

Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the
mistletoe were important plants of the season, all symbolizing
fertility and everlasting life. Mistletoe was especially
venerated by the Celtic Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle
on the sixth night of the moon, and believed it to be an
aphrodisiac. (Magically — not medicinally! It’s highly
toxic!) But aphrodisiacs must have been the smallest part of
the Yuletide menu in ancient times, as contemporary reports
indicate that the tables fairly creaked under the strain of
every type of good food. And drink! The most popular of which
was the ‘wassail cup’ deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon
term ‘waes hael’ (be whole or hale).

Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless: that animals will
all kneel down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the
‘100th psalm’ on Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas will
bring good luck, that a person born on Christmas Day can see
the Little People, that a cricket on the hearth brings good
luck, that if one opens all the doors of the house at midnight
all the evil spirits will depart, that you will have one lucky
month for each Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree must
be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck is sure to follow,
that ‘if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we shall
see’, that ‘hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in
the month of May’, that one can use the Twelve Days of
Christmas to predict the weather for each of the twelve months
of the coming year, and so on.

Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based
upon older Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to
reclaim their lost traditions. In doing so, we can share many
common customs with our Christian friends, albeit with a
slightly different interpretation. And thus we all share in
the beauty of this most magical of seasons, when the Mother
Goddess once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and sets the
wheel in motion again. To conclude with a long-overdue
paraphrase, ‘Goddess bless us, every one!’

Other customs of the holiday include weaving ‘Brigit’s crosses’
from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection,
performing rites of spiritual cleansing and purification,
making ‘Brigit’s beds’ to ensure fertility of mind and spirit
(and body, if desired), and making Crowns of Light (i.e. of
candles) for the High Priestess to wear for the Candlemas
Circle, similar to those worn on St. Lucy’s Day in Scandinavian
countries. All in all, this Pagan Festival of Lights, sacred
to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the most beautiful and
poetic of the year.


Document Copyright 1986, 1998 by Mike Nichols

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Revised: Saturday, May 23, 1998 c.e.
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