I have been a member of the pagan community since the age of 16 and have celebrated the ‘Wheel of the Year’ through its different seasonal phases (shown below in relation to the Northern Hemisphere): –
Winter Solstice (Yule) – 20th to 22nd December which marks ‘Mid-Winter’
Imbolc (Candlemas) – 30th January to 2nd February which marks ‘end of Winter and beginning of Spring’
Spring Equinox (Ostara) – 20th March to 22nd March which marks ‘Mid-Spring’
Beltane (May Eve) – 30th April to 2nd May which marks ‘end of Spring and beginning of Summer’
Summer Solstice (Litha) – 20th June to 22nd June which marks ‘Mid-Summer’
Lughnasadh (Lammas) – 31st July to 2nd August which marks ‘end of Summer and beginning of Autumn’
Autumn Equinox (Mabon) – 20th September to 22nd September which marks ‘Mid-Autumn’
Samhain (Hallowe'en) – 31st October to 2nd November which marks ‘end of Autumn and beginning of Winter’
I thought I would share the background, symbolism and celebrations of Yule and the Winter Solstice as we prepare in readiness for our own family festivities.
Background of the Winter Solstice
Midwinter has been celebrated by Europeans for thousands of years, but it was already established as a significant turning point in the years cycle since the late ‘Stone Age.
Winter solstice occurs when the Earth’s axis tilts away from the sun (in the Northern Hemisphere). It is the time when the sun reaches its longest distance from the equatorial plane, resulting in the longest night.
The ancient site Stonehenge was specifically aligned with the solstice sunset and sunrise in mind, as the first sun's rays shine through it symbolises the rebirth of the solar god and the returning seasons of fertility and growth.
Celebrating Yule as a Pagan
In some pagan traditions, Yule can last for 12 days. We celebrate this Pagan festival around 20th – 22nd December, to honour the Mid-Winter season and the longest night of the year. We celebrate the return of the sun as the days begin to get longer again, and honour this as a time of rebirth, renewal, regeneration, which is marked by the shift of the season as we head for spring.
We follow some traditional customs leading up to Yule, such as creating a yule log, tree decorating and making handmade gifts. We involve the younger generation by encouraging them to engage in festive activities, which tend to revolve around art, craft, and nature. Light is an important element, so flickering candles, bonfires, and the lighting of the Yule tree represent the return of the light and the increase of daylight hours.
Children are told stories from different pagan backgrounds, for example: the battle between the Oak King (the light of the new year) and the Holly King (the darkness) that will begin to fade. A battle between them ensues, and the Holly King falls as the Oak King prevails and the light takes hold of the season (the Holly King returns in the Summer).
We decorate our homes with sacred plants (mistletoe, holly, ivy and hand-crafted wreaths) and seasonal colours red for the waning Holly King, green for the waxing Oak King, white stands for purity and hope, silver symbolizes the moon, and gold represents the sun.
Winter-solstice – may fall on any of the Yule’s days between 20th-22nd December, most generally on the 21st of December. This celebration is normally marked with a family rite, where we
Yule Eve is on the 20th of December. This is the time when we visit family and friends to reflect on the year that has passed, connect with loved ones, and share gifts. Yuletide stories are read to children, and candles are lit as adults relax and socialise.
Yule Day is the 21st of December. This is a time for feast, gift-gifting (including nature-based gifts) and transformation (letting go of the past and setting new goals).
Yuletide is the 22nd of December. This is a time for activities and honouring.
Build a Yule Altar – decorate it with colours and items that represent the season.
Nature Outdoors – Decorate a tree for birds and animals using edible treats (e.g. strings of popcorn, cherries seeds and pinecones), which is a way to give back to nature. Children can watch nature join in with the celebrations.
Decorating a Yule log – decorate with berries, winter greenery, and place it by your fireplace or in the heart of your home. Yule log burning is a symbolic ritual to banish negativity while welcoming positivity, as you call on the Sun to return. If you cannot burn a Yule log, you can visualise or have an outdoor balefire.
Transformation activity – The winter solstice is a time to honour both the light and the dark. We reflect, release, and let go, while setting intentions for the new season to come. This can be done by writing down things we would like to put into the past, tossing them into a yule fire, and then ‘letting go’ by saying out a new idea, habit, or intention that we will bring into our life.
Winter Solstice Lanterns – glass jars painted with glass paint and decorated with glitter etc; lit to celebrate the festival. Candles represent the returning sun and hope going forward.
Yule Ritual – can encompass a cleansing of your home, tree blessing, log burning, transformation activities, meditation focused on personal growth and intuition, a group or solitary rite to welcome back the sun and to honour our ancestors.
Yule Feast – food and drink can include: –
warm hearty soups and stews
roasted meat and poultry
baked goods (bread, pastries, gingerbread cookies, cakes and fruitcake)
citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, etc)
nuts and dried fruit
pomegranates, cranberries, and apples
mulled wine, spiced cider, mead, and dark beer
Spiritual intentions include: –
I am now amidst my own preparations for Yule with my large family, including 25 grandchildren! Thank you for reading about the activities, and celebrations we participate in during our 3-day festival. I wish you all a fruitful and festive time with your own family and friends or wish you seasonal wishes if celebrating on your own. Before I say farewell, I thought I would share a poem (shown below) which I wrote 20+ years ago, which has been passed through to friends and family over the last couple of decades.
Bright Yule Blessings to you All.
STEM Faculty Association Representative for Science, Technology. Engineering and Maths
YULE – by Stephanie Stubbins
O’ Child of light, on this a Bless’ed Yuletide night
Return your light and hope of life, is in our sight
I hear the wind howling, ice has entered my soul
Cold seems endless, and darkness is black as coal
Spark of something shines brightly on this night.
It could be the dawning of the approaching light
For it's always coldest, in the hours before dawn
Darkness is its deepest, facing fears we’ve drawn.
Does loneliness dwell, if loved ones are nearby?
Are there tiny doubts filling me with their cries?
I turn my face away; to forget the winter’s chill
Instead, I celebrate sun's return, my spirit thrills
Midwinter solstice of shortest day, longest night
Sun-Child born; turns the darkness towards light
Celebrate in halls; hung with holly and evergreen
Sun-Child you are welcome here and hope is seen
Hail, O’ Child of light; Yuletide stars burn bright.
Blessed be, holy night, Fairies dance with delight
New Lord of the Sun; light hearts of all who live,
Blessed as you shine for everyone what you give.
Hail New Lord: Your Light returns for all to see,
Thank you for the crops and for your generosity
O’ Child of light, on this a Bless’ed Yuletide night.
Return your light and hope of life, is in our sight