When the stores begin to play holiday music and plaster their shelves with red and green ornaments, I can’t help but get excited. Of course I have to admit that the sensation is very much a carry-over from my Christian upbringing, but having learned a bit about the background of Christmas and the Winter Solstice, I realize that there are several similarities and, through converting, I didn’t lose much!
There isn’t any definitive proof that the Winter Solstice was celebrated by the early Celts, however the Germanic tribes did celebrate something (Ellison 155). Snorri Sturluson described some of the Germanic festivities in which sacrifices were made for “an easy winter” on the holiday of Winter Nights, and that sacrifices for a good crop the following year were made at Yule (Hutton 7). Ronald Hutton inserts, however, that Sturluson may not be the best source. The Romans also celebrated a holiday around this time of year called Saturnalia. This holiday was sacred to Saturn and was supposed to be the most popular feast of Rome (Hutton 2). “Shops, schools, and lawcourts were closed, gambling in public was allowed, and there was general noisy rejoicing. Presents, especially – candles, symbols of light – were exchanged,” Ronald Hutton explains (3). To Wiccans and many NeoPagans, who have embraced the name “Yule”, the Winter Solstice celebrates the “rebirth of the sun” as the divine child (Ellison 156). This compares nicely to the Christian holiday of Christmas in which the birth of Jesus, a divine child, is celebrated.
Many Christmas traditions come from a Pagan background. The Saxons are said to have introduced the Yule log and Christmas tree. Ellison asserts that “there is no evidence that the Celts adopted this custom directly from the Saxons but it has come down to current NeoPagan practices through the English” (158). The custom of decorating with evergreens is also old. For example, the Romans brought greens into the temples for the celebration of Satrunalia (Hutton 2).
Within my own household, my fiancé and I have decided to use some Germanic traditions in our celebration of the Winter Solstice. While I’m focusing on an Irish hearth culture, I also have Germanic blood and so I often find that observing the Winter Solstice is a nod to that aspect of my ancestry. We like to set up a Yule tree and decorate a Yule log. At the present we don’t have a fireplace and so the Yule log is never burnt, however its symbolism is powerful enough that we include it in our festivities. We also exchange presents. Recently, we’ve been trying to simplify our holiday celebration. We both feel that Christmas has been too commercialized. Celebrating the Winter Solstice, we’ve been able to get in touch with our ancestry and learn about the simple gifts they gave. I try to make some of my gifts, and we both try to give only a limited number of things to each other. The gifts feel more significant that way. We’ve also stopped sending paper cards. We’ve realized that most people just throw them away and it seems wasteful. Instead, we use the internet to send messages of good cheer during the Yule season and try our best to be nature-friendly.
In Upstate NY, we don’t always have a lot of snow around the Winter Solstice. It’s a good time of year to gather evergreens for decorating because we don’t have to trudge through several feet of snow and the evergreens aren’t so wet when brought in. I look forward to having a family one day, and possibly a grove, and making it a tradition to decorate the tree and bring in evergreens on or right before the festival. I would also like to continue our simplified gift-giving. The Winter Solstice is a holiday of togetherness and should act as a reminder that we can survive the dark times of winter through hard work and simplicity. All the same, fun should be had by all to ensure that we don’t get cabin fever and to remind everyone that there is light after the darkness.
I attended the Yule celebration at Muin Mound on December 15th, 2007. The ritual happened to take place on my birthday and so it felt extra significant to me.
The ritual was conducted indoors and was lead by our Senior Druid, Dennis. A lovely ritual space was set up and included a representation of the tree, a candle for the sacred flame, a cauldron filled with water, and an offering bowl. The ritual took on a Welsh character as we honored Cerridwen and her servant, Gwion Bach, who would receive the knowledge of her cauldron. The ritual went very well, and it seemed especially fitting that we were receiving snow on this night. Several attendees remarked that we were finally experiencing a “real December.” It felt special to be warm inside, celebrating the cycle of the year, comforted by the fact that we had a feast following the ritual.
I felt that it was time for me to volunteer to do something during the ritual. I offered to honor the Earth, so at the appropriate time I sprinkled the offering around the ritual space while chanting, “May the Earth not open up and swallow us.” I was proud to have finally done something.
I did not have anything to offer, and I felt bad because it was my birthday and I should have, in retrospect, given something to thank the Kindreds for my life. I shall remember to do this in the coming year, I hope. An omen was taken, and while I remember it being positive, I do not remember exactly what it was.
Afterwards, we feasted and exchanged gifts. Ron received a collection of Adirondack photography. I received a Gnostic DVD on sex. It was an amusing gift exchange and a fun Yule celebration to be sure!