Today* is the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.
This time of year is held sacred by many modern Pagan and Heathen traditions, and has a rich history in ancient pagan religion.
The solstice time was marked as special by pre-historic peoples in both Ireland and England. While there is scant evidence of specific celebrations, it is generally thought that the pagan Celts did mark the solstice time.
Germanic pagans and modern Heathens celebrate Yule at this time. During this holiday the god Freyr was honored. Several traditions we associate with Christmas (eating a ham, hanging holly, mistletoe) come from Yule.
The ancient pagan Romans celebrated Saturnalia which typically ran from December 17th through the 23rd. The festival honored the god Saturn and featured lavish parties and role-reversals. From Saturnalia we can see the traditions of exchanging gifts and decorating evergreen trees indoors that would be adopted as Christmas traditions. Following Saturnalia were the birth celebrations in honor of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun) and Mithras both held on December 25th.
Many modern Pagans, including Wiccans, Witches, several Druidic traditions, and their many off-shoots hold this time as one of the eight Sabbats/holy days. Usually called Winter Solstice or Yule. It is a time when many of these traditions celebrate the re-birth of the god by the mother goddess.
Here are some recent press quotes on our winter observances.
“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 twenty-fifth, we nonetheless follow many of the traditional customs of the season: decorated trees, caroling, 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.” – Mike Nichols, The Witches’ Sabbats
“Some solstice celebrations were jolly and some were fearful, but all involved using fire to entice the sun to return instead of continuing to retreat day after day until it didn’t come up at all and everybody would die. Prematurely. So every winter Solstice, I invoke my inner Druid, and celebrate by lighting the house with only candles (including dimmed candle bulbs in chandeliers) and fires in the fireplaces, invite family over and serve a really good meal (just in case it’s our last.)” – Carol King, The Day (Connecticut)
“Pagans adorn their sacred spaces and homes with evergreens. We bring holly for protection, ivy for the faithful promise that life endures, and mistletoe for fertility. The candles we light to rekindle the fires of Sol, also symbolize our desire to rekindle our inner Sun — “As above, so below.” An old saying is: “A bayberry candle burned to the socket, brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.” Placing candles or lights on the Yule Tree ensures that the household will have a year of plenty, warmth, and light. We feast to lighten our hearts and share the fellowship of others to warm ourselves from within when all seems bleak. The origin of the Christmas Ham is from the Norse ritual of slaughtering the best boar for the Yule feast.” – Terry Smith, The Town Talk
“I say we celebrate the return of the sun. Let us return to our primitive roots. Sing in the streets or on the beach this Winter Solstice. Uncork that special bottle of wine or open that forty ounce bottle of Country Club malt liquor. Dust off your dancing shoes. Days will grow longer, hallelujah. The cold days and nights will become memories, the birds will migrate to Canada, the flowers will blossom, the glaciers will continue to melt and greed will return to Wall Street. (Well, we can deal with global warming and the Depression next year) It’ll soon be the shortest day of the year so hurry on down. Grab the cell phone and call your friends and family. Buy tickets and climb aboard the love train. It’ll be pulling into the station any time now. We can join hands if we want to.” – ‘Operadoc’, The Florida Union-Times
“Traditionally the log that celebrated Yule — a name that some scholars believe may have been derived from an old word for wheel, as the wheel of the year turned — was big enough to light 12 days of feasting. A fragment would be saved to light next year’s log, symbolizing continuity and rebirth. Many of us continue to light our homes and neighborhoods in an effort to bring cheer against the gathering gloom of deepest winter. But, again, Tuesday brings us the turn around, and we move slowly but steadily toward that next great celestial event — the vernal equinox. But for now, Mother Earth sleeps and replenishes herself and her creatures and her people. And there is a long draft of holiday cheer. Drink deep.” – Michael Babcock, Great Falls Tribune
“I’m not so much celebrating Christmas as acknowledging Yule – the old Germanic and Norse mid-winter festival supplanted over a millennium ago by early Christian missionaries and to which we owe most of the seasonal fun, including the Christmas tree, the lights, holly, mistletoe and the ham. It’s no wonder that Christmas and Yule have become synonymous in the West.” – Ian Vince, The Telegraph
No matter what your religion or tradition, may this year’s winter celebrations and observances bring you peace and joy!