It is at Yule, that the stirrings of new life begin, and Nature most corresponds to the dark New Moon. From the Norse countries comes the celebration of Yule, or Winter Solstice, as the rebirth of the Sun, after the longest night of the year. In later times, this highly popular festival became Christianized as Christmas, the birth of the Son. The infant Son of the Goddess, though, like all newborns, shows only potential. We cannot yet see what his true individuality will be, any more than we can know for sure what lies ahead for the new year to come.
Copyright © 2000-2008 Maria Kay Simms
The great Wheel turns full circle to the longest night of the year. Imagine the sense of darkness long, long ago, as the people gathered, waiting for the sunrise, hoping and praying for the return of light. Visualize a circle of stones and the anticipation of waiting within and looking beyond toward the horizon where finally, at long last, a glow of light begins to form…and grow…until suddenly the light is there. Reborn! Shining with brilliance atop the marker stone, heralding to all that the dark time has passed. The waxing light has returned! The Sun, Divine Child of hope and promise is reborn! A new year has begun! The people sing with joy, and so it has been throughout the ages… Wherever you celebrate this Yuletide within times zones of continental USA, a ritual held at the actual time of Winter Solstice will be on a Saturday evening, ideal for a candlelight vigil. At Starcrafts' home base in Ocean Beach in San Diego, CA, Yule might be celebrated at the beach, or perhaps in a yard with palm tree swaying and flowers still in bloom. At "Starcrafts East," the New Hampshire site of Circle of the Cosmic Muse, Yule will most likely be celebrated within our circle of stones in the snow, hot cider bubbling in a cauldron over the center fire. 2002 will be the fourth Yule since we created our circle garden with granite stones marking the quarters and the solstice sunrises and sunsets. Each of the first three came with a clear, crisp night after a light, but covering, snow. May this year be the same!
From within a stone circle clear observation of the movement of the lights in the sky becomes easy, though it can be noted anywhere if you watch for it. At Fall Equinox the sun rose at the east point of my compass while standing at circle center, just beyond the eastern monolith, but since then it has gradually appeared a bit more to the south each day. At Winter Solstice the Sun, now rising at southernmost declination (23S26), appears to "stand still" for about a three day pause. (Solstice is derived from Latin for sol, the Sun and sistere, to cause to stand still.) Then, each day Sun will begin to reverse, rising ever gradually eastward until Spring Equinox, when it will once again rise due east. In the east window of my bedroom I have another fun way of observing the movement of sunrises. A large feng shui crystal hangs from the ceiling, where I have a row of holes to adjust its position as the Sun changes declination, so that each clear morning I can give the crystal a whirl and have a room full of rainbow colors!
Winter Solstice as Birth of the Sun/Son
Celebrations and ritual based on the return of the Light, often depicted as the birth of a Divine Child after the longest night, derive from many cultures and ancient times. Many pre-Christian cultures had tales of Gods and heroes whose births to a Mother Goddess bear striking similarities to the later story of the birth of Jesus. Pagan celebrations in this season of the return of the Light were so popular and pervasive that the growing Catholic hierarchy of Rome, in the 4th century AD finally decided on December 25 as the birthday of Jesus, in the attempt to Christianize the Roman rites of Mithra, the Saturnalia and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons. (Saturnalia was a festival to Saturn, ruler of Capricorn. Saturn is the Roman name for the earlier Greek Kronos, God of Time.) Because the Pagan origins of Christmas were so well known, acceptance throughout the world took many centuries. Even in the 17th century New England Puritans tried unsuccessful to get this "Pagan" holiday banned! Unless the gospels are wrong, it is highly unlikely that Jesus actually was born in December. For one thing, shepherds and their flocks would not have been out in the fields at midwinter. But no matter, the symbolism of Winter Solstice is so completely fitting, that the December 25 "birthday" prevailed. Whether one celebrates the birth of the Son of Mary, or the birth of the newborn Sun to the Mother Goddess, or the return of new Light in any other tradition, the core meaning is much the same. With the passing away of the longest day of darkness followed by the birth of the Child of Light come joy, hope and the promise of new life, a new beginning
Yule Customs -- Old and New
Yule can be a very special celebration shared with family and friends of varied spiritual paths, for so many of the Pagan folk customs of old have become the secular customs of this season, and as such, are familiar and comfortable for all faiths to share. "Deck the halls with boughs of holly" is a very old and perennially popular Yule tune that clearly refers to the death of the old solar year and the birth of the new. Its phrase "See the blazing Yule before us" suggests the tradition of burning the Yule Log. Holly is wonderful for decorating, with its dark green leaves and bright red berries that stay fresh looking throughout the season. To hang the holly over doorways or windows, according to one old folk custom, wards against any evil spirits who dared to try and enter, lest they be snagged on its sharp, prickly leaves.
Holly is a favorite of mine for decorating my Yule Log, along with a sprig or two of fir tree, and a bright red ribbon. A lot of white birch grows near my home, and the holly makes a wonderful contrast. The photo shows this year's log, with a gold candle on top for the newborn Sun King. We burn the Yule Log during the evening Winter Solstice ritual each year, kindled with a piece of last year's log that we saved for the purpose. The tradition of burning a Yule Log symbolizes the blazing forth of new light as the old year dies. To save a piece to kindle the next shows the continuity of the endless cycle. Save the ash from your Yule fire, too, for it can be used for protective magick. The custom of the Yule Log is very old, perhaps the oldest of all. Some say it can be traced all the way back to the Roman Saturnalia, or even back to ancient Egypt.
The evergreen tree has also been central to this season since ancient times, considered sacred because it is immortal -- evergreen. Though references to this can be found in the lore of various ancient cultures, the custom as we know it today probably had its beginnings in Germany, whose name for it, Tannenbaum, is still sung in a popular carol. My Danish born mother remembered burning candles decorating the trees of her childhood, a practice that obviously needed very close watching, fortunately no longer needed! During the middle ages it was a popular custom to decorate the tree with apples, and another old Pagan carol still sung today preserves the association of apples with evergreen in another custom of the season: "Here we go a wassailing among the leaves of green…" The "wassail" was apple cider, shared with good wishes for health and abundance. The word relates to the Anglo-Saxon wes hal, which means "Be Whole" and may also relate to the Viking phrase ves heill which was used to toast to one's health.
The wreath of evergreen symbolizes the ever-turning wheel, the endless circle, and the unending nature of life. Each year we make a new wreath of from various fir trees and holly on a form big enough that an adult can easily step through it. The wreath hangs on the side of the house until Solstice night, when it becomes part of our Yule ritual. Each person steps through the wreath, casting off the old year ending and being reborn into the new. From Nordic lore we have the mythology of the Holly King as God of the Waning Year, and Oak King as the God of the waxing year. Through the Holly Wreath, then, is also a way of also transitioning from Holly to Oak, and often an acorn is given to each person after stepping through as blessing for the year ahead.
Copyright © 2000-2008 Maria Kay Simms
A Ritual for Interfaith Yuletide Sharing
Many or most of us who practice in Wiccan and/or other Neopagan traditions have family members and friends of other faiths. An enjoyable ritual that enables all to share the joy of the seasonal can be the making and blessing of a fragrant Yuletide Potpourri. Offer a party on or near Winter Solstice. Serve hot mulled cider and cookies, and ask everyone who comes to bring ingredients for the potpourri: sprigs of various varieties of fragrant evergreen trees -- pine, yew, spruce, cedar, juniper. Fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, basil, thyme are good, and also spices such as cinnamon sticks and whole cloves. Dried apples or other dried fruits, nuts, small pinecones and winterberry can also be added for color and texture. Provide a very large container (cauldron, dishpan, washtub) that all can gather around while breaking the ingredients into small pieces, mixing them into the container.
Begin by setting the intent, perhaps:
We gather at the time of Winter Solstice, when the longest night of the year gives way to the waxing light. The ancients celebrated this time as the rebirth of the Sun, and it was considered a time of hope, promise and new beginnings. Let's make a Yuletide seasonal potpourri together, and while we work and share our favorite holiday memories and also our hopes and wishes for the year to come, we can blend those joyful energies into the potpourri and also charge our own will to make this next year all we hope it can be. When we are finished, we'll bless the potpourri together and each take some home where its fragrance will remind us of the hopes and wishes we have shared and what we plan to do to bring them into reality.
After the potpourri is complete, join hands around it and say something like this:
Feel the energy of our sharing pass from hand to hand. See it in the eyes of others all around our circle as we join together in peace and joy and love. May our thoughts and energies surround and fill us, infusing that which we have created so that the feelings we share tonight carry forth to anyone not here whom we may give a gift of our Yuletide potpourri. Though we go from here in our separate ways, hold in your hearts the unity of sharing that it may be extended to others. Let's share a moment of silent thanks to Divine Spirit for our many blessings. (pause) As light returns to Earth, let Light be rekindled in our hearts and minds, and may we know and share the blessings of peace and love.
A Personal or Group Candlelight Ritual for Winter Solstice Night
Whether working alone or with a group, let's call upon the Sun and Venus, so prominent in the chart of Winter Solstice, for their most hoped for potential, that peace will prevail on Earth within 2003. The optimum time for this working would encompass the actual time of Winter Solstice: (5:15 in PST, 6:15 in MST, 7:15 in CST, 8:15 in EST), although the ritual can, of course, be done at other times, too.
You will need to create (or purchase) a large enough wreath to step through. This can be most any circular form, decorated as you choose with either fresh or artificial greenery. If working alone have at least twelve candles, one to represent each sign of the zodiac. If you are working with a group, have candles in multiples of 12, all the way up to 360 for each degree of a circle. Candle luminaries can be made by putting little tea candles (the kind that come in tins) within small paper cups. These burn safely, even outdoors in moderate wind, as the metal holds the wax until it burns away.
Begin with a centering meditation and then cast sacred space in your usual way. After calling the Guardians of the Watchtowers, invoke the God and Goddess as Sun and Venus:
O Sun of bright new year I (we) call Child of life and light Shine peace throughout this land of ours Bring wisdom with your might! O Venus, come in love and peace Star of dawn for all to see Your light of Truth I (we) call within Peace shall begin with me!
Then, as you say this next short verse, step through the Yule wreath, make your personal transition from the old year to the new:
This night of new Light's birthing I (we) step through Yule wreath free Cast off the old year, greet the new With Light of Peace, so mote it be!
Now light your candles one at a time and place them in a circle. If you have the space, you can build the circle of Light around you or your entire group. If you are working alone or only have the space of a table, make the circle on it. A symbol of Earth could be placed within (a map, a globe, a photo of Earth from space). As you place the candles, sing an appropriate song. A good one, familiar to many and available in many songbooks begins Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me*. The second line of verse one of the song continues: Let there be peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be. Then the next two lines are Christian in wording, but can easily be changed slightly so that the words are generic to all spiritual paths. Here is a suggested change: In Spirit together, we are one family, Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony. The second verse is appropriate to all paths just as it was originally written.
After the circle of Light has been formed, other favorite traditions could be followed, such as the burning of the Yule Log, the blessing of sharing of cakes and beverages and also thoughts and experiences of the ritual. Following the closing of this rite, you will be allowing your candles to burn all the way down naturally, so be sure that they are safely placed and can be monitored for safety.
In closing, offer thanks to the Guardians and to Sun and Venus for this sacred night as you visualize the Light of Peace spreading in all directions outward from your circle all across the Earth, joining with other circles of Light in other places.
Believe that on this Winter Solstice you have been and will continue to be a significant force for peace!
Copyright © 2002 Maria Kay Simms
*"Let there be Peace on Earth" is by Sy Miller & Jill Jackson, ©1955 by Jan-Lee Music