Yule/ Winter Solstice 21st December
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Yule (pron. Yool), Midwinter, Winter Solstice, The Shortest Day Stones: Garnet, Smoky Quartz, Chrysocolla, Snowflake Obsidian, Carnelian Tarot Card/s: Temperance (XIV) and The Devil (XV) Incense/Herbs: Pine, Mistletoe, Sage, Juniper, Frankincense, Bay, Ginger It turns out; Yule is a HUGE topic, with midwinter traditions spanning across multiple religions throughout time. What I have aimed to do here, is explore some of the more folkloric and Pagan traditions of Great Britain - my hope being that some of which may provide inspiration for your own Winter Solstice rituals and traditions around the Shortest Day. Dionysus (Greek), Mithras (Iranian/Roman), Baal (Canaanite), Freya (Norse) oh, and Jesus (Christian) were all 'children of the light' born on or around the 21st of December. Either we have been blessed with an abundance of Capricorn spiritual leaders and Deities OR Midwinter has been a vastly important time for survival and humanity the world over and therefore must equate to the birth of a pretty big deal (i.e the literal sun). I had a rough idea that I would be losing myself down a rabbit hole or two when tackling one of the most popular dates on the Pagan calendar but I had no idea quite how many rabbits I would get distracted by along the way! So my plan is to write another specifically 'Christmastide' themed piece about some of the weirder festive findings I've encountered in my research later. In its simplest form, Yule is a festival intended to invoke the Sun or entice it back to us, slowly but surely putting an end to a harsh winter and welcoming abundance in the Spring. Most rituals around this time are, understandably, about wishing for prosperity, good food and protection in the darkness and cold.
This festival is steeped in plant lore too, so for the Green Witches and Herbalists reading, Yule should be a real treat. All over Britain, records dating back to the 12th Century have mentioned the tradition of bringing the outside, inside for Midwinter time. Holly, a symbol of life, was said by the ancient Scottish Highland dwellers to be hung to keep the fairies away. To have Ivy growing up your house was said to protect your home from witchcraft and was often brought in from the forest to decorate for Yule. Mistletoe lore is incredibly rich- said to protect the home from storm damage and known to many Pagans at 'The Golden Bough' this mystical plant could have an essay of its own. Mistletoe or the 'Kissing Bough' was traditionally fed to the first cow to calve in the new year, according to Worcestershire farming tradition.
Saining (smudging or smoke cleansing) and cleansing of every sort was and is a big part of Yule celebration. This is done with the intention of cleaning the energies of yourself, your home and your loved ones; especially in order to say goodbye to parts of the year just gone and make energetic space for the new things to come. Juniper is a particularly lovely and traditionally British herb to use for this as well as Rosemary and Bay.
A 'Kissing Bush' is a custom that appears fairly late in folkloric terms and seems to be recorded between the late 18th and mid 19th century. In England and Wales, this involves a 5 of 6 foot structure, covered with greenery, mistletoe, apples, sweets, candles and paper decorations which was erected specifically to kiss beneath until generally the end of the '12th Night' (6th Jan). Any of the 'Kissing Bush' left standing or any twigs left behind, would attract goblins into the home - and who wants that. Tradition in Devon and the Welsh Marches suggested that the 'Kissing Bush' be left up all year as magical protection for the household.
Staying with the theme of things that absolutely wouldn't be permitted in 2020 as we are still mid-plague, let's take a look at Wassailing! Wassailing (pron. woss-o-ling/ was-sailing) appears in Beowulf as its first known written form, with Wassail taken to be Anglo Saxon for 'Be of Good Health' in the 4th Century poem. By the 13th Century, Wassailing had taken on many new traditional elements, including the addition of the 'Wassail Bowl'. This seems to have involved filling a big bowl with fine wine, allowing guests at your gathering to dip bread and cakes into the wine and then commence with lots of shouting and, once again, plenty of kissing.
The act of Wassailing seems to be synonymous with Saxon life in winter time, possibly due to the aforementioned moment in poetry, but it is a tradition that has lasted the test of time and a change in religious belief along the way! The practice is essentially the act of singing door-to-door or wishing good health on the occupants of the house you have called upon. Enter: Carol Singing's dirty older cousin. Wassail Bowls were said to be filled with hot ale, beer, spiced apples or mead and the Wassailers were encouraged to each take from the bowl as an exchange for the blessings brought to the house (and to defrost them, I'd imagine).
This leads me nicely into some FESTIVE FOODS. We looked at gingerbread people in detail in my Lammas blog post (which you can find here: https://www.amberleealchemy.co.uk/post/lammas-lughnasadh) but of course the ginger bread house needs an honorable mention. Gingerbread in this context is the modern version of ancient grain and honey cakes and these would act as offerings to the Yule Deities. When ginger was first imported to Europe from Asia (circa. 11th Century AD), ginger was priced higher than diamonds by weight, so would have made an extra special ingredient and tribute in Yule cakes. When crafting your own gingerbread house (purely for ritual purposes, of course), the idea is to make a house in the likeness of your own home. As you make it, visualize your house being strong, filled with laughter, love and warmth (it doesn't matter if you have made the wonkiest house ever, intention is key here). You would then eat it with everyone that resides under that roof, inviting them to share in that love and protection. My very favourite Yule fact I've found so far this year, is that the traditional German name for these little houses is 'knusperhäuschen' which translates as CRUNCHY COTTAGE.
Circular bread- the circle being a solar image- twisted at the centre to form an equal-armed cross and named 'Bret-zel' or 'Pretzel' have been a noteable food around Yule in the middle ages and it turns out, sugar cookies are also steeped in ancient tradition. Yule time or not, prehistoric graves in Northern Europe have been found to contain cakes modelled in the rough shapes of Deities, animals, suns, moons and stars!
Cinnamon, orange, nutmeg, ginger and allspice - are all Solar related flavours- perfect for mulling wine or cider AND calling forth the sun, encouraging the days to gradually lighten. Apples, pies, game, preserved foods, winter veg, golden cheeses and pears in wine are all wonderful foods to eat throughout Yule celebrations. It's a delicious way to give thanks for the winter stores of food that will fuel us on the darkest night.
Yule logs may be sold in shops now as a sort of sexed-up swiss roll covered in chocolate icing for that authentic 'log-look'. Many Pagans, Wiccans and Steiner School Allumni still bring a small log into the home, decorate it with fauna and light three candles on it on Winter Solstice night. This wholesome and Hygge-friendly act, seems to harken back to a more practical variation of the Yule Log.
Known as the Yule Clog (North East England), Yule Block (Midlands/West Counry), Gule Block (Lincolnshire) and The Mock (Cornwall) - the Yule log seemed to be the tradition of bringing in a huge log to warm your hearth and home as well as assist with all of the cooking over Yuletide. Highland tradition names the log as 'Yeel Cyarlin' or 'The Christmas Old Wife' and they would sometimes carve the wood into a female shape. As humans needing a bit of cheer during the coldest time of year (and being inherently human), fetching the Yule log became a game in many parts of the U.K. In Somerset, there is a recorded tradition of a log 'Bucking-Bronco' - a man or boy would ride the Yule log into the house - if he managed to stay mounted on the log he would be rewarded heartily with food and wine. Other traditions involved the equally human interest of 'biggest log' competitions and speedy log retrieval.
The burning of the Yule Log was seen as protective in itself, a sacred fire with cleansing smoke. In Montgomeryshire, it was traditional to spread the ashes over the crops for a prosperous crop. In modern practice, scattering the ashes of the Yule fire around the entrance to your home or keeping burnt embers nearby is said to have a protective effect.
Yule wouldn't be Yule without mentioning a horse skull on a stick. The Mari Lywd (pron. Marry Loo-eed) or Grey Mare, is the name of this beloved Midwinter character from Welsh folk tradition. A horse skull, mounted on a big stick, covered in a white sheet that hides the human operator and part of the skull so it appears hooded. The Mari skull will often have black, glass or painted eyes and a clacking jaw and this creature would arrive with a little band of men to sing with The Mari Lywd. The group would arrive at someones door and sing outside it about how the occupant should definitely let The Mari in, in order to get a blessing. The inhabitant would then sing back refusing - and this epic rap battle of history would back and forth until the Mari gave up and begged for kindness. The Mari Lwyd and its party would then be let in, fed and watered, the Mare would chase people and everyone would (somewhat drunkenly) bless the house for the year!
This. This is why I will be doing a separate post for barmy and amazing Yule traditions.
Herne the Hunter has popped up again and again in my research, especially around the small Winter Solstice ritual and guided visualization I am in the process of planning. The Hunter needs a hearty mention here as a leading entity in Pagan lore that seems steeped in the English countryside. Part ghost, part deer, part man and first mentioned in Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' in 1597, although the archetype obviously stalked about history long before then. Herne the Hunter is said to be leading the hunt through the forest at Yuletime, a Shaman, willing us to live and daring us to disturb him. Many of Pagan and Wiccan belief systems see this horned-God figure as an expression of nature, Pan (See The Devil in Tarot) and the divine Masculine. Depending on your lore, we must appease him with a hunt, or respectfully leave his forest well alone.
I can thoroughly recommend getting hold of the Yuletide copy of the brilliant Zine 'Hellebore'. Within it, you will find some wonderful pieces, including an excellent article entitled 'From Ghoul to Godhead' by John Callow; a fascinating look at the 'discovery' and cultural evolution of our encounters with Herne the Hunter throughout modern times. (Here's a link to purchase https://helleborezine.bigcartel.com/ )
In case you haven't heard, the astrology of this particular Winter Solstice (21st of December 2020) is WILD. The Great Conjunction everybody has been talking about - the first meeting of Jupiter and Saturn in 20 years and the closest meeting since the year 1623...In astrology, Jupiter, the planet that rules luck, higher ideas, spirituality and our ideology is moving into Aquarius - the innovative, humanitarian sign. Saturn, the planet that rules restrictions, rules and discipline...is also about to move into Aquarius. The changes coming to the whole structure of our society will be - noticeable - to say the least. A call to reform justice systems, power dynamics and societal norms will be at the front of the political and personal world. As I said..WILD.
The vibes of this will already be in effect and will continue in waves long after, but from a ritual or ceremonial perspective, the 21st of December will be a powerful time to look at, write down and think about the things you want to see in your future. Think protection, outside the box, exciting new ideas and what would really, truly help you to prosper in 2021 and beyond. Rituals of cleansing the old, firing up some candles to bring in the light, and feasting on your favourite Yuletide eats will feel extra charged and magickal. Honestly, simpler is better, it's all about intention.
Whatever you end up doing, I wish you the happiest Yuletime this year, may your home be blessed, your immune system be epic and your hearth be warm.