Friday, 17 December 2010

Yule - The Winter Solstice

The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world.

So many cultures celebrate a mid-winter festival, in both ancient and modern times. The Winter Solstice is one of the four fire festivals, the time when in the Northern Hemisphere, the night is at its longest and the day at its shortest.

To our ancestors it was a crucial time, when the sun reached the point in the calendar where it apparently "stood still" in the sky (the literal meaning of the word solstice) before beginning the return to longer days and shorter nights - something very significant for people whose survival centred on growing enough food and keeping warm.

Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives. Because of this many ancient people had a great reverence for, and even worshipped the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come. At mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.

If you watch the sunrise and sunset from the same spot you'll be able to mentally mark your own solstice alignments - the point where the sun rises and sets on its shortest day. Stand in the same place on June 21st and compare these winter points to where it appears and disappears at the Summer Solstice. You'll realise the huge difference the Earth's tilt and orbit makes, although to our ancestors of course it was the sun which appeared to move.

So many of our modern Christmas customs date from pagan times. Evergreens have always been part of the decorations for this festival – holly, ivy and fir. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids and a venerated plant. Light, candles and wreaths have always been important for Yule, and the word yule comes from Old Nore “jul”. Christingles, St Lucia, St Stephen – all have their roots in ancient customs celebrated at this mid-winter festival. Even Father Christmas is said to perhaps have morphed from the shaman who would play a vital role in the proceedings in the Northern Hemisphere. Some early art depicting this mid-winter benefactor portrays him in green robes – maybe a version of the Green Man? Herne the Hunter was a horned deity sacred to this time of year – a man with antlers sprouting from his head. Wassailing, when the orchards would be visited by bands of singers performing rituals around the trees, singing and drinking from a Wassail Cup to toast the trees and ensure their well-being for the year ahead – perhaps a forerunner of the bands of carol-singers who once traipsed around the village.

The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants.

The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.

The Druids would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.

It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.

Many of these customs are still followed today. They have been incorporated into the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas.

Yule is a time throughout time that honours love and new birth, as well as the collective unity of man. Just as Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, Yule celebrates the birth of the Sun God - child of the Goddess in the Pagan belief system. Yule is primarily the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun. Many people associate the Winter Solstice, or winter itself with death, as it is the season in which nature is dormant, and in which many plants die off and crops are scarce. Conversely, the Winter Solstice, although it is the longest night, (boasting more than 12 hours of darkness), it is also the turning point of the year, as following this night the sun grows stronger in the sky, and the days become gradually longer once more. Thus the Winter Solstice is also a celebration of rebirth, and there are many traditions that stem from this perspective.

The Winter Solstice is the traditional time to celebrate the truly important things in life: your family, your children, your home and looking forward to a wonderful year to come.



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