This is the week that we all start preparing for our holiday traditions. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Paganism, Roman Saturnalia, or any other winter celebration you can think of, it is all tied back to the ancient traditions of Yule, or Juul, as the Norse people traditionally called it. Yule always falls on the winter solstice, which is around December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere, because it is the shortest day of the year – and the first day of winter. The sun is at its greatest distance from the equatorial plane, leading to a day of darkness, yet also a day to welcome in the New Year and brighter days.
This idea that one should honor the last days of darkness and rejoice in the return of the sunny days ahead stems from the ancient traditions of cultures such as Norse, Romans, and Egyptians. During the times when these empires flourished, they had firm beliefs in gods that provided a bountiful and healthy life, including sun gods, winter gods, rain gods, and many others. This led to celebrations on many important dates that signified abundance (agriculture), health, and the changes in seasons – and Yule is no different!
The Nordic Yule Traditions
Traditionally, Europeans viewed the winter months as a time of starvation, endless cold, and famine. This was when pre-Christian Scandinavian countries still had deep-rooted ceremonies and beliefs in Pagan ideals. Since feeding cattle during winter months was almost impossible, they utilized the winter solstice as a sacrificial day to honor the gods of winter and summer while feasting on all the cattle they had to slaughter. This tradition became known as “The Feast of Juul”, which would last for twelve days, marking the start of the winter solstice (December 21) to the New Year (January 1). This all stemmed from the surprise these civilizations had every year when the dark, cold winter would change to longer, warmer days after the solstice.
After years of this realization, as with every ancient culture, the Norse people developed a famous legend to explain this phenomenon – the battle of the Oak King and the Holly King. Most Pagan and Wiccan traditions revolve around the Goddess and the Horned god, a very dualistic way to express the female and male energies that encompass all of life and nature. The Oak King and the Holly King are often represented as dual aspects of the Horned god, similar to the personification of the two horns the figure has been reflected to have. All of this reflects the belief in the duality of nature – you cannot have one without the other.
The Oak King is said to be strongest during the midsummer, or the summer solstice, whereas the Holly King is strongest during the winter solstice. The Oak King, often portrayed as the Green Man or a lord of the forest, battles the Holly King, often recognized as the first ‘Santa Claus’ who is a big man with a white beard, holly in his hair, and accompanied by eight stags. These two kings signify the duality of light and darkness throughout the year, portraying the fight for the favor of the Goddess. Every six months, one of them loses, and the other retires to heal for the next battle. Even though these two kings are always depicted as fighting, the irony is that one could simply not exist without the other.
This ancient folklore set the path for ideals and traditions that we still follow today. Many countries still celebrate Yule and the honoring of the rebirth of the light on the winter solstice, as well as celebrating the significance of the Holly King’s rule – the god of transformation. This is where New Year’s Resolutions derived from. By celebrating the transformations and birth of new ways that the Holly King encourages us to do during the dark winter months, we start to break old habits and introduce new, exciting blessings into our life!
Furthermore, “The Feast of Juul” revolved around the sacrificial burning and ceremony surrounding the Yule log – a means to start the traditional Solstice festival, honor the changing of seasons, praise the abundance that would be coming their way, and to honor the gods and kings that provided a means to life. Traditionally, the Yule log was either to be harvested from a person’s own land or given as a gift, but never bought. From there, the Yule log was placed in a fireplace or a fire burning area outside, decorated with greenery (such as holly, mistletoe, and ivy because it grew during the cold winter months), and burned with a piece of last years log that they held onto.
This log was meant to burn until it went out, but smolder for twelve days before the “putting out” ceremony on the first day of the New Year. Some kindling from the Yule log would be set aside for the following year, but the ash was often kept as a token of good luck, a sacred fertilizer to be spread on the fields, or medicine. Either way, the whole process was very sacred and important to many cultures, and this is continued well into Christian Christmas traditions. Ultimately, the Norse (and Romans, Egyptians, etc. with their similar Juul traditions) were able to create a ceremony that would last for centuries.
How to Create Your Own Yule Ceremony at Home
No matter what religion, or lack thereof, you choose to follow, honoring the changing of the seasons and all that the Earth has to offer is important. The winter solstice is a time of reflection, introspection, and preparation for the start of a New Year, all while honoring the blessings you already have in your life. Offering up a prayer or an acknowledgement to the winter solstice on Yule, as well as the twelve days that follow the 21st, can give you food for thought on your life choices and future decisions during the holiday season.
To begin, set up your Yule alter, even if it is just a small set up. This can include traditional greenery decorations you may already have in your Christmas decoration box, as well as a candle or two. Anything else that you feel is valuable and special to add to your alter is always welcome. Then, move onto the Yule log. If you have a fireplace, feel free to go out and acquire your own large log – just be sure you do not buy it if possible! Collect if from your local park, your backyard, or your national forest if you can.
If not, many people today that still celebrate Yule tend to find a small branch, particularly made from oak or pine, that can sit up on its own. From there, three holes are drilled into it, and then adorned with three candles. Then, it is often decorated with more greenery, rosebuds, cloves, or anything that you would like. You can even go out and buy one already made if you do not have other options, because it is more about giving thanks and honor to all that you have than where it comes from.
After you set up your Yule log, whatever that may look like, spend the next twelve days lighting the candles or the log and begin to reflect on what you have in your life. Are you grateful for the cold months we just had, or are you excited to transition into the warm, summer months ahead? What resolutions are you putting forth into the New Year? What areas of your life are you looking to learn and grow from? Whatever it is, rejoice in your blessings, do all that you can to prepare for the New Year, and celebrate in the Feast of Juul!