Intro to the Sabbats - Yule

Circa December 22nd  (Northern Hemisphere)

Circa June 21st (Southern Hemisphere)

Even though we see the very obvious evidence of Christmas also celebrated at this time, we know that some of the best known elements of this holiday – virgin births, trees gaily decorated, lights, wreaths, feasting, etc – are also part of this pagan holiday and other midwinter celebrations like it. 

Yule is a time when the God, who died at Samhain is reborn of the Virgin Goddess, the God being represented by the sun who begins to once again gains ground after December 21st (the shortest day of the year).  It is thought that the traditions of lighting fires and having lights throughout the home and indeed the land, are a form of sympathetic magic, seeking to draw the warmth and fertility that the sunlight brings.  In fact, it is a custom in Ireland and Norway to leave lights burning for the entire day of Yule, not only for the reason of drawing light and warmth, but to also honor the Virgin Goddess that gives birth to the source of the warmth and light. 

Now the word “virgin” has had several connotations over the years, but originally it was meant as a woman who was whole unto herself.  Independent, not bound by secular law, unmarried but was free to take on any lover (or lovers) she chose. She was complete in and of herself – intact as it were – a virgin.  In the pagan tradition, the Virgin Goddess  - who is a complete being unto herself - gives birth to the God on Yule, who will in turn become her consort and lover through out the year.

There has never been any doubt about Yule’s importance.  As the days grew colder and the nights longer, we sought ways to lure the sun and warmth back to our lands.  It also kept us in tune with the cycle of the earth, gave us an opportunity to gather with friends and family.  Just as our activities moved from outdoors to in, so was it a time to turn inward to examine ourselves and what we hoped to be in the future. 

Primarily the customs we celebrate at Yule have been derived from the Norse and Roman cultures, where this sabbat was their New Year and the time when the Goddess once again turned the Wheel of the Year to it’s “start”.    “Yule” is actually an older Norse word that meant “wheel”, and was referred to as Hweolor-tid, otherwise known as the “turning time”

Yule, for the Norse is a twelve day festival celebration, and we can see evidence of this even in the well known Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.  The first eve was referred to as “Mother night” (the night of the Solstice) & traditionally participants sit up to await the rising and rebirth of their Sun Goddess (Freya).  They also use this time in much the same way as others do Samhain, as spirit contact and remembrance of those who have passed on is not uncommon.  

In Egyptian culture the Winter Solstice was a time to remember the creation of the universe as well as the rebirth of their sun god, Ra.  They are taught that in the beginning there was nothing in existence but Nun, a sort of dark primordial darkness (much like the womb of the Goddess).  From this blackness Ra was born and he in turn procreated and gave birth to the other deities, and due to the great amount of effort he expended by birthing the other deities, he cried great dark tears (as given to him by Nun), which in turn became the Egyptian people.  Since this time of the year is the beginning of a short rainy season, it was considered a special blessing when rain actually occurred on the solstice night, Ra bringing new life again to the earth through his tears.

Wreaths are often seen at Yule and is reminiscent of the Wheel of the Year.  The Wheel is a circle, it has no beginning and no end, and the symbol of the wreath helps to remind us that with everything there is a season.  Whatever we have, we have only for a time, but instead of sadness we should have joy, because with the cessation of one cycle, begins another with new and exciting possibilities.  You can display wreaths through out your home or yard, and it matters not if you make them yourself or buy one commercially made.

However, if you do choose to make one, you have many options available to you.  Pine cones are readily available that time of the year, and are representative of the male energies.  Apples are also still easy to come by, and should you wish to combine both on one wreath you will have one that is not only fragrant and eye pleasing, it will hold both the male (pine cones) and female (apple) energies.  Truly deity unified.  If you decide to use artificial items, then by all means go to your local craft store and pick up a Styrofoam circle, glue (or hot glue sticks & a glue gun), and any artificial fruits, plants or decorations you wish.  The possibilities are endless, and are only limited by your own imagination.

Because the wheel was such a powerful symbol associated with Yule, Goddesses of spinning wheels were considered particularly sacred also.  Spinning is a metaphor for the Wheel of the Year, as the ideal of spinning from the old to create the new.  We see this put forth in the art of spell casting.  We use what we have (mind, tools, intentions, etc) to create that goal we would like – in essence new from old.  I prefer to think of the word “recycled” in place of the old to new concept, but either is correct – and in any case it is up to you to decide what mental association works best for you.

Mithras, another of the reborn sun gods is one who holds many parallels to the Judeo Christian Jesus Christ.  He was born in a barn of a virgin mother, and as a child of the deity/god, was the son (sun) in human form.  Followers prayed to him for his return, which would usher in new and eternal life for all humanity. 

Our custom of gift giving stems from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn.  This was also a New Year’s festival where gifts were given to honor loved ones who had passed on the prior year.  The tradition was spread by Roman explorers and conquerors throughout Europe and as a result, remains a part of the modern day Yule celebrations.

Fire was also another symbolic and not so symbolic part of Yule, as it provided warmth to the hearth and home as well as being used to coax the Sun god back into the land.  In some lands there was a fire that was tended and burned year round, was allowed to extinguish on Yule in order to kindle a new fire for the following year to commemorate the Sun’s triumph over the darkness.  Some groups still practice a form of this tradition by having a candle lit in a cauldron that is tended carefully all year round and put out on Yule night. (On a personal note, I am not sure how this is accomplished as candles will and do burn down, perhaps it is a very large or slow burning one, but if anyone has any information on this, please let me know I would be interested in hearing).

Yule logs also utilized the power of fire, though the symbolism goes much deeper than that.  Usually made from a piece of Oak (also the shape is a phallic symbol), it can have one or three holes bored into it, where the corresponding number of candles resides.  The candles can be white, red, black, but traditionally the candles represented the Goddess and their insertion came to represent the Goddess being impregnated by the God.  The log was then decorated with Holly, Mistletoe, Evergreens to be symbolic of the God and Goddess intertwining and reuniting.

Another popular sight during the holidays is the decorated Evergreen tree.  In the Druidic culture the trees were venerated as deity and a symbol of the universe.  To the Celts, the trees were sacred because the never seemed to “die” and presented a clear ideal of life eternal aspect of the Goddess.  The greenery was a reminder of warmer and more fertile and lush times when the sun would return to the earth, and the height of the tree also associated with eternal life.  As the trees also had an extensive root structure, it reinforced the principle “as above so below” when also keeping in mind the tree height. 

Decoration of the tree came about as a way to manifest whatever it was that you wished for the coming year.  Fruits, vegetables, charms for all sorts of occasions and even items that would be used and needed at future sabbats could be found on the tree.  It was also not uncommon to find nuts and coins for fertility and wealth.  Now the trees were not only brought inside for the decorating (although some trees were decorated and left outdoors), but (in the Scandinavian tradition) also because the sabbat participants wished to provide a nice resting place for the tree elementals during the colder winter months and coax the faery folk to participate in the occasion. 

Now it is believed in some circles that the usage of the tree during Yule did not in fact come from the Druids or Scandinavian traditions, but from the Germanic pagans.  The decorated tree gained importance supposedly when Queen Victoria’s consort, Albert, brought the custom over from his native Germany.  In any case, the Saxons who were a Germanic tribe rich in pagan culture revered trees, and it is said that they were the first to place lights in the trees themselves. 

As it was at Midsummer, so the struggle for supremacy occurs again at Yule between the Holly King and the Oak King.  However, in this round it is the Oak King who triumphs at this time and will reign until Midsummer when the two will “battle” again and the Holly King will gain the upper hand.  Why are the kings named Holly and Oak?  Most likely this occurred because the Holly and the Oak were both sacred to the Druid culture, and it might interest you to know that while the two kings are mortal enemies, they are in actuality two halves of a whole and neither one could exist without the other.  The Holly King, according to lore bears a close resemblance to the modern day Santa Claus, as he is dressed in red/crimson, wears Holly in his hat, and also drove a team of eight deer, an animal that was sacred to the Celts.   Holly and Mistletoe came into importance as holiday symbols as a derivation of the two kings:  Holly for the Holly King and Mistletoe for the Oak King. 

Also relating to the “battle” but much older is the conflict of the wren and robin.  The robin is symbolic of the waxing year, and at this time kills the wren (symbolic of the waning year).  In some communities, one wren per household or community was  killed in an act of sympathetic magic.  There is an old English nursery rhyme that expounds on this, but in such a way to hide the pagan meaning from those not meant to know. 

 

Jenny Wren fell sick,

Upon a merry time.

Along came Robin Redbreast,

And fed her cakes and wine.

 
Another lesser known Scottish rhyme tells of the lament of the Wren, for not being able to dwell in the same space as the Robin:

 

The Robin came to the Wren’s nest,

And keekit in, and keekit in,

“Oh woe is me on your old pow,

Would you be in, would you be in?

For you shall never lie without,

And me within, and me within,

As long as I have an old clout,

To row you in, to Row you in.”

 

Food as with all of the other sabbat celebrations, played an important part in Yule.  It was a time to celebrate abundance and forget about the long lean winter months ahead – in effect to project what type of food stores a family would have – one where feasting would be possible.  Beans are consumed in Canada and the United States on New Year’s and is seen as a fertility amulet, possibly a way to coax the earth from its slumber.  Chestnuts were roasted on the Yule fire and used in a form of divination, based on how they “popped” in the fire.    In German tradition a sour pickle was hidden somewhere within a house, and the child who was lucky enough to find it merited an extra gift or portion of the feast.  A sour pickle was used as a symbol of the possible sourness of the coming year.  To find it’s hiding place, and thus “head off trouble” would spell fortuitous times ahead. 

Vikings used pork in their feasts, and offered a portion to their fallen heroes in sacrifice.  They would retell their battle triumphs and most glorious stories, and would make toasts to the god of poetry and song, Braggi, from which we get the term, “to brag”.    Apples were also an intricate part of their Yule tradition, as they believed the fruit to be sacred, containing the power to keep the deities alive eternally. 

The Saxon feast was a very interesting one indeed. They had two tables, one to take food and another to leave alms for the less fortunate.  This was in honor of their belief that whatever you give returns to you, and is a custom in many forms that we celebrate daily today.  They served fowl and a ale in a round bottomed tankard that could not, because of its shape, be set down.  So once it was filled it had to be emptied in one sitting, and the drunken giddiness it caused was reminiscent of the excitement of the deities when they were once again in their youthful form. 

Finally, what would a Yule celebration be without storytelling?  This was one of the most popular activities during the winter months, as people struggled with being kept mainly inside.   An Irish custom was telling stories about one God of Irish mythology, Finn MacCool.  He was the one responsible for defending the land from invaders and drove the Firbolgs back to the ocean.  He was also responsible for the creation of Lough Neagh by scooping the land out with his bare hands.  He took the land he had removed and threw it into the Irish Sea, and it became known as the Isle of Mann, which was a gift to the sea God, Mannan.  It can add a colorful flavor to your celebrations to set aside some time to tell stories of your tradition’s heroes, heroines and their feats of strength and bravery.  You might be interested to find just how much occult lore you uncover in their telling!

 

Correspondences

Sabbat Names: Midwinter, Sun Return, Alban Arthan, Pagan New Year, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, Finn’s Day, Yuletide, Festival of Sol, Great Day of the Cauldron, Festival of Growth

Symbols: Evergreen Trees, Yule Log, Holly, Eight-Spoked Wheel, wreaths, spinning wheels

Colors: Red, Green, White, Gold

Deities: newborn God, Triple Goddess

  • Goddesses: All Spinning Goddesses, Albina, Angerona, Anna Perenna, Befana, Brigitte, Changing Woman, Eve, Fortuna, Frey, Gaia, Hannah, Heket, Kefa, Lilith, Lucina, Ma’at, Metzli, Nox, NuKua, Pandora, Pax, Shekinah, Spinning Woman, Thea, Tiamat, Virgin Mary, Yachimato-Hime

 

  • Gods:  All Re-Born Gods, Aker, Apollo, Attis, Balder, Braggi, Cronos, Father Sun, Helios, Hyperion, Janus, Jesus, Lugh, Maui, Mitra, Mithras, Ngau, Nurelli, Oak/Holly King, Odin, Ra, Saturn, Sol, Ukko, Yachimata-Hiko

Activities: Decorating the Yule tree, gifts in memory of the deceased, storytelling

Taboos: extinguishing fire, traveling

Animals: Stags, Squirrels, Wren/Robin

Stones: Bloodstone, Ruby, Garnet

Foods: Poultry, dried fruit, eggnog, pork, beans

Plants:  Holly, mistletoe, evergreens, poinsettia, bougainvillea, tropical flowers, bay, pine, ginger, valerian, myrrh

Meanings: rebirth of God, honor of the Triple Goddess, return of Sun and Waxing year, New Year (non-Celtic)

Attunement Teas: Cinnamon, Mullein, Willow Bark, Yarrow

Ritual Oils: Rosemary, Myrrh, Nutmeg, Saffron, Cedar/Pine, Wintergreen, Ginger

Mythical Creatures: Phoenix, Trolls, Mermecolion