As December wears on, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of articles about the holidays. Myself, I’ve read several articles on whether or not to tell your children the Santa Claus story, and a couple of great articles about Hanukkah. However, I haven’t seen anything this year (at least in any of the places I typically read) about my very favorite winter holiday, and that’s Yule. My wife and I celebrate Yule, and this year, we'll celebrate together with our son.
Yule is the name for the pagan holiday that occurs on the winter solstice, although many people, including many pagans, use those terms interchangeably. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year. The further north you live from the equator, the bigger the difference in lightness and darkness. The winter solstice takes place every year on or around December 21, and because ancient farming societies were so interested in the sun, it is arguably one of the oldest winter holidays.
My family is pagan, and Yule is one of our most important religious celebrations of the year.
What’s It All About?
My religious path is more concerned with appreciating and respecting nature than it is with deities, or any supernatural phenomena they might (or might not) be able to accomplish. Every year, there is a clear and predictable change in lightness and darkness throughout the seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere (where I live and the branches of paganism I follow originated), there is more daylight in the summer and significantly less in the winter.
The passage of time, and the changes in sunlight, are marked by eight holidays, also called Sabbats, throughout the year. This is often referred to as “the wheel of the year.”
Some traditions observe only some of these holidays, some observe them all.
Yule takes place on the absolute darkest day of the year. It's the day when we have the least sunlight. Nowadays, we might be able to at least somewhat ignore that reality, but before electric lights that darkness was a really big deal for families like mine. So Yule is not a holiday about presents, or a party, or even gods necessarily. It is a holiday about light. It is a light in the darkness.
Yule is when we huddle together and mull cider and remind each other that this won’t be forever. The light will return. The light always returns. It’s a celebration of the predictability of that pattern. It is the moment in the cold and the darkness when we surround ourselves with reminders of light and warmth and joy. It may be the very darkest day, but that means that tomorrow will be just a tiny bit lighter.
How Our Celebration Might Look Familiar To You
Many, but not all, contemporary Christmas traditions originally stemmed from Yule traditions and lore. It was German Pagans who first thought that the evergreen tree was the perfect metaphor for the kind of endurance they wanted to emulate through the winter, and so they started dragging the things indoors. Victorian Christians liked the idea so much that they borrowed it, and thus the Christmas tree was born!
We are pretty hodge podge with our holiday decor around here. We do what makes sense to us for the holiday and don’t much mind if it’s original origin was Christian or Pagan. If you come to our home in December, you’ll see a decorated tree in the living room, some lights strewn up around the house, extra candles, and greenery here and there. I bake gingerbread every year. It’s all part of living seasonally and celebrating what winter is, and what spring will be.
But Then Again, It Might Not
There are certainly similarities between Yule and Christmas, but there are differences too. Christmas is the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus, which according to the beliefs held by Christians, happened once, long ago. But Yule is a miracle that happens every year, and it’s focused on the returning nature of that miracle. The sun will return, the sun is returning.
Across the room from our Yule Tree sits our household altar, which is probably the most obvious marker that ours is not a Christian household. It contains candles, incense, a small offering basket, a goblet, sage for purification, and seasonal items (currently pinecones).
So Do We Ignore Christmas?
We absolutely do not! Our extended families pretty much all celebrate Christmas, in a more or less secular way, and we’re more than happy to join in. One of the things that my wife and I really bonded over, the first year we were dating, was being two non-Christians who absolutely love Christmas. I even love the really really religious Christmas carols, which a lot of people who know me think is pretty surprising and funny.
What About Yule With Kids?
Our kiddo is still very small, so I don’t have a ton of experience with all of the things you can do with little ones for the holiday. But it doesn’t take much to think of fun seasonally appropriate activities for kids, really. Since paganism is typically pretty nature focused, for many families it is important to get kids outside to really experience what nature feels like during this particular time of year, and that’s not a bad idea for grown-ups either!
So What Are We Doing This Year?
On the darkest, shortest, day of the year, my little family will wake up with the sunrise. We will thank the sun for continuing to support us and give our earth life, and try to hold a bit of joy in our hearts that the light will now be growing stronger.
We will light candles on our family altar, and take a moment to meditate on the flame, and be thankful for our warm apartment and all of the flames that keep us cozy and safe through the cold, midwestern, winter. Then we’ll have a nice hot breakfast, and do our modest family gift exchange under our Yule Tree. I’m knitting a pair of booties for the baby, and they had better fit!
After a relaxing morning at home, we’ll head on over to the house of some very good friends, chosen family really, to celebrate with them and their children. We will go for a walk in the woods near their house, and leave out treats for the local animals, who are always hungry this time of year. Then we’ll all make a big, beautiful, dinner together, and drink mulled cider.
It will get dark early, and if it’s clear we will watch the moon rise, and cuddle up together, and tell stories.
I hope that my son will grow to appreciate this little rituals as much as I do.
Images: Katherine DM Clover (4), Giphy (5)