Yule or Winter Solstice
Solstice at Stonehenge
"Solstice" is derived from two Latin
words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to
cause to stand still. The lowest elevation occurs on or about December 21st and
is the winter solstice -- the first day of winter, when the night time hours are
maximum. The winter
solstice is often called Yule. It is a time for introspection, and
planning for the future. Yule may mean 'Yoke of the Year', derived from the
Anglo-Saxon Geola, though some suggest a derivation from the Norse Jul,
meaning 'wheel'. Mid December was also Dies Juvenalis, Coming of Age for Young Men.
The winter solstice has long been celebrated as the
birth of the sun, of light, of life itself. In Maeshowe, (Orkneys, Scotland)
there is a chambered cairn built on a leveled area with a surrounding bank and
ditch. It has been carbon dated at 2750BC. Inside the cairn is a stone structure
with a long entry tunnel. The structure is aligned so that sunlight
can shine along the entry passage into the interior of the megalith, and
illuminate the back of the structure. This happens at sunrise at the winter
solstice. One of the most impressive prehistoric monuments in Europe is at
Newgrange, in Brugh-na-Boyne, County Meath, in eastern Ireland. It covers an
area of one acre, and has an entrance passage that is almost 60 feet (18 m)
long. Above the entrance way is a stone box that allows the light from the sun
to penetrate to the back of the cairn at sunrise on the winter solstice. It has
been dated at about 3,300 BCE and is one of the oldest structures in the world.
Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in
the cycle of the year. It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated,
seed-time of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the birth time of
the new Sun King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you choose to call him. On
this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again
gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of the
winter, 'the dark night of our souls', there springs the new spark of hope, the
Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.
Druids formed the professional class in ancient Celtic
society. They performed the functions of modern day priests, teachers, poets and
judges. Druids led all public rituals, which were normally held within fenced
groves of sacred trees. The winter solstice was the time of the death of the old
sun and the birth of the dark-half of the year. It was called "Alban
Emperor Aurelian (270-275CE) blended a number of Pagan
solstice celebrations of the nativity of such gods as Apollo, Attis, Baal,
Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a
single festival called Sol Invictus, the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on
December 25th. At the time, Mithraism and Christianity were fierce competitors.
Aurelian even declared Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in
274 CE. Christianity won out by becoming the new official religion in the
4th century CE.
The metaphor of the birth of the sun worked well for
Christians celebrating the birth of the Son of God, who brings light to the
world. Christ's birth was first celebrated on January 6th, then moved in
336CE to December 25th. This change was not popular with everyone. The Christians
of Edessa accused the church in Rome of idolatry and "sun worship."
Some Biblical scholars believe that Christ was actually born in the fall after the
harvest or in spring after the birth of the new animals, both the most likely
times for taxation. Shepherds don't 'tend their
flocks by night' in the high pastures in the dead of winter. If one wishes to
use the New Testament as historical evidence, this reference may point to
sometime in the spring as the time of Jesus' birth. This is because the lambing
season occurs in the spring and that is the most likely time when shepherds
'watched their flocks by night' -- to make sure the lambing went well. Knowing
this, the Eastern half of the Church continued to reject December 25, preferring
a 'movable date' fixed by their astrologers according to the moon.
In 563CE, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four years
later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December 25 to
Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. This last point is perhaps the hardest to
impress upon the modern reader, who is lucky to get a single day off work.
Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a single day, but rather a period
of twelve days, from December 25 to January 6. The Twelve Days of
Christmas, in fact.
Polydor Virgil, an early British
Christian, said "Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such
Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman
Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians
eternally to abominate them." In Massachusetts, Puritans unsuccessfully
tried to ban Christmas entirely during the 17th century, because of its
heathenism. The English Parliament abolished Christmas in 1647 for a time. Some
contemporary Christian faith groups still do not celebrate Christmas.
Although Christmas Dec 25th is a major holiday in Ireland, it is not
widely celebrated in Scotland. Some historians have suggested that the reason
Christmas is downplayed in Scotland is because of the influence of the
Presbyterian Church or Kirk, which viewed Christmas as a "Papist", or
Catholic event. As a result, Christmas in Scotland tends to be a somber event,
in direct contrast to the next Celtic festival, Hogmany, held on January 1. January 6 is the day of the feast of the Epiphany.
It is called "Little Christmas" in Ireland, Nollaig Bheag in
Gaelic. Little Christmas, the Day of the Epiphany, is sacred as a celebration of
God's manifestation to us in human form.
Many symbols and practices associated with Christmas are
of Pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated
evergreen tree, magical reindeer, and others.
In the Celtic language, Mistletoe means "All Heal". The
ancient Celts believed Mistletoe possessed miraculous healing powers and held
the soul of the host tree during the winter months. It was believed to have
miraculous power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, giving fertility
to humans and animals, and as protection against evil spirits. Mistletoe was
collected by the Druid in a very special
ceremony held five days after the New Moon following winter solstice. The Druid
priests would cut mistletoe from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle. The
branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. The priest then
divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who
hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other
evils. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to
meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a
friendly greeting, and keep truce until the following day. From this old
custom grew the practice of suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as
a token of good will and peace. Mistletoe was one of the casualties of early
Christian celebrations, and for
centuries it was forbidden to display the plant on Christian altars. Mistletoe
found its way back into acceptance as the Victorians revived the ancient ritual
of kissing under the Mistletoe as a sign of love, romance and good luck.
"Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare,
hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog
and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white
berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids."
So Washington Irving, in "Christmas Eve," relates the
typical festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas, including kissing
under the mistletoe. To understand the full practice of kissing under the
mistletoe, he adds a note.
"The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas,
and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking
each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the
The folklore, and the magical powers of this plant,
has blossomed over the
centuries. A sprig placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from faeries,
as an example.
Today, Holly conjures up images of Christmas wreaths, but actually
had religious significance long before it's adoption by
Christianity. There are around 400 natural types of holly in the
world, but the one people are
most familiar with is Ilex aquifolium, or
"English/Christmas Holly". It
is a coniferous evergreen plant that can be found in
many parts of the world. English holly grows best in moist soil in direct sunlight,
but it can tolerate partial shade as well. Holly was important in Pagan/Druidic religion and
customs. It was placed around dwellings during winter, intended as a kindly and hospitable
gesture so that the fairies could
come into their homes and use the holly as shelter against the
cold. This may actually have had some basis in fact, as holly
growing in the wild is often used as shelter by small animals,
primarily insects. It was holly's evergreen nature that made it special.
The Druids believed that it remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when the
deciduous trees such as the sacred oak shed their
leaves. The holly berries
were thought to represent the sacred menstrual blood of their Goddess. In
some rights, holly was used for protection, decorating doors and windows to ward
off evil spirits before they could enter the house. As the British Isles began to convert to
Christianity, the early Christians continued the tradition of decorating
their home with holly. The significance of the berries changed so
that they now symbolized the blood of Christ and holly gradually
solidified its position as a Christmas tradition.
The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the early winter
festival. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested
from the householder's land, or given as a gift. It must never have been bought.
Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace, it was decorated in
seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour, perhaps even
with a small outlined human figure before set
ablaze by a piece of last year's log. The log would burn throughout the night,
then smolder for 12 days before being ceremonially put out. Ash is the
traditional wood of the Yule log. It is the sacred world tree of the Teutons,
known as Yggdrasil. An herb of the Sun, Ash brings light into the hearth at the
most of the modern Christian world, the Christmas season is a time of joy, of
family, of giving, of love, of peace. A time to celebrate the birth of love and
forgiveness. A time to celebrate the birth of their Lord.
Whether you are Christian, wiccan or pagan, look to the
Yule as a period of enlightenment and renewal of spirit.
little Celtic Christmas Trivia Quiz
Night: A Christmas in Rome
Xmas: Gold Collection St. Clair Records
Xmas, Various Artists, Avalon (Rock Bottom)
of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter, J. Philip Newell
Holiday Various Artists
Anonymous Four -- "WOLCUM YULE" and "ON YOOLIS
NIGHT" cds www.anonymous4.com
Heavenly early-medieval-to-modern female-ensemble singing.
The Barra MacNeils -- "CAPE BRETON CHRISTMAS" dvd -- live
Christmas concert, plus interviews etc. Also "THE CHRISTMAS
ALBUM" cd (which features a Galician carol). www.barramacneils.com
Broceliande (Celtic/Renaissance band) -- 'SIR CHRISTEMAS" cd -- olde
English and European Yule music bridging Christian and pagan traditions.
Kim Robertson -- "CELTIC CHRISTMAS II" cd (harp and cello), and
"CHRISTMAS LULLABY" cd (solo Celtic harp with Christmas music
ranging from Irish/Scottish to Basque and Czech.
Heather Dale -- "THIS ENDRIS NIGHT" cd -- medieval and Renaissance
Christmas music, with instruments like the hammered dulcimer, bowed psaltery,
and middle-Eastern percussion. www.heatherdale.com
Also, the late Johnny Cunningham, did a lovely
combined music-and-poetry album, "THE SOUL OF CHRISTMAS" A CELTIC
MUSIC CELEBRATION," with Thomas Moore, and guest musicians like Kathy
Mattea and Susan McKeown. www.johnnycunningham.com
Delicious Irish Christmas
Irish Country Christmas, Alice Taylor's Irish Christmas memoir
Christmas Book, John Killen
"Christmas in Ireland: Irish Christmas Traditions"
"The Celtic Origins of Christmas: Alban Arthuan"
Celtic Christmas Playlists
(look at the Dec. 11th, Dec. 4th and Nov. 27th playlists, etc.)