Good tidings to you and blessed be! If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re deep into winter. It’s cold, it’s dark, and people are taking time to celebrate holidays and be together.
In the Pagan community, it’s time for Yule. This is a holiday of European-pagan background that is celebrated on the winter solstice. Many Yule traditions have been incorporated into Christmas celebrations. You can still hear echoes of them in certain carols, and see their remnants in the decorations that take over our homes.
No matter your faith background, learning more about Yule traditions is fun and rewarding - and may even give you more ideas to celebrate the season, pagan style.
Good Old Yule Log
Image by Steve Gorton/Dorling Kindersley
The Yule Log is one of the oldest Christmas traditions, so it should come as no surprise that it is related to Germanic paganism. The Yule Log is a giant log that is meant to be burned at this time. It brings the light of day to long dark nights, making a festive home on these longest days of the year. The huge block of wood was intended to last for 12 days, and a piece of the log was preserved to light next year’s yule log.
In his book “Santa Claus, a biography,” historian Gerry Bowler dates the first recording of Yule Log traditions to 1184. In the 1700s and 1800s, folklorists sought an explanation for the Yule Log. Many hearken the Yule Log back to Germanic paganism, or to Anglo Saxon communities - northern communities for whom this time of year would be uncannily dark.
Many pagans will burn the Yule Log starting on the winter solstice and burn the log for 12 days following. The Log is traditionally oak, in honor of the Oak King.
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
The Holly and Oak Kings
Ever wondered why we decorate our homes with holly during December? No surprise - it can be traced back to Celtic paganism!
There is an ancient myth of the holly and oak kings. The Celtic Wheel of the Year turns, and these two kings battle for the throne. It’s debated when exactly these battles are meant to take place - whether on the solstices or the equinoxes - but I think that it makes more sense for the battles to take place during the equinoxes. This means that the Oak King is at his strongest during Midsummer, and the Holly King at his strongest during Midwinter.
The Oak and Holly Kings represent light and darkness throughout the year. The Oak King represents hard work with the light of summer, and the Holly King represents perseverance through the dark of winter.
Some Wiccan pagans understand the Oak King and Holly King to be two aspects of the Horned God. Each aspect rules over half of the year, and at the equinoxes or the solstices they battle over the Goddess. Darkness and light, winter and summer each have their place in the mythic journey of the Self.
The battle between these kings is found in ancient myth, including the battle between Lugh and Balor in Celtic legend.
Mistletoe: From Death to Love
There are a couple of legends related to Mistletoe, but I am more familiar with the Norse myth.
Mistletoe features in the Norse mythological cycle during the Death of Baldur (beloved by all the gods, sometimes seen as a god of beauty and light). Baldur began to dream of his death, and when he told his mother, Frigga, she became alarmed. In an effort to protect her son, Frigga went around to all of the plants and animals of the world and asked them to promise not to harm her son. But she forgot to ask Mistletoe.
In true Norse god fashion, they made a game of shooting arrows at Baldur, making sport of his newfound invincibility. Loki, trickster god, was jealous of Baldur’s popularity. Loki laced a dart with essence of mistletoe and coaxed Baldur’s blind brother Hoedor to shoot it at him. Hoedor shot true, and Baldur died.
Frigga wept hard at the death of Baldur, her tears turned the berries of Mistletoe from red to white. In some versions of the myth, the gods take pity on her and restored Baldur to life. Frigga declared that we should never fight underneath mistletoe, but that if you pass through it you should kiss and be merry instead.
Sing Up the Sun
Many pagans have created ceremonies that are unique to their own practice, based on what is happening in the natural world. My personal favorite solstice ritual is pretty simple, but powerful.
I practice within the Norse tradition, and I imagine this was a very scary, strange time for my ancestors. As the sun has disappeared, I imagine the ancient Norse were huddled, cold, and doing all they could to maintain hope that the sun would return.
On the longest night of the year, I honor the darkness within myself. I take time for tarot, rune readings, for introspection. But this night is a vigil - a vigil for the lost sun. I stay up all night (or as close to all night as I can stomach), and as first light draws near, I ring bells, and sing up the sun.
What do you do on the longest nights of the year? Share in the comments!
Want to carry a small bit of pagan practice with you this winter? Grab a Grande Twig Choker and carry a piece of the bright Yule Log with you on the darkest nights!
And here's a lovely video of Kulning, ancient Nordic herdcalling to listen to while you connect to this magical time.