December 18, 2018
by Rebecca Farrar of Wild Witch of the West
Yule, Saturnalia, & Winter Solstice
Yule or Yuletide, aka Winter Solstice, in the Northern Hemisphere marks the longest night and shortest day of the year and is one of the oldest celebrations in the world. With modern technology, we can more closely track the exact moment when the Earth's pole is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun, which is when the Sun simultaneously moves into the tropical zodiac sign of Capricorn and welcomes the Winter Solstice. Like all the Neopagan holidays the date varies between December 20 to December 23 depending on the year with the Gregorian calendar. As a turning point of light and reflection and of all the cyclical, seasonal holidays, the winter solstice is perhaps the most Christianized from its Earthly Pagan roots and Roman traditions.
Many popular Christmas traditions evolved from Pagan and European Yule symbols such as the decorating with holly, candles, or mistletoe. Though the Yule log was the center of the celebration and was burned as a symbol of the rebirth of the Sun (or Son as Christianity would say :P ).Traditionally the log was harvested on the homeowner’s land, or brought as a gift. Once inside, it was decorated and then lit with a piece of last year’s log that was kept for this specific purpose. The log would burn through the longest night of the year and then smolder throughout the Yuletide (meaning “Yule time”).
The word "Yule" comes from the Norse word “hjol” and referred to the moment when the wheel of the year is at the lowest point, ready to rise up again (like the Sun). In pre-Christian Scandinavia, Yule it lasted for 12 days and each night honored a different aspect of the Triple Goddess and the Sun God. This 12-day festival and feast is the origin of the modern “12 Days of Christmas.” The festivities began on “Mother’s Night,” on December 20, and ended on “Yule Night” on January 1.
While the Norse celebrated Yule, the Romans honored the mid-winter season with Saturnalia beginning on December 17. It was a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of time (and of course now a planet). It was known for being the most joyous holiday and included sacrifices, feasting, dancing, and gambling. People exchanged gifts, made sacrifices to the Gods, and offered goodwill during the week-long ancient festival. It was common for social role reversals as well where the wealthy would pay for rents of the poor and children would get to be the head of the household.
As the Romans began invading the rest of Europe, the traditions of Saturnalia became more of mainstay and evolved into Christmas. Though by the fourth century A.C.E. (after common era), Western Christian Churches decided on December 25 and combined the Pagan midwinter and Saturnalia traditions. Now, we seem to celebrate a bit of all of them. However, if you aren’t up for the full 12-day commitment of Yule or the chaos of Saturnalia, welcome winter with some of these more simplified rituals:
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