Yule is the season that starts with the Winter Solstice, which is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. Starting the next morning at sunrise, the Sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day. Known as Solstice Night, or the longest night of the year, ancient people always celebrated the Sun’s rebirth with much joy. On this night, our ancestors celebrated the rebirth of the Oak King, the Sun King, the Giver of Life that warmed the frozen Earth. On this one day the ancients knew that soon the warm days of spring would return, and the dormant Earth will come back to life, and as the Sun stands still in the sky, and everyone on Earth knows that change is coming, this was the time to say goodbye to the old, and welcome the new. The Winter Solstice is officially the first day of winter, this occurs when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the Sun. From this day forward, the days would become longer.
Yule means ‘wheel’ in Norwegian, and this is the time when the Wheel of the Year stops and starts again, as the days will lengthen, bringing light and hope. A Celtic legend tells of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. These two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Winter Solstice, or Yule, the Oak King conquers the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him. The Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God named Herne who was a huntsman employed by King Richard II. In England Herne is equated with Cernunnos who is a complex and powerful god that is associated with animals, abundance, good fortune and virile fertility. Each of these twin aspects rules for half the year, battles for the favor of the Goddess, and then retires to nurse his wounds for the next six months, until it is time for him to reign once more. The Holly King frequently appears as a woodsy version of Santa Claus dressed in red, wearing a sprig of holly in his tangled hair, and he is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god, and occasionally appears as the Green Man or other lord of the forest.
Yule is the name of a winter festival that occurred in December and January on the German lunar calendar. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated at the Feast of Saturnalia, to honor Saturn, the god of agricultural bounty. Saturnalia lasted about a week, and this holiday was characterized by feasting, debauchery and gift-giving. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, many of the Yule customs were later absorbed into Christmas celebrations. In the fourth century, the church decided to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ at the same time by holding a 12-day feast, often called Epiphany or the Feast of the Nativity. This corresponded with the pagan holiday, the feast of Sol Invictus (the Invincible or Unconquerable Sun) who was a principal deity in Rome. This festival for the winter solstice celebrated the gradually lengthening days with increased sunlight. Over time, these feasts merged to become the holiday we now know as Christmas. In today’s language, Yule is simply the feast celebrating the birth of Christ and Yuletide stands for the Christmas season.
Until the 16th century, the winter months were a time of famine in northern Europe. Cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn’t have to be fed during the winter, making the solstice a time when fresh meat was plentiful. Most celebrations of the winter solstice in Europe involved merriment and feasting. This holiday was celebrated with bonfires being lit in the fields, and people made wassail, which is a drink concocted from warmed mead into which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst to create this mulled punch. Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges, which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the Sun and evergreen plants symbolized everlasting life. These items of nature were brought into the house as decorations, in hopes of providing shelter for the nature spirits over the coldest months of winter. The boughs were symbolic of immortality (evergreens were sacred to the Celts because they did not ‘die’ thereby representing the eternal aspect of the Divine). The wheat stalks portrayed the harvest, and flour was an accomplishment of triumph, light, and life. Holly and ivy decorated the outside, and the inside of homes, in hopes Nature Sprites (supernatural entities similar to gnomes, elves or fairies) would come and join the celebration. A sprig of Holly was kept near the door all year long as a constant invitation for good fortune to visit the residents. Mistletoe was also hung as decoration. It represented fertility and the seed of the Divine, and at Midwinter, the Druids would travel deep into the forest to harvest it.
In some wiccan traditions this is the time to bid the Crone farewell, and invite the Maiden back into our lives. The Wheel of Life is circular, and in a circle there is no beginning and no end. The Crone is the Grandmother, the old Wise One, the one who is most commonly associated with death and the end of the lifecycle. However the Crone is not the end of the cycle, as she represents a transition and transformation, a bridge from the end of one cycle to the beginning of a new cycle. She is in decline and death may be near for her, so she is called ‘Mother Death’, the ‘Dark Mother’, or the old Hag, but she is also rebirth, heralding in the youth and vigor of the Maiden. She cannot be controlled, she is powerful and she is feared. In today’s world, we worship the virility of youth, but older women are important as healers and teachers. In early societies they were the wisdom keepers, that helped other women in labor to bring new life into the world. The Crone was the post-menopausal woman who enjoyed a special, revered status and she was viewed as a keeper of wisdom, law, healing skills, and moral leadership, because of the knowledge that she acquired over a long life.
In past times (and still in places today), a Yule log was burned to help the Sun shine more brightly. This log was received as a gift or gathered from the land (never bought) and decorated with greenery. 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 before set ablaze by a piece of last year’s log. The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out. It was burned at the Solstice and the ashes were kept for good fortune or sprinkled over the land to ensure fertility. These ashes that were kept to promote the harmonious turning of the wheel. Ash is the traditional wood of the Yule log, as it is said to bring light into the hearth.
The Yule goat emigrated from Scandinavia with settlers who flocked to the USA over the past two centuries. In Sweden, Norway, and Finland, the Yule goat is as much a part of Christmas tradition as Santa Claus or Frosty the Snowman. The Yule Goat carried Father Christmas on his back it has associations that are traced back to Norse mythology. The god Thor rode in a chariot pulled by two goats that could also be eaten and magically regenerate into living creatures again. These goats provided food for the god and his friends and Thor frequently slaughtered and ate them, knowing they’d be returned to life the following morning.
The words Yule, you’ll and Yul are homonyms along with the word Ewell. Some people are given the name Yul, like Yul Brenner. Richard Stoddert Ewell was a Confederate general during the American Civil War. You’ll is a contraction that stands for you will or you shall and I predict that you’ll all be hitting the LIKE button after reading this post.
Written for 12/23/17 Linda G. Hill’s ‘Life in progress’ Stream of Consciousness Saturday where the prompt is ‘Yule, you’ll and Yul’.