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Yule is the time when the Sun is
closest to the Earth. This also results in the longest
night of the year, north of the equator. Read the following
information and then go to the links to arm yourself with true information
favorable to Pagans everywhere.
Gwyl Canol Gaeaf or
Yule: December 21-23 (the Winter Solstice)
is the festival of the Divine King's death and rebirth. This is the time
which marks the vanquishing of the Holly King, the God of the waning year,
by the Oak king, God of the waxing year. At this season the powers of light
(Oak King) grow strong as they battle the powers of darkness (Holly King)
Each clan elects a Shape Shifter whose job it is to balance the festival of Gwyl Canol Gaef. At this time the White Goddess gives birth to the Sun God,
the child of promise, who will re-fertilize her and bring back the warmth
and light to the kingdom. The Oak King rules.
Although still young and weak, the days are getting longer now. This
is the time for family. The traditional solstice tree comes from
German culture. It was decorated with lights to encourage and honour
the sun. The tinsel was significant to encourage the melting of the
snow, and it was decorated with fruits of the last harvest to give thanks
and to ensure a bounty for the next planting season. Colors for this
Sabbat: Green and Red.
An oak log
is prepared as a Yule log to burn during the ritual. It is decorated with
pine cones, holly and mistletoe. The remains of the log are kept until the
following year and are used to start the new Yule log. The need fire is used
to start the blaze. The altar and watchtowers are decorated with seasonal
colors and material: holly, pine cones, mistletoe, bayberries, and evergreen
prepared and drunk by the participants. The Yule incense is prepared and
lit. The participants may exchange gifts, and after the ritual is over, may
take pieces of the Yule decorations back home to be used on their household
Priest and High Priestess or Maiden shall set up the altar in the North of
the Circle. They then light the candles and the incense. The Cauldron shall
be in the center of the Circle. The four watchtower candles shall be placed
at the perimeter of the Circle, E, S, W, N. The entrance to the circle shall
be to the Northeast. None shall enter or leave the circle except by the
Priest shall call in the watchtowers. Both are Inside the Circle as they
cast it. The High Priest casts the circle with the Rod, beginning in the
East and proceeding Deosil thrice around the Circle. The High Priest then
places the Rod at the foot of the Altar. The Circle is then consecrated
Long before Christianity developed
in the Roman Empire, the Sun was considered to represent the Male God of
many Pagan Traditions. Gwyl Canol Gaeaf celebrates the return of the
Sun God, reborn of the Goddess. It celebrates the arrival of the sun
or son which also represents the light of the world.
Our tradition performs a ritual where the dark
half of the year fights a battle with the light half of the year. (Oak
King vs the Holly King) We also repeat this battle at Midsummer. These
two battles mark the change of the seasons as one wins over the other.
The Holly King rules the Waning year; the
Oak King, the Waxing Year. The two battle each other for dominance at
Midsummer and Yule, respectively.
This rite is a symbolic reenactment of the
sacrifice of a young male of the tribe, to appease the gods who ruled the
seasons. The Persian god Mithra (also born at Midwinter), was a symbol
of rejuvenation and light. In cold climates, basic survival was based
upon subsisting from one harvest to the next; honoring the return of the sun
was believed to ensure a bountiful crop, and healthy livestock. In the
British Isles (the birthplace of modern Witchcraft, and a region bursting
with centuries of religious conflict and mystery) many other rites and
customs still exist that reflect these "heathen" (heath-dweller, or country
folk) ways of life.
The observance of the winter solstice was
very significant in ancient times. Since this date represented the moment
when the days would again become longer, when light would return to the
land, the rural folk who faced lean times in winter had reason to be
thankful. The use of candles as decorations and ritual objects, dating from
ancient times, clearly indicates the importance of honoring the deities of
light. The sun's return meant spring was on its way, and with it, the birth
of new animals to the flock, and the softening of the soil tilled by our
ancestors who lived as animal herders and farmers. Their celebration of this
date as a holy day, when they worshipped and honored the sun as a deity, was
an affirmation of their survival of the cold months of winter. They
subsisted on the dried meats of the animals they slaughtered at Samhain, and
what little produce they could preserve from the final harvest.
Some of our Christian friends are surprised
at how enthusiastically we celebrate the 'Christmas' season. We
prefer to use the word "Gwyl Canol Gaeaf" instead of Yule, and our festival
is held a few days before Christmas Day or the 25th, but we do follow many
of the traditional customs of the season: decorated trees, caroling,
presents, Yule logs, and mistletoe. We might even construct a
'Nativity scene'. But for us, the three characters portrayed would be
Mother Donn, Father Math, and the Baby Hu.
As everyone has heard I am sure, Christmas has always been more Pagan than
Christian, with it's associations of Celtic fertility rites and Roman
Mithraism. That is why both Martin Luther and John Calvin abhorred it,
why the Puritans refused to acknowledge it, much less celebrate it (to them,
no day of the year could be more holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even
made ILLEGAL in Boston! The holiday was already too closely associated with
the birth of older Pagan gods and heroes. And many of them (like Oedipus,
Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus, Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even
Arthur) possessed a narrative of birth, death, and resurrection that was
uncomfortably close to that of Jesus. And to make matters worse, many of
them pre-dated the Christian Savior.
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 birthday 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.
That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as Christians.
Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were rather late in laying claim to
it, and tried more than once to reject it. There had been a tradition in the
West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the twenty-fifth day, but no one
could seem to decide on the month. Finally, in 320 C.E., the Catholic
Fathers in Rome decided to make it December, in an effort to co-opt the
Mithraic celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebrations of the Celts
There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose was
historically accurate. Shepherds just don't 'tend their flocks by night' in
the high pastures in the dead of winter! But 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 only time when shepherds are likely to
'watch their flocks by night' -- to make sure the lambing goes 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
Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one knew when
Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally began to catch
on. By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or public business (except
that of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed to the delight of the
holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor Justinian. In 563, 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. It is
certainly lamentable that the modern world has abandoned this approach,
along with the popular Twelfth Night celebrations.
Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to many countries no
faster than Christianity itself, which means that 'Christmas' wasn't
celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century; in England, Switzerland,
and Austria until the seventh; in Germany until the eighth; and in the
Slavic lands until the ninth and tenth. Not that these countries lacked
their own mid-winter celebrations of Yuletide. Long before the world had
heard of Jesus, Pagans had been observing the season by bringing in the Yule
log, wishing on it, and lighting it from the remains of last year's log.
Riddles were posed and answered, magic and rituals were practiced, wild
boars were sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of liquor,
corn dollies were carried from house to house while caroling, fertility
rites were practiced (girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were subject
to a bit more than a kiss), and divinations were cast for the coming Spring.
Many of these Pagan customs, in an appropriately watered-down form, have
entered the mainstream of Christian celebration, though most celebrants do
not realize (or do not mention it, if they do) their origins.
For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon 'Yula', meaning 'wheel' of
the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter Solstice, which may
vary by a few days, though it usually occurs on or around December 21st. It
is a Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the modern Pagan calendar, one of the
four quarter-days of the year, but a very important one. This year (1988) it
occurs on December 21st at 9:28 am CST. Pagan customs are still
enthusiastically followed. Once, the Yule log had been the center of the
celebration. It was lighted on the eve of the solstice (it should light on
the first try) and must be kept burning for twelve hours, for good luck. It
should be made of ash. Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree
but, instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on it. In
Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented the
custom, and Catholics might grant St. Boniface the honor, but the custom can
demonstrably be traced back through the Roman Saturnalia all the way to
ancient Egypt. Needless to say, such a tree should be cut down rather than
purchased, and should be disposed of by burning, the proper way to dispatch
any sacred object.
Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe were
important plants of the season, all symbolizing fertility and everlasting
life. Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic Druids, who cut it
with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon, and believed it to be
an aphrodisiac. (Magically -- not medicinally! It's highly toxic!) But
aphrodisiacs must have been the smallest part of the Yuletide menu in
ancient times, as contemporary reports indicate that the tables fairly
creaked under the strain of every type of good food. And drink! The most
popular of which was the 'wassail cup' deriving its name from the
Anglo-Saxon term 'waes hael' (be whole or hale).
Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless: that animals will all kneel down
as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the '100th psalm' on Christmas Eve,
that a windy Christmas will bring good luck, that a person born on Christmas
Day can see the Little People, that a cricket on the hearth brings good
luck, that if one opens all the doors of the house at midnight all the evil
spirits will depart, that you will have one lucky month for each Christmas
pudding you sample, that the tree must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad
luck is sure to follow, that 'if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we
shall see', that 'hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the month
of May', that one can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the
weather for each of the twelve months of the coming year, and so on.
Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based upon older
Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim their lost
traditions. In doing so, we can share many common customs with our Christian
friends, albeit with a slightly different interpretation. And thus we all
share in the beauty of this most magical of seasons, when the Mother Goddess
once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and sets the wheel in motion
again. To conclude with a long-overdue paraphrase, 'Goddess bless us, every
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