Part two of a three part series on the history of holiday traditions.
Christmas is now only days away, and although it is the number two most celebrated holiday in the world (second only to the New Year), there are some who still celebrate the old tradition of Winter Solstice.
Usually falling between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23, this year’s solstice was Saturday. It marked the end of long nights and the beginning of longer days.
Celebrating Winter Solstice — also known as Yule, Saturnalia or Midwinter — has been a tradition possibly beginning in the Neolithic or New Stone age in 10,200 B.C.
Saturnalia is a more modern version, which was an ancient Roman celebration to honor the god Saturn. It is also a well-known festival in Celtic culture, which is where many of the traditions stem from.
Although there is no one specific account of how Yule may have been celebrated by different cultures, the idea behind why the festival takes place is the same throughout the ages: to celebrate the rebirth of the sun.
The winter solstice is the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The day is shortest, and in older times, the night was a time of evil and magic, and winters were long and hard.
John Donne, a 16th century poet, described the solstice as “the year’s midnight (when) the world’s whole sap is sunk.”
It is also a bit of a paradox though, explained author Ann-Marie Gallagher in her book, “The Wicca Bible.”
“Just as the winter solstice commemorates the annual demise of the sun’s powers, it witnesses its rebirth,” she wrote.
Although the primary focus is the solstice itself, some argue that the festival is a 12-day event, often ending on the first of January. If Yule is observed in this fashion, the middle of the festival lands on Dec. 25, or to Christians, Christmas.
When Paganism was the primary religion in the world, Christian leaders, in order to attract Pagans to Christianity, would use the already existing holidays and add Christian saints and elements to them.
This is widely believed to be the reason Christmas is celebrated around the Winter Solstice, seeing as no date of Christ’s birth was ever given in the Gospels, wrote National Geographic journalist Brian Handwerk.
So, a lot of the Yule traditions may seem familiar; however, there are some different symbolisms.
Traditionally, Celts believed evergreens to be sacred as they never died and represented the immortality of a deity, wrote Akasha Ap Emrys, a member of the online community for Wiccans and Pagans.
Gallagher emphasized the tradition and symbolism of using holly, ivy and mistletoe. Holly represents protection; ivy holds the promise of life; and mistletoe represents fertility.
There is also the tradition of having an evergreen tree in the household, often decorated with apples, oranges and lemons.
According to Scott Cunningham, author of “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner,” traditional decorations included strands of dried rosebuds and cinnamon sticks or popcorn and cranberries strung together. The tree was also decorated with crystals wrapped in wire to hang like icicles.
As with any holiday or festival, it is customary to eat and drink, but there is also an old Celtic tradition called a ceilidh (KAY-Lee), a social gathering with dancing and folk music.
The idea of music is not only used for dancing, but also all night drum circles to watch the solstice itself. According to author A.J. Drew in his book, “A Wicca Bible,” the sun is associated with the feminine half of divinity, and so while the sun is not present and the feminine at her lowest, masculine is at its highest.
“While all night drum circles are traditionally held to greet our Lord as the sun returns, I find those same drum circles are held to welcome the return of our Lady into his arms,” Drew wrote.
One final tradition of Winter Solstice is that of a Yule log. The log was traditionally oak or pine, and would have the engraving of a sun or the God. The burning of the log was a “graphic representation of the rebirth of the God within the sacred fire of the Mother Goddess,” wrote Cunningham.
The Yule log sums up the entire focus of the festival: the rebirth of the sun in a time of darkness.
“In our rituals to mark Yule, we look for the invisible Sun,” wrote Gallagher. “The vital inner spark, which, reenergized, will keep our spirits and our physical energy going through the winter.”