by Julia O'Farrell
Yule is a celebration of the Winter Solstice, occurring around December 21st. In the Northern Hemisphere, it's the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.
To early cultures, the winter solstice represented the waxing of the old solar year and the birth of the new. The word "Yule" is believed to derive from a Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon word "Iul", meaning "wheel." The old Almanacs showed the wheel to symbolize Yuletide, reinforcing the concept that the year turns like a wheel, popularly known today as the Wheel of Life.
Winter solstice celebrations and rites are some of the oldest known, dating back some 30,000 years ago. For the ancient peoples this was a time of exposure to harsh winter elements making food supplies low and survival risky at best. They held rituals in honor of the forces of nature as a way of ensuring the return of the sun and warmer, more fertile days. These same Yule rites and celebrations are still being held even to this day, even though our modern civilization comforts us throughout the harsh winters.
Customs and traditions such as hanging ornaments on a tree, gift giving, decorating with evergreens, singing carols, eating of sweet confections, wassailing and the burning of the Yule log have very ancient roots.
One of the most common and persistent Yule traditions to survive is the decorating of the Yule tree, popularly known today as the Christmas tree. Evergreens were held sacred to the early peoples due to their ability to remain green even in the winter; it was seen to symbolize protection, prosperity and the continuity of Life during a season that was so often represented with darkness and death.
The tree was often decorated with things that resembled fruits, berries, nuts, flowers and even bells. This custom apparently originated from an old Irish belief that wood spirits lived in the evergreen trees during winter. They would bring in the tree and place food and treats on it to feed their guests. The bells were to signal their wintery friends at play. A star was placed atop the tree symbolizing the rebirth of the sun.
The solstice was a time for marriage. It is believed the practice of kissing under the mistletoe originated in Celtic tradition. The plant was believed to grow between the worlds since it grew on trees instead of the ground so mistletoe was held very sacred to the Celts of yesteryear. It was seen as incredibly lucky if to find mistletoe growing on an oak tree. Because oaks have antibiotic properties, it was also a symbol of harmony in unity and became a symbol of marriage. Garlands of mistletoe were strung on trees and couples would dance underneath and then kiss, sealing their marriage for 1 year and 1 day. After their year and a day, if they wished to no longer be married they could go separate ways.
Another ancient tradition that holds strong to this day is the well known Yule log. In Celtic tradition, it is made out of oak and often decorated with evergreen sprigs, holly, ivy, mistletoe, red ribbons and sometimes even tinsel. The Yule log signifies the death of darkness and the coming of light.
It was lit on the Winter solstice and left to burn continuously for twelve days. Traditionally a small piece of wood is saved for the following year and used to light the Yule log once again. The cooled ashes were gathered into amulets or sprinkled throughout the fields and gardens to ensure fertility and bounty in the coming year. It should also be noted that a Yule log is traditionally given to you or found, not cut from a tree.
This custom is still used in current year; however it is now tradition to burn the log for 12 hours instead of 12 days. On the following day, known as the light festival, lights were lit on trees and altars in a tremendous amount to celebrate the coming of the new sun.
The hanging of stockings on the hearth or placed around the house is another loved tradition of Yule. It is a custom that isn't originally a Yule tradition, but one that has found its way into the heart of this holiday.