The Winter Solstice for Pagans
December 25th is traditionally known as Christmas, a time period for gift giving and for many it’s also recognition of the birth of Christ Jesus. For believers of the old ways (Shamans, Witches, Wiccans, Pagans, etc) this day is celebrated sometime between the 20th and 22nd of December, usually on the night of the Solstice. For many, they celebrate for all three days.
Yule is the old name for the Winter Solstice. This is the shortest day of the year and thus it’s also the longest night. In the Northern Hemisphere it is also the coldest and darkest time of the year.
What is Yule?
Yule, or the Winter Solstice, is considered the turning point of the Wheel of the Year. It is the time when the Sun appears to be dying and the fear that winter may last forever sets in. It is also a time when the followers of the old way prepare for the rebirth of the sun.
The days after the Solstice are important for the sun begins to return and the days slowly start to grow longer again. Since it’s so dark at this time it isn’t uncommon for those of the old way to seek to strengthen the light around them by whatever means necessary. The tradition of bringing an evergreen tree into the home and decorating it with lights and ornaments comes at this time of the year. It serves as a reminder that despite it being winter life still continues.
It is also not uncommon to light candles around this time, such as many religious traditions of the World now practice.
The night of the Solstice is traditionally a night when adults stay up all night to welcome the birth of the sun from the goddess. Songs and rituals are performed throughout the night both to pass time and to prepare for this special event. Children and the elderly who can’t stay awake seek out and hope for special dreams as they sleep the remainder of the night away.
The God and Goddess of Yule
The Dark Mother and young god are the deities most often invoked during Yule. It’s important to understand that in pagan traditions the Dark Mother is not seen as evil or bad. Rather, the Dark Mother is known as the goddess who gives birth to light. Sometimes she is called Mother Night or Mother Winter. She is a giver of gifts and life lessons. She has an abundance of love for all her children and gives gifts to them even if they don’t necessarily deserve them. Of her gifts, Life is considered the most important and the most precious. She can determine our destiny and fate and help us to tell the story we wish to tell.
Likewise, the young god is an important part of the Yule celebration. Before becoming the young god, however, he is still seen as the old god. It is him that delivers the gifts that the dark mother gives. An example would be Santa Claus. He is often seen dressed in red and white, though some traditions claim he also dresses in black. By the end of the night he goes to the Dark Mother’s arms so that he may sleep. As he sleeps he is reborn through her as the dawn with new hopes and dreams for the year ahead. He teaches us the importance of rest and having faith in the changes to come.
Altars and Traditions of Yule
There are many Yule traditions and exploring them all would take a long time. Here we look at the most common Yule traditions.
Altars at Yule time many time represents aspects of the dark mother or son god. An example would be to have a mother goddess image giving birth to a son god with many other people and animals looking on. If this sounds like the manager scene of Christians, it very well can be! It’s a tradition that likely started in Latin America, especially in the regions of Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The night before the Winter Solstice celebrations start it’s usually considered important to clean the house. This includes physically cleaning the home from top to bottom as well as symbolically cleansing the soul. It’s important to reflect upon the last year and to eliminate from the conscious and subconscious dark deeds of the past and any “dust” that remains from the past.
Gingerbread houses are a popular tradition at this time of the year. The idea is to build a house that represents the home of Mother Winter. As the house is being built one can think of the many gifts the Mother has given to them throughout the year.
Elves and fairies are also popular at this time of the year. The notion of the secret Santa can also be a secret elf or a secret fairy. The idea is the same however. For ten days prior to the Solstice, people randomly choose a name and are responsible for secretly giving a small gift to their name each day. On the day of the Solstice a bigger gift is given.
Wreaths, especially those made of holly, are very symbolic as they serve as an invitation of hospitality to Mother Winter. Most are hung on the front door, though they may be hung anywhere in the home.
The Story of Visiting Mother Winter
Starhawk is a master storyteller. One of the stories that Starhawk tells is about visiting Mother Winter. It’s a cautionary story, but one that bares with it an important lesson.
In this story two sisters end up visiting Mother Winter. The first sister, who is kind, good, and a hard worker, is rewarded by Mother Winter with the gift of beauty and silver, gold, and precious gems. The second sister, who is lazy, mean, and a brat, is punished by Mother Winter by being turned ugly. The lesson of the story is that hard work, kindness, and good deeds always come back to us. Likewise, when we are lazy, mean, and bratty others will eventually see us as we really are and will want nothing to do with us.
Despite the Winter Solstice normally celebrates the fact that the Winter Mother gives us gifts even when we don’t deserve them, the story is a reminder to children and adults alike that there are consequences to our behavior, be it for good or bad.