Yule & the Winter Solstice | Origins, Traditions, Altar Tips, & More

Yule & the Winter Solstice | Origins, Traditions, Altar Tips, & More

Yule, also known as Yuletide or Yulefest, is celebrated at the winter solstice, which falls between December 20-23 in the northern hemisphere, depending on the year. It represents the transition back into the light and a celebration of the sun. It’s also the official first day of winter.

This year, Yule and the winter solstice will be on Thursday, December 21, 2022.

(Psst… check out my Yuletide shopping guide HERE!)

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What Is the Winter Solstice?


The winter solstice, also known as the hibernal solstice, is the shortest day of the year. Because the Earth has a tilted axis, the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere have opposite summers and winters. In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice is in June and the winter solstice is in December.

During the winter solstice, the sun travels its shortest path across the sky. This is the shortest day and longest night of the year.

As explained by Britannica:

“When the winter solstice happens in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Pole is tilted about 23.4° (23°27′) away from the Sun. Because the Sun’s rays are shifted southward from the Equator by the same amount, the vertical noon rays are directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn (23°27′ S). Six months later the South Pole is inclined about 23.4° away from the Sun.”

illustration of Earth's position to the sun during summer and winter solstice
Source

What Is Yule, and How Is It Connected to the Solstice?


Yule fire

Yule is an ancient celebration of the winter solstice. It was predominantly honored in various European traditions, most notably pre-Christian Germanic cultures. Yule is the eighth Sabbat in the Wheel of the Year, between Samhain and Imbolc.

But why celebrate winter and the shortest day of the year?

The winter solstice is a pivotal transition between the dark half and light half of the year. Yule welcomes the light returning to the world, as each day from this point on to the summer solstice will gain a few precious minutes of warm sunlight.

People of ancient times would commemorate the solstice with candles and bonfires on the longest night as a tribute to the sun’s return. Dancing, singing, feasting, and rejoicing in festivities were important parts of the tradition, as were decorating the home and giving gifts.

In addition to paying homage to the sun, Yule honors the natural cycle of rebirth, and most importantly, a celebration of hope. It embodies the idea of having faith that the dawn will come after even the longest, darkest night.

Historical Context: Origins of Yule & Solstice Celebrations


People have observed the solstice as early as the Neolithic period, the last part of the Stone Age dating all the way back to 10,200 BC.

Neolithic monuments, including Ireland’s Newgrange and Scotland’s Maeshowe, are aligned with the sunrise on the winter solstice. Perhaps the most famous Neolithic monument, Stonehenge, is positioned toward the sunset on the winter solstice, so it may also have been a place of worship and ritual.

Many ancient civilizations celebrated the winter solstice. For the Greeks, their annual celebration was Kronia. The Romans had Saturnalia. Other cultures around the world had their own way of honoring the solstice, but Yule was the celebration of the ancient Scandinavian and Germanic people.

The merrymaking of the Yuletide season usually lasted for twelve days, which was about the time it took for the Yule log to burn.

The winter months in northern Europe were often a difficult time of famine, so most of the cattle were slaughtered so the animals wouldn’t need to be fed. The temporary abundance of fresh meat meant it was a good time to feast.

However, the steady spread of Christianity throughout Europe quickly sought to abolish many of the “heathen” practices. Christian missionaries rejected the idea of Pagans worshipping multiple deities and spirits as part of their seasonal celebrations, and so the church made it their mission to convert the native people.

One of their most successful methods was to learn the natives’ myths and religious beliefs so the church could draw connections between Catholicism and Pagan festivals.

In the case of Yule, Christians appropriated many of the Yuletide traditions (Christmas trees, wreaths, candles, mistletoe, etc.) but redirected the purpose of the celebration away from the winter solstice and instead toward the birth of Jesus.

Wait… was Jesus actually born on December 25th?


No. Biblical scholars believe Jesus was most likely born in late summer or early fall. They point to two key reasons (among several others):

1. Shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their flocks in the winter. December is cold and rainy, and during those months, the shepherds would have taken shelter with the flocks at night.

2. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register for a Roman census, but these censuses didn’t take place during the winter when temperatures dropped below freezing and road conditions were poor.

Other scholars have attempted to pinpoint an astrological event that could have inspired the Star of Bethlehem:

The month of Jesus’ birth has also been a point of debate, with one theory suggesting that the Star of Bethlehem may have been Venus and Jupiter coming together to form a bright light in the sky, a rare event that occurred in June of 2 B.C. Another possibility is a similar conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter, which occurred in October of 7 B.C.

Livescience

One of the most influential historical figures to accelerate the melding of Yule and Christmas was the Norwegian king Haakon the Good in the 10th century AD. He decreed that the Yule celebration would no longer be on Midwinter Eve, but instead on the 25th of December. Norwegian Vikings were required by law to celebrate either holiday with a supply of ale or face substantial fines.

Over time, with the two holidays celebrated on the same day with many of the same traditions, “Yuletide” became largely synonymous with Christmas.

Yule Christmas wreath

Yule Symbols & Traditions


You might be surprised by how many Christmas symbols and traditions have Pagan origins!

The Yule Tree originally represented the Tree of Life (or the World Tree) to early Pagans. It was decorated with natural ornaments such as pine cones and fruit, and some cultures later strung garlands of berries or popcorn so birds and wildlife could feast when visiting the tree.

Evergreens symbolize life and renewal. They were believed to hold a special power over death’s grip because they don’t lose their green or drop their leaves as the deciduous trees do every winter.

Holly symbolizes everlasting life and was believed to ward off evil spirits. The leaves represent hope, the berries fertility. It was often used to decorate the doors, windows, and fireplace.

Mistletoe represents vitality, romance, and fertility, but the Celtic Druids had valued mistletoe for its healing properties and can likely be credited as one of the first to use it as a decoration. The berries ripen in December, and the plant’s evergreen leaves made it an appealing symbol of wintertime. The origin of the “kissing under the mistletoe” is uncertain, but it’s believed that the ancient Greeks may have started the tradition as part of their winter holiday Kronia (Saturnalia for the Romans).

The Yule log was said to purify and protect the home from evil spirits. Traditionally, ash was the wood of choice. The log should either be received as a gift or harvested from the homeowner’s land—it must never have been purchased. The Yule log would be adorned with seasonal greenery such as holly or pine springs, then doused with cider or ale and dusted with flour before being set ablaze with a piece of last year’s Yule log, which had been saved to continue the tradition. Some Pagans allowed the log to be burned for twelve days before ceremoniously extinguishing it. Others allowed it to burn until it naturally burned itself out; the longer the Yule log burned, the sooner the sun was said to come.

Candles symbolize the light and warmth of the sun.

Wreaths represent the Wheel of the Year and the natural cycle of life and rebirth, which is why they were traditionally made with evergreens. They were also gifted to loved ones as a symbol of friendship and goodwill.

Bells were rung during the winter solstice to herald in the light half of the year. For some, the bells were also said to drive away the demons that prowled during the dark time of the year.

Wassail is a spiced cider, often made with fruit. Sometimes ale and honey are added. When the Yule log was harvested, people would anoint the tree with wassail and toast to a good upcoming harvest.

Caroling was a popular Yule tradition in which the young children of a village would honor the winter solstice in song. They would go door to door singing, and the villagers would reward them with sweets and small gifts.

Decorating Your Yule Altar: Best Colors, Crystals, & Adornments


Yule’s color palette is red, green, white, silver, and gold.

The best crystals to complement the spiritual energy of the winter solstice are rubies, bloodstones, garnets, emeralds, and diamonds.

Evergreens such as holly, pine, and cedar always make a wonderful addition to the Yule altar. Other seasonal greenery options include bayberry, ivy, oak, laurel, blessed thistle, and sage. Apples and oranges can be added to represent the sun.

For those who worship deities, you can use green, gold, and black to represent the Sun God. Alternatively, white, red, and black represent the Great Goddess. The holder can be decorated with symbols and sigils made by carving the wood or using a wood-burning tool. Adorn your altar with seasonal greenery and decorations. To honor the original tradition, dust the holder with flour.

In place of the traditional Yule log, a more modern practice is to create a Yule candle holder by taking a branch (ash if possible, but oak is a good substitute) and flattening one side so it sits in place, then drilling three holes into the top side to hold the candles.

Even if you don’t own or create a Yule branch candle holder, candles are still a very important part of the altar, as they symbolize the sun and light.

Need some candle recommendations? Check out some of my favorite places to shop online:

Hemlock Park crafts beautiful aromatherapy candles and spa packages, handcrafted with natural ingredients. They offer crystal candles and organic coconut wax candles with wood wicks. But here’s why I love this company — they partnered with One Tree Planted to focus on reforestation. A tree is planted for every order placed.

Mama Wunderbar quickly became a favorite for me! I purchased some beautifully packaged smoke-cleansing kits as Christmas gifts and have been in love with this company ever since. Although they have a greater selection of crystals, smoke-cleansing (smudging) bundles, and jewelry, they do have a limited but beautiful candle section, including crystal candles, ritual candles, moon phase candles, and intention candles. When you order from Mama Wunderbar, you can count on everything being all-natural, high quality, and sustainably grown and harvested in the United States. It’s a great one-stop shop for your online spiritual needs!

Old Soul Artisan creates handcrafted candles inspired by folklore, literature, and the dark psyche. They also offer seasonal fragrances, such as Krampus and Baba Yaga scents. Their 100% vegan soy candles are hand-blended in small batches and contain no dyes, parabens, phthalates, or other toxins. Another reason to love this company — Old Soul Artisan donates part of its profits to wolf conservation.

Yule Recipes


Below are a couple of traditional recipes to celebrate Yule:

WASSAIL

8 c apple cider
2 c orange juice
1/2 c lemon juice
4 cinnamon sticks
12 whole cloves (or 1 tsp ground cloves, but whole are preferred)
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 apple sliced into rounds
1 orange sliced into rounds
Juniper berries
Cranberries
Honey (optional)

1. Combine all ingredients in a large pan or slow cooker.

2. If heating on the stove, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat and continue simmering for 45 minutes. If heating in a slow cooker, turn the heat up to high and let the ingredients simmer for 3-4 hours or until the fruit is soft. Yep, it’s that easy! Ladle into a mug and enjoy!

YULE CAKE

2 tbsp honey
1½ c water
2/3 c raisins
2/3 c dried currants
4 c flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
2/3 c sugar
2 tsp dry yeast
2 eggs
1/2 c unsalted creamed butter
1/3 c chopped, candied orange peel
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp warm milk
9x5x4″ pan

1. Bring the water to a boil, then pour half over the raisins and currants and let them soak. Let the remaining water cool to tepid.

2. Dissolve 1 tbsp of sugar in 2 tbsp warm milk for the glaze.

3. Sift the flour into a bowl with salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Stir in sugar. Make a well in the center and add tepid water with the water drained from the fruits. Crumble or sprinkle yeast over the water and leave 5 minutes or until dissolved. Add eggs and gradually mix in the flour by hand. The dough should become soft but not sticky; add extra flour if necessary to achieve the desired texture.

4. Transfer the dough to an electric mixer bowl and knead for 5-7 minutes until elastic. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turning it so the top is oiled. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it in a warm place for 2-3 hours until it has doubled in bulk.

5. Butter the loaf pan. Return the dough to the mixer bowl and add the creamed butter, then beat for 1-2 minutes at medium speed until the butter is fully mixed and the dough is smooth. Reduce the speed of the mixer to low, then add in the soaked fruit and candied peel and mix.

6. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface. Pat it out with your fist to a rectangle about 9 inches wide. Roll the dough into a cylinder, pinch the edge to seal, and then drop carefully into loaf pan, seam side down. Cover loosely and leave to rise for approximately 1.5-2 hours until the pan is full. Heat the oven to 400°F.

7. Brush the loaf with glaze and bake for 20 minutes. Brush with glaze again, then lower the heat to 350° and continue baking 30-40 minutes until the loaf sounds hollow when unmolded and tapped on bottom. Transfer it to a cooling rack.

The Yule bread can be stored for up to a month if sealed in an air-tight container. The flavor will mature as it rests. The bread can also be frozen.

Christmas celebration

Have Fun!


However you choose to celebrate Yule, there truly is no “right way” or “wrong way.” Traditionally, Yule was a community celebration, but it’s 100% okay to honor the winter solstice by yourself if that’s what makes you comfortable.

Choose the practices that best apply to you and make them your new tradition with your own personal spin. This is a time to be thankful, rest, and celebrate the shift from darkness to light.

Do you have any Yuletide traditions or recipes? Please share in the comments!

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Award-winning fantasy author, freelance writer, spiritual explorer, and sole founder of Green Witch Lunar Witch. She created her first website in 2016 and published her first novel two years later. Sara spends most of her time writing, creating, and daydreaming.

2 thoughts on “Yule & the Winter Solstice | Origins, Traditions, Altar Tips, & More

  1. My Yule celebration was much smaller and less…joyful than the year before. Here’s hoping this coming Yule will be better and brighter 🖤

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