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 Yule

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Stacey/Cirrius
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PostSubject: Yule   Tue Sep 22, 2009 7:48 am

Yule, also known as the Winter Solstice, has so many traditions associated with it that there are entire books dedicated to this subject. Many of the customs will be quite familiar as they have been adopted by other religions into their practices, and that is how much of the tradition has survived.

Firstly, Yule, or the Winter Solstice, occurs when the Sun enters the sign Capricorn, and is at 0 ° Capricorn. Thus, Yule is a "minor" Sabbat because it is at zero degrees, the beginning of the energy. This is the longest night of the year, at the darkest time of the year. In ancient times, it was believed that the Sun needed our help to return, so the people would light bonfires both to strenghthen the Sun through sympathetic magic and also to show the Sun the way back to the earth. Lighted candles in windows and lights on houses and trees (Christmas tree lights) are the leftover symbols of these bonfires, and are meant to symbolize and aid the return of the Sun.

This was also a season of the year when the herds were culled, as there was only enough food to feed the strong and young who would be needed to breed in the spring. Weak cattle who may not survive the winter anyway were sacrificed, or just slaughtered, and used for feasting, or salted and saved. They were also traded, along with many other items, for this time of year, many people had time on their hands. The hunting was harder now because of the weather, and there was no agricultural concerns going on in the northern areas, so people had time to create and make things. The gifts that some of us still exchange at Yule originally were from trading what one had extra for what one lacked. During the Kalends in Rome, January 1-3, handmade gifts were exchanged, and this tradition also took place in Egypt at their new year, where people exhcanged scent bottles and scarabs for good luck in the coming year. We still exchange gifts at Yule, the only rule we adhere to is that they must be handmade - and I have always been the lucky recipient of the most excellent crafted things imaginable!

The main focus of most Yuletide celebrations is the rebirth of the Sun, as this is when the Goddess gives birth to the Sun in many traditions. In addition to the theme of birth, we also have the theme of death, symbolized by the Yule log. The ancient druids worshiped the Great Trees, symbolic of the Gods, and often sang or chanted to them and poured libations to them, as well as made other offerings. The custom of "wassailing" is a descendent of of the druids "wassailing" the trees. The word means to "wish good health to" and at one time was associated with many other holidays, not just this one. The Yule log is also "wassailed", being decorated with mistletoe, holly, ivy, red berries, and bright ribbons, and having libations poured over it, and also being sung to, especially while it is burning. The Yule log symbolized the sacrificed god, since the druids believed that only the sacrifice of a Great Tree was strong enough to bring back the Sun. In Rome, their Yule log was expected to burn during the entire 12 days of the Saturnalia, a mighty Tree indeed! Pieces of the Yule log were then kept to protect the home and family throughout the coming year, and also used to light the following years log. This is the last traces of the Perpetual Fire that was once kept in honor of many Gods and Goddesses.

Many of the older celebrations were extremely baudy and a time for regular hierarchies in society to be turned around. During the Saturnalia, for example, slaves were allowed freedom, there was cross-dressing between the sexes and also between the classes. Inhibitions and prohibitions were mostly lifted, and drunkeness and lascivity were allowed. This kind of behavior was associated with many of the traditions celebrated at the Winter Solstice, and even carried through to the Middle Ages. So much so, that the Puritans in England, and in New England, forbid the practice of Christmas, saying that it was a Pagan holiday, and would not allow it in their religion. The Christmas season, as we know it, with it's high emphasis on the birth of Christ, on family reunions, and on gift-giving, is largely a product of our American culture, and is only about 150 years old, if that.

As far as the birth of Christ is concerned, prior to 354 AD there was no official date for the birth of Jesus. However, the Mithraic religion, as Chritianity's closest rival, celebrated the birth of Mithras on Dec. 25th. Constantine, the Roman emperor at that time, and more or less converted to Chrisianity himself (though not actually baptized until he was on his death- bed), was being pressured by the Christian priests to ban this Pagan holiday. Contstantine was a pragmatic ruler, by all accounts, and he knew that the common people would either revolt, or celebrate it anyway. He therefore decreed that Dec. 25th was to be celebrated as the birth of Jesus. The observance of this date as Jesus' birthday was not actually accepted by Christians except in Rome. The Bible, and the early Christians, were much more interested in Christ's resurrection, as proof of immortality in Jesus, than in his birth.

Today, almost the only Christian sect to oppose celebrating Christmas is the Jehovah's Witnesses, who rightly recognize that the traditions carried out are totally Pagan in their origin. Especially the Christams tree, with it's garland, lights, and ornaments, has it's roots in the Druid worship of the Trees. The garland represents the circle of life, the never-ending cycles of the Goddess, and also the snake, which is a sacred animal to the Goddess. The lights, as discussed above, add energy to the Sun, and are an encouragement for the Sun's return. Glass balls were to reflect evil, thereby protecting against the "evil eye", and also to reflect the lights on the tree (originally candles on the tree) and increase the effectiveness of their light. Candy canes are a reminder of the renewal of all life as they are symbolic of the maypole, with their red and white colors, which stand for the blood and the milk of the Goddess, the ancient waters of life. Ti1nsel and icicles are fertility magic also, representing the rains which will come to fertilize the earth in the spring. Bells were used to purify the air, and to summon the friendly spirits for protection. The star at the top of the tree is our own pentagram, representing the four elements of air, earth, fire and water, overseen by Spirit.

Holly and Ivy were seen as the male and fenale principles (respectively) and were believed to bring good luck and fertility to men and women. Holly, berries, pine cones, and acorns were all used to signify the God aspect at this season, while the wreath symbolized the Goddess aspect. As a complete circle, the wreath symbolized the circle of life, the wheel of the year, and the sacred cycles of the Goddess, and was usually decorated with the holly, berries, ribbons, etc. of the God, and so combined both aspects in one decoration.

Of course, mistletoe has come down as the plant most associated with the Yule season. Being a parasite, it only grows high in trees, where the seeds land after being borne on the wind. The Druids therefore believed the plant was put there by the Gods, probably by lightning bolt, or put there by the Sun. It was believed to have miraculous healing powers, be very strong good luck, and have many other magical and mystical attributes, and thus was referred to as "the Golden Bough". In Scandanavian countries, enemies would often be reconciled underneath boughs containing mistletoe, and any contract thus made could never be broken. Thus comes our custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe.

There are many other customs from many cultures, as was mentioned earlier, and these are but a few. The Yuletide season was celebrated in almost every known civilization, and many traditions have survived in altered forms from many different cultures. Researching these customs is both informative and fascinating, and will enrich your knowledge and understanding of both your own Pagan roots, as well as the roots of other religions.

Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how enthusiastically we Pagans celebrate the 'Christmas' season. Even though we prefer to use the word 'Yule', and our celebrations may peak a few days BEFORE the 25th, we nonetheless follow many of the traditional customs of the season: decorated trees, carolling, presents, Yule logs, and mistletoe. We might even go so far as putting up a 'Nativity set', though for us the three central characters are likely to be interpreted as Mother Nature, Father Time, and the Baby Sun-God. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who knows the true history of the holiday, of course.

In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always been more Pagan than Christian, with it's associations of Nordic divination, 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 and Saxons.

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's 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 moon.

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 carolling, 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. 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 one!'

Midwinter has long been a traditional time for celebration and merrymaking in Britain. All of the activities at midwinter were meant to ensure that the season would renew itself and the days would begin to grow longer again. Greenery was brought into decorate the house: evergreen to symbolize the promise of life to come even in the darkest winter; the mistletoe, believed to hold the life of the host tree even when the tree itself appeared to be dead in winter; and the holly and ivy, symbols of male and female, both of course necessary for new life. Carols, some of which survive to this day, such as the Gower Wassail, were sung. The earliest carols consisted of taking hands and singing while dancing in a ring or around a bush, May tree, or even an apple tree (as in the case of the Apple Tree Wassail, sung in hopes of a good crop of cider the following year).

The Wassail Carols in particular date back to the Viking invasions of England, about 700 A.D. , when the greeting was Ves heill. By Anglo-Saxon times, the greeting had evolved into Waes thu hal, meaning "be whole" or "good health". The response was "drink hail" , meaning "I drink and good luck be to you". People would travel from house to house in the village bringing good wishes and carrying an empty bowl. The master of the house being wassailed was expected to fill the bowl with a hot spicy ale and then it would be passed around to the carolers.

Midwinter was also a time for exchanging gifts and for feasting. Turkey only dates to the 1500's. Much more common were boar, geese, capons, swans, and pheasants. Minced pies were originally made with meat, and with the coming of spices to England during the Crusades, plum pudding became quite the traditional dish. Plum pudding makes a great dish for cakes and wine in the Yule circle, especially if you pour warmed brandy over it and set it afire before the blessing.

While I am writing about midwinter customs in Britain because our heritage in .K.A.M. is largely Celtic in origin, the Isles do not have a monopoly on Yule. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia for seven days around the Solstice, and it was a time to look ahead and rejoice in the longer days to come. Slaves and masters switched places at table, and presents were exchanged. The Persian Mithraists held December 25th as sacred to the birth of their Sun God, Mithras, and celebrated it as a victory of light over darkness. And in Sweden, December 13th was sacred to the Goddess Lucina, Shining One, and was a celebration of the return of the light. On Yule itself, around the 21st, bonfires were lit to honor Odin and Thor.

Midwinter has always been a Pagan holiday, so much so that during the 1600's the Christian Christmas was

recognized as a celebration based on Pagan customs and was outlawed in England and many of the colonies in America.

Decorate the altar with fir greens, pine cones, holly, mistletoe, etc. You will need at least one gold/yellow candle to represent the Sun/God. You may also want to use pine cones, a basket, costumes, etc. for doing the pine cone fairy play. Read over the ritual and decide how much or how little you would like to use.

Incenses to use are frankincense and myrrh, pine, cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg. Oils can be the same, but be very cautious, cinnamon can burn if used too strong, as can some of these other oils. When using on skin, cut them heavily with almond oil, or another light oil, since the scent is important only, and not the strength of the oil itself. Gold and silver are traditional colors for the God and Goddess, as are white and red, or red and green
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