Yule (Winter Solstice) History, Meaning, and Ritual
WHAT IS THE WINTER SOLSTICE?
The winter solstice, which falls on December 21st each year, is the longest night and shortest day of the year. It’s the time of year when darkness is at its peak – even our shadows are longer. The solstice marks the technical start of the winter season. Even if it’s felt cold for a few weeks or months now (depending on where you live), the season only truly begins on this day.
At this point, the sun begins to grow stronger each day. Thus, the Winter Solstice is a celebration of the rebirth that comes at this time of year, not just rebirth of the sun, but of the green of the earth and ourselves. In the Wiccan tradition, this is represented by the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. Themes of death and rebirth occur all across this season, beginning with the Solstice, leading into the New Year, the Full Moon in Cancer, and finally, the rebirth of Venus as the Morning Star when she leaves retrograde in late January. Winter can at times seem dark and depressing, but the rebirth of the Sun brings a hope and optimism that good things are on their way.
The time of the Solstice this year is full of energy. It occurs within days of the Full Moon in Gemini, Venus entering retrograde, and Capricorn season beginning. With the energy so high, it’s a perfect time to take stock of where you’re at, where you want to go, and what lies ahead for you in the new year.
TRADITIONS AND BELIEFS OF YULE
Cultures around the world have observed the Winter Solstice, also known as Yule, in one way or another for millennia. Many ancient monuments are built around the solstices and equinoxes. In fact, many of the traditions now observed during Christmastime began as Yule activities, like decorating a tree, giving gifts, singing carols, and enjoying food and drink with family.
Felling an evergreen tree and decorating it with symbols of the season is meant to represent immortality. The tradition goes back to Roman times, when priests would bring a pine tree into the temple on the Winter Solstice. Filling the tree with lights represents the return of the light and rebirth of the sun. For those of us in mixed-tradition households, this is a great way to symbolize both Yule and Christmas.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmastime is a relatively modern one, but mistletoe’s connection to the themes of the solstice goes back to ancient times. Mistletoe grows on trees rather than in the ground, making it a stubborn and resilient parasitic plant. Mistletoe was harvested by the Druids in winter as a symbol of fertility and abundance. In Norse mythology, the god Baldr dies when struck by mistletoe. In a pessimistic twist of the rebirth that occurs during the Solstice, he is given a chance to be revived, but it doesn’t end up working out. Thankfully, we know that the sun and green life does get a second chance at life in springtime. You can bring mistletoe into your home to commemorate these traditions, even if you don’t observe the modern romantic custom.
In the Wiccan tradition, the Oak King and Holly King battle throughout the year. At the Summer Solstice (aka Litha), the Holly King defeats the Oak King, bringing ever-shorter days and the cold of fall and winter. At the Winter Solstice, the Oak King prevails over the Holly King and brings the return of the light and new life with the imminent arrival of spring. You can honor this tradition by decorating your house with oak and holly, using their leaves, acorns, branches, and berries on your altar or Yule tree.
In Slavic traditions this time was associated with ancestral spirits, and many customs that we associate with Samhain/Halloween, such as going door to door for treats and dressing up in costume, were practiced at the Solstice in this part of the world. The veil is still thin in winter, shadows abound, and it’s easier to connect with ancestral spirits and other realms while the world is cold and dark. You may want to keep your ancestral Samhain altar up through this season, or honor your ancestors in some way by eating their favorite foods, leaving them a place at your holiday table, or sharing memories with living family members.
I LOOK FORWARD TO THE RETURN OF THE LIGHT AND THE PROMISE OF THE CYCLE OF LIFE BEGINNING AGAIN IN SPRINGTIME.
- Decorate a Yule tree or Yule log
- Share a meal with loved ones
- Watch the sunrise
- Welcome the light with symbols of the sun
- Begin planning your spring garden
- Light a candle
- Express gratitude for loved ones
YULE RECIPE: ORANGE GINGER SPICED HONEY CAKE
Oranges are symbols of the sun and its light. Combined with the warmth of ginger and spices, this cake helps us honor and welcome back the sun after the longest night of the year. Cinnamon invites luck in the new year, while eggs represent the fertility of both our plants and our ideas. Finally, bees are a symbol of good luck that ancient Hindus associated with fertility. They have also been associated across cultures with community and hard work (strong Capricorn themes, btw!). The honey in this recipe nods to all of these apian associations.
- 2 c all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 ½ tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp clove
- 1 tsp orange zest (about one orange’s worth)
- 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
- 1 stick (8 tbsp) butter
- ¾ c honey
- 2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice (about half an orange’s worth)
- ½ c milk of your choice
- 2 eggs
- ¼ c granulated sugar
- Preheat the oven to 325˚. Prepare a cake pan or loaf pan by lightly greasing and flouring it.
- Brown the stick of butter in a small saucepan. It’s ready when it turns a light caramel color and begins to smell fragrant. Be sure to watch it closely – it can burn quickly.
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and powdered spices until thoroughly combined.
- In a large bowl, whisk the eggs gently, and then add the rest of the wet ingredients: orange zest, fresh ginger, browned butter, honey, orange juice, milk, and granulated sugar. Whisk until thoroughly combined.
- Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet a spoonful or two at a time and gently combine. Be careful not to over-mix, or your cake will be tough.
- Pour the batter into your cake or loaf pan and bake for 35 min or until a toothpick comes out clean.
- Optional: top with orange glaze (oranges and powdered sugar) and candied orange slices, or cream cheese frosting.