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Winter Solstice or Yule

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

The winter #solstice is the shortest day of the year, the moment when half the Earth is tilted the farthest away from the sun when in the Northern Hemisphere, on December 21st - my birthday. The holidays which celebrate Mother Earth are increasingly growing more important to me as they remind me to follow her lead. The Winter Solstice is a time of turning in and focusing on the Self. From this day forward however, the days grow longer and more will be demanded of us.

The sun will return, even in when everything seems so dark. This is a day though of appreciating the darkness. Yule encourages inner reflection and a more profound spirituality than other parts of the year. It's easily one of my favorite holidays.

The Symbols of Yule

As with all holidays, some symbols are more sacred and useful for this holiday than others. You can probably guess most of the symbols as today's modern Christian celebration embraces many of these old traditions, such as reds and greens, and evergreen plants. These plants never lose their green, even through the winter, so they were thought to be strong enough to stop death in its tracks. They represent immortality and eternal life.

Holly is an evergreen plant. Its bristles are said to repel spirits; it too symbolizes everlasting life. Mistletoe was known as a healer and a protector, and it specifically represents the Winter Solstice, the space between dark and light, death and life, heaven and earth. Again, reminding me of my own need for balance, for self-care balanced with service to others.

The ancient Scandinavians began the custom of burning the Yule log. Celtic tradition has the log coming from an oak tree, where it was brought into the home to keep the hearth fire burning into the new year. This was done to prevent unwanted spirits from entering the home. Many families bake a Yule log cake, which is decorated to look like logs (and so they don't have to carry a huge log into their homes).

Yule trees represent the Tree of Life and in ancient times, these trees were decorated with gifts that represent what people wished to receive from the gods. They are also often decorated with natural objects like pine cones, berries, and fruit. Today this is the modern Christmas tree. We have traditionally covered our tree in Santa Clause, but this year, we went with a nature theme, adding dried oranges and cranberry garland.

Candles represent the eternal flame, the same as an undying hearth fire does. Candles were used to chase away spirits and guide the sun back into the sky. The smoke of the candles was said to carry wishes out into the universe, whispering desires to any spirits that may be able to help them.

Wreaths symbolize the wheel of the year and the eternal cycle of life and death. They are generally made with evergreen plants and are decorated with pine cones, acorns, and berries then hung throughout the home.

Bells were a tool used to drive away negative energy, which makes them a great tool for this liminal time when we banish what is bad for us and drawing in all that is good. Ringing bells in the morning was thought to chase away the darkness.

The warm earthy scents of frankincense, cedar, clove, and cinnamon are perfect for this time of year. As I write, in fact, I have a pot simmering on the stove with a sliced apple, sliced orange, some cinnamon sticks and some fresh herbs.

Celebrating Yule Today

A few years ago, I celebrated Yule with an old friend of mine, doing 108 Sun Salutations. Having dinner with your loved ones, singing songs by the fire, and sharing presents are all traditions that can be found in many cultures around the world, at this time of the year. It was a celebration for many reasons, but also because it was a time when the beer and mead had finished fermenting, and the stores of meat were abundant.

Sunlight was the difference between life and death, the beginning of its triumphant return meant a great deal, so much so that the Celtic people built one of their greatest monuments - Stonehenge - to align perfectly with the sunset on this day. Yule is a time marked by the ultimate death and rebirthing of life. And while its meaning was once quite literal, it was and still is celebrated symbolically - ushering in a time of deep personal release and renewal.

At Yule, we give thanks to the lessons that the darkness has brought, and welcome in the transformation of the light. This isn't a time to rush, but a time to gather all that we've harvested during the warmer months and celebrate in gathering with loved ones. This is a time to cultivate deep reverence for your home - for this is your place of shelter, of love, of warmth. It protects us during the colder, darker months. At this time, we decorate our houses to honor the fading of the darkness and the grand return of the light.

Caroling was traditionally done by children who were honoring the Winter Solstice. When I was a kid we lived in Holland, and I remember families ringing our front door just so they could sing to us. It was amazing honestly. In return for singing, we would offer them gifts. Wassail is a hot mulled cider that was traditionally drunk while caroling.

Yule Tells a Story of the Cyclical Nature of Life

From Christianity to paganism, the Winter Solstice has been about birth, death, and rebirth. Because of this connection, it seems obvious that this time to let go of those things in our lives that no longer serve us, and to be reborn as new people for the new year. Allow yourself forgiveness. Consider your relationships and which ones maybe you could let go of; it's time to take inventory of every part of your life. Now is the time to change or rather, level up. The magic in the air makes it naturally easier to do so.

This is also a time to look to the future, and all of the hope and possibility the future holds. Dream a little bigger during Yule, and allow yourself to really believe those dreams can come true.

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