Yule, Midwinter, the Winter Solstice
The Wheel continues to turn, and we move into Winter. The great pause. A time to reset, to continue the journey within, healing, learning, discovering our souls path.
Yule begins at the Winter Solstice, which falls around the 21st December. At Samhain, we honour our ancestors, we welcome the return of the dark and begin our journey within. At Yule, the Winter Solstice, we land at the depth of the darkness with the longest night, the darkness has reached its peak, the Sun stops its descent and for a few days rises in the same place, a magical liminal time, a time to embrace the primal mysteries of darkness and light, death and rebirth. Everything is suspended, waiting, the cusp and then we begin to notice, little by little, the light returning, getting stronger and longer and we know that we can begin our ascent into the light once more.
Taking Our Cues From Nature
The trees are intelligent beings that we can learn many things from if we reconnected with their energies. At the beginning of Autumn they begin to prepare their inward journey, by letting their leaves drop… letting the things go that no longer serve them, which is a vital part of our own inner work, as we prepare for the darker months. That is not the end of it though, those leaves land on the ground and serve as nourishment for the roots, feeding the tree over Winter, giving it the strength to grow stronger come the Spring, and this is how learning the art of letting things go through self-exploration can help us – those things that we no longer need and shed, will allow us to grow and flourish once we identify them and release them.
This is the time to do our inner work – to meditate, sit in the dark with our inner most self, to expose those dark parts of ourselves that we have hidden away, yet need the most healing.
There are many correspondences and similarities across cultures about Yule, like all the solstices and equinoxes, they were major events in the lives of the people, who were much more connected to the land and the seasons and cycles than we are now, and so they were celebrated all over the Earth.
Unfortunately, our 21st century consumer society does not encourage rest at this time. The gentle peace and quiet that our overburdened systems so sorely need is denied in favour of the push to socialise, spend money on things that are not necessary, distraction at every available opportunity, anything to avoid pausing, resting, spending quiet time in the darkness, getting to know ourselves, reflecting on our lives and actions.
What Is Yule, The Winter Solstice And Ways To Celebrate It
Yule, or Yuletide / season, is another ancient festival, historically observed by the Germanic peoples, who celebrated The Wild Hunt, with the God Odin and the Pagan Anglo Saxon Modranicht, but has been observed and celebrated by all ancient peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It can be seen as The Suns birthday, and as such a cause to celebrate!
With the ending of the longest night and the returning of the light and the sun comes the promise of better things to come! We can begin to formulate our intentions and plans for the Spring, the first shoots of bulbs may begin to emerge. The message of the solstices is about balance – the balance of the light and the dark – the balance of things within ourselves.
The Story of Oak King and The Holly King
Images courtesy of Anne Stokes Art
The Holly King, the god of the waning year, comes into power at Midsummer, and rules over the dark half of the year, but with the returning light at Yule he surrenders his life to the young Oak King who then takes up his mantle as god of the waxing year and rules over the light half of the year, from midwinter to midsummer. According to ancient belief, they each rule for half of the year, fighting for the love and favour of the Goddess, and both give up their life force for the good of her, for the well-being of the land. In truth they are one and the same entity.
Traditions of the Season
This story is similar and played out in different cultures across time around the world, and the traditions are abundant and varied. As with most Pagan traditions, they were Christianised, with the Suns birthday becoming the Son of Gods birthday, The Christ Child, but many of the ancient customs remain.
Bringing greenery into the home is an ancient tradition that we still do today! Evergreens represent everlasting life, and that despite the land looking dead and barren, life is still there and will return. Each one has a meaning and symbolism of its own.
This symbolises protection, bringing it into the home would bring good luck. Symbolising the old year, the holly king passing – it’s traditional to burn the holly sprigs you bring into the home on the yule fire. Its red berries represent feminine blood – a symbol of fertility!
Ivy is a plant associated with long life and resurrection, often continuing to live long after the tree it has grown on has died – a reminder of the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth.
A plant sacred to the ancient Druids, regarded as a powerful healing plant, full of magic because it lives between the worlds, between the sky and the earth.
The yew is seen as the greatest symbol of eternal life – living as they do for thousands of years. It is deeply connected to the underworld and the spirit realms, to the ancestors. It is also connected with regeneration, as many trees can grow from an ancient central tree. Because of its association with life after death you will always find yew trees in graveyards. It is highly toxic, and I don’t recommend you bring it into the home, especially if you have pets or children.
Pine is a very cleansing and purifying tree, burning the wood and the boughs will help keep disease and illness from the home.
Making a Wreath from the yule evergreens was a way of bringing their energies into the home, the circular wreath another symbol of eternity.
Yule is a festival of light, so bringing candles into the home is a way to drive out the darkness and herald in the return of the sun. A little ritual you can do on the night of the Solstice is to extinguish all of the lights in your home, and just sit in the darkness, and when you feel ready, go around the house, into every room and light candles, turn the lights on, until the whole house is lit up again. This can be done alone, but is also really good to do with children, and helps to show them that there is nothing to be afraid of sitting in the dark. In our always lit up and plugged into the matrix worlds, to sit in darkness allows us to reconnect with that wild side, that remembers our Ancestors.
The Yule Tree
Pines and firs were acknowledged as symbols of rebirth and life, and they were brought into homes in the depth of winter to remind the people that new life would return. It was also believed that the wood spirits inhabited the trees (this is where we get the expression “knock on” or “touch wood”, for luck) and bringing them into the home through the winter would shelter them from the harsh winter so they would bestow on the family good luck.
Northern Europeans, and The Vikings celebrated and honoured the winter solstice by burning a huge log at yule, either oak, ash, cherry or pear, and they would keep it alight through the darkest days of winter, saving the very last piece to relight at the following winter solstice celebrations.
Ways to Celebrate and Honour the Season
As you can see, the traditions of Yule / the winter solstice are many and varied, culturally and globally, but deeply entrenched into our psyches. However our modern lifestyles have meant that we have lost connection with why we do these things. Yule and the winter solstice have been overtaken by the over-indulgence and excesses of the Christmas rush. Pressures and stress override our systems, and many of us feel depressed, anxious. We put so much of this on ourselves! It doesn’t need to be this way – implementing a simple routine of self-care into our lives can make massive differences in how we cope with this time of year. Just to pause and slow down, take just 5 minutes a day to bring a mindful breath practice into your life will make a huge difference.
Spend some time gazing at a candle flame, focus on your breath – learn to belly breathe! learn a new skill, there are so many amazing short (or long) courses out there, either face to face or online, in almost anything you can think of – what fires you up, sparks your creativity? I truly believe we are never too old to learn anything, we just need the desire.
At AuroraStar, I not only give beautiful relaxing treatments, I run meditation groups, classes and 1 to 1’s, I teach over 21 different holistic therapy courses, all accredited and insurable as well as teaching Reiki at all levels – Reiki is the ultimate self-care tool!! I hold Reiki 1, 2 and 3 courses, as well as workshops all through the year.
All these things are part of the responsibility we have to ourselves, to look after our own minds and bodies. Self-care! It seems to be an overused word these days, and synonymous with bubble baths and book reading!… and yes, those things are good to do and do form part of it, but I believe that if we only focus on that we are neglecting a great opportunity to take deeper dives into our own psyches and begin to work on deep inner healing, the healing of the soul and spirit, of family karma and trauma – and that is not all foamy bubbles and candlelight!
I never seem to be able to mention the words “self-care” without mentioning the phrase “shadow work” at the same time! and if you are a regular reader of my blogs and newsletters you will see I make lots of references to it – I feel it is an integral part of growing ourselves, getting to know ourselves and healing ourselves. My blog on Shadow Work is here, I also did a podcast about it that you can listen to here.
Yuletide in Modern Cultures – How the Danes Spend the Winter
Hygge (pronounced “hoo – ga”) – “Cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being” (Oxford English Dictionary) – it’s more of a concept rather than being able to be translated into a single word, and encompasses the feeling of cosy contentment and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life. If you have ever enjoyed that feeling of snuggling up in front of a fire on a cold wintry day, candles a glow, or taken pleasure in a warm cup of coffee or hot chocolate indoors on a rainy day (and who hasn’t!!??) then you have experienced hygge – without even knowing it!! What I love about it is it refers to the importance of finding comfort, pleasure and warmth in the little things, such as a cosy atmosphere or the feeling of friendship.
Of course, as with most things, the concept is ancient, and linked with our survival, not just physical but ideals that are vital for our mental health – as we turn into the dark and cold days of winter, and the shortest day at the Winter Solstice, it is easy to feel depressed, to get overwhelmed by what seems like the endless dark days, and cold, wet, damp ,weather. For our ancestors winter could literally mean death and starvation! So the importance of huddling together around a cosy fire, socially interacting with one another, sharing of food, resources and stories not only kept them going through those long dark days, but also kept them alive!!
There is another physiological reason why sitting around a fire is so relaxing and good for us – studies are showing that fire may have influenced the development of the human brain! Fire is associated with creativity, dreaming, deep meditation. Not only has fire served our most basic needs for survival for cooking, heating, protection etc, now research into cognitive evolution, a field of study that brings together psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and genetics, suggests that fires most lasting impact was how our responses to it altered our brains, helping endow us with capabilities such as long-term memory and problem solving.
Sitting around a campfire in a social setting would have provided a social relaxation effect that would have benefitted the whole group and would have provided relaxation and activated calming behaviour. Studies have shown that sitting around the fire can lower blood pressure. There is something deeply primal about social gatherings around fire, fire “fires” up responses within our reptilian brain – the amygdala, which is why we all enjoy large social gatherings around bonfires! – think bonfire night, May Day / Beltane, the summer solstice, in fact our ancestors always had bonfires going at any outdoor celebration (called Balefires ).
We know that looking at the blue light on our smartphone screens, laptops and tv’s are not good for us, particularly at night. Blue light suppresses the release of melatonin in our brains, which leads to a lower quality of sleep, which in turn can lead to a variety of negative health effects. However, not all of us have access to a real fire or wood burner to create hygge, but we can turn off the technology, light candles, cuddle up with cosy blankets, and invest in a salt lamp! Salt lamps give off a warm red glow, similar to that of a fire, so they trigger those calming relaxing responses in the brain, as well as having a host of other benefits, such as promoting negative ions, soothing allergies and cleaning the air.
Soak up the atmosphere of doing this with good friend or family – instead of all gathering around the tv maybe turn the lights down low and play a board game or cards, or just read books together. There is something very comforting about being with those you care about but just sitting in silence, in the warm glow of candles and soft lighting reading a good book, or go a bit Dickensian and get a classic ghost story and nominate one person to read it aloud each night for the 12 days of Yule!
Deities of the Winter
The Cailleach (pronounced Kai-lee-ach), the Old Woman of Winter
There are so many different traditions, deities, folklore and tales associated with the season of Yuletide. Now I am stepping into my crone years I really resonate with The Cailleach through the winter months, she is one of our most ancient creator goddesses. Known as the old woman of winter, the Veiled One, and the Queen of Winter, and many other names (often that’s how you can tell that a deity is ancient, they have many names).
She lives up in the high mountains of Scotland (or Ireland) and created the landscape by dropping boulders and rocks from her apron, and forming valleys with her footprints.
Cailleach by Jane Brideson
The Cailleach appears primarily as a veiled old woman, sometimes with only one eye (notice the similarity to Odin, the God of Norse mythology here!). Her skin was deathly pale or blue, while her teeth were red and her clothes adorned with skulls. She could leap across mountains and ride storms.
The Veiled One was a creator deity that shaped much of the known landscape; whether she did so intentionally remains unclear. Her tools of creation and destruction included her hammer, with which she was able to control storms and thunder. In some legends, she also controlled a well that would occasionally overflow and flood the land.
The Cailleach was both ageless and immortal; as winter gave way to spring, she would take a drought that returned her to youth. In Manx legend, she spent half the year as a young woman and the other half as a old crone – she was only known as the Cailleach during the latter half. In Ireland, she had seven periods of youth, after which she remained old permanently.
The seasonal division between summer and winter – where the Cailleach ruled winter and Brigid ruled summer – highlighted the association of the two goddesses. On Samhain, or October 31st, the Celtic year ends and winter begins, marking the return of the Cailleach. In Scotland and the Isle of Man, the Cailleach transforms into Brigid during Beltane, the fertility festival held on May 1st.
The Cailleach was also a goddess of grain, a key resource in surviving winter. The last sheath of grain harvested was dedicated to her, and used to begin the next planting season. Connections to life, death and rebirth.
Like many Irish goddesses, the Cailleach was linked to sovereignty and rulership. Before anyone could rule the land, they had to first win her approval.
The Cailleach was neither fully good nor fully evil; her intentions varied from tale to tale. Through her association with storms and thunder, she was a natural and wild destructive force. Despite this, she also cared deeply for animals both wild and domestic during the dark winter months. Protector of the deer and reindeer, companion of wolves and bears, she has no love of man, particularly hunters, smashing and wrecking their traps and luring them out to get lost in the snow when she sees them hunting her beloved animals.
Calm Energy by Janie Olsen
The Cailleach had a few family ties, the most well-known of which was the Bodach, a Scottish trickster spirit with whom she had many children.
According to an old Irish poem, she was a maiden seven times, (another reference to the number 7 – a magical number) allowing her to have many children by many husbands, as well as countless foster-children. By the time her final period of youth had ended, she had outlived her husbands and children alike, and was said to be the maternal ancestor of every Irish man and tribe, but she was a sovereign being, she answered to no man. To me She calls us to reconnect with our wild woman side to honour that which is shunned and looked down upon. Although she is depicted as a fearsome hag, that is by the men who fear her, she can also be seen as a beautiful woman.
Cailleach by Naomi Cornock
As a Goddess of transformation and death, She oversees the culling of the old, and lets die all that is no longer needed, hence her reign beginning at Samhain, when the animals would be culled to save the grain over winter and feed the tribe.
With the passing of the winter months, the Cailleach finds and guards the seeds for the coming re-birth of Spring. She stands at the cusp of life and death, intimately connected to the witches of old, the wise women who presided as midwives over birthing and who prepared the dead for burial, which connects to my soul midwife side!
As the “Veiled One” the Cailleach guides us through our inner realities and dreams. She teaches us to let go of (allow to die) all that no longer serves our higher purpose and guides us through the many deaths and rebirths of our life’s transitions. She is the final phase of the Triple Goddess who rules the wheel of reincarnation. She teaches us to embrace the transformative power of darkness and leads us into the light of re-birth.
Triple Goddess by Wendy Andrew
When we journey with the Cailleach in her time of winter she is asking us to go within to join Her in her cave, the dark womb of the Earth, to honour our deepest desires, our deepest innermost selves and ask ourselves what do we want to create? What of those darkest parts of ourselves, the parts we shun, we feel are ugly, can we name them, and love them? What do we need to let go, what needs to die so we can create fertile ground for ourselves? The Cailleach can help us to let go of those things and dream our rebirth into being.
I will be posting a special Yuletide meditation on my podcast, The Holistic Witch to journey with her, I’d love for you to join me.
This is a great article on The Cailleach and her correspondences if you would like to learn more about her; Sacred Wicca, The Cailleach.
Links to the Otherworlds
As we move from Samhain through to Yule, much of the symbolism is about death and dying, the mystical energies linked to the Otherworlds and the trees and plants that are tied in to this time of year. I have been diving deeply into this dark half of the year, and the darker side of my work, by deepening my knowledge with the Otherworlds, the Etheric realms – travelling between the worlds and learning how to help guide those poor lost souls who have not been able to transition, known as Psychopomping.
A psychopomp is someone who helps to guide the souls of the dead across the threshold. There are many reasons a soul may not transcend, a sudden death may cause someone to not realise they are dead, or unfinished business may keep someone here. We are all familiar with tales of ghosts, hauntings, the energy in places not feeling right – but this is just these poor souls who are hanging here in limbo, not able to move on, so sad. Now I have the tools, and another layer to the subtle energies we work with at end of life, to help these people move on to place where they are meant to be.
This time of year calls me to not only turn within and work on my inner self, but to continue the work of honouring and connecting with my Ancestors, those loved ones that have gone before, and those before them. When we make a commitment to this deeper work, we are often working on what we call “karmic stuff”… clearing up the energies of our lineages. This can be done by meditation, counselling, hypnotherapy, Shamanic journeying and many different types of energy work. When we do this we are honouring our ancestors, healing the past and clearing the way for those who are yet to come. All part of that shadow work!
Now I know this may seem all a bit dark and creepy… but far from it! The work we do at end of life teaches us to value life even more! We hope to bring knowledge about these things in a light hearted way, whilst also always being respectful – this is a serious subject, but we are spiritual beings here on earth, here to experience the joy that surrounds us and goes with a body.
I have helped many people take a drum journey to connect with their power animal and begin inner healing.
As pagans, we know that nothing ever really dies, and we learn that the full circle includes rebirth. At Yule we have a perfect opportunity to let things go that are no longer helping us, a kind of death, and begin to plan and nurture the seeds of what we are hoping to manifest for the next cycle, because, although Yule is the shortest day, the longest night, we pause, we also know that after this day, the light begins to grow each day – the sun gains strength, the light will return, along with new life! And so Yule is a time of hope and joy!
We don’t need to spend money or buy into the commercialism that has infiltrated Yule / Christmas. I love this holiday, and once we are into the first couple of weeks of November, I am well and truly in the spirit!
The darker evenings mean we can light the hearth fires, and if you don’t have a real fire, then candles are great – I have loads! Lots of fairy lights to bring in light and sparkle, and evergreens to symbolise new life.
I thought it would be fun and interesting to share some of the myths and folklore around Yule. As I said earlier, there are so many, but here are some interesting takes on why we think reindeer can fly, why Santa wears red, and why we have lots of toadstool (the fly agaric) images at this time of year… particularly as they are primarily in fruit much earlier in the year!
Did you know that it’s the female reindeer that keep their antlers through the winter?! so Santa’s sleigh was pulled by women!!! (of course! lol)
This is taken from an article by MacKenzie Bouchard:
“Several Siberian tribes have taken on another quite unusual strategy to prepare Fly Agaric in the past: as reindeer farms and Amanita muscaria are both very common in Siberia, the mushroom is a tasty treat to the reindeer, that also enjoy a type of high after eating the mushroom (Marley 2010). The urine from those reindeer were collected by tribes, and then consumed for a less potent hallucination experience with vivid dreams (Marley 2010). Hallucinations and vivid dreams are believed to be the reason why the Nordic tribes in Siberia believed reindeer could fly at Christmastime (Marley 2010, Main 2013).
Most think that consumerism and marketing were the reasoning for Santa Claus bearing the bright red and white uniform, however, he had been wearing those colours long before Coca-Cola began using him in their marketing in the 1930s (Belk 1987). Even Santa Claus, who is thought to be derived from a Siberian Shaman or Danish Nisse, has ties to Fly Agaric. His coloured robes replicate the colours of Amanita muscaria and in folklore, he is from countries that commonly consume the mushroom (Main 2013). Santa Claus, an almost god-like figure himself, has also been depicted as a representative of fertility and luck; he has historically been depicted as an androgynous figure that helped unmarried women pay for suitors (Belk 1987). His association with reindeer, and links to giving out the dried Amanita muscaria mushrooms or presents wrapped in red and white as gifts, are compelling evidence for underlying Pagan celebrations of a mushroom hiding in plain sight during a Christian holiday.”
The article is quite long, and so you can read the full thing here: The Fly Agaric on Modern Yuletide Celebrations.
The Yule Altar
At Yule we bring the light in, to ward off the dark cold days and long nights. In our modern world we have the luxury of twinkly fairy lights and scented candles, but our ancestors would have had the hearth fire, which would have been the focal point for the tribe, village or family to gather around.
As modern pagans, our altars are very important in our celebrations, and provide the focal point for our rituals and intentions. Altars are deeply personal, reflecting our individual tastes and personalities. It can be as simple as a single candle, or as elaborate as your imagination and space allow. You may have more than one, or just a small box that acts as a travelling altar.
I am lucky enough to have a few altar spaces around my house, and one in the cabin, which I will film myself setting up and post it on my YouTube channel. There are some meditations on there as well as on my podcast.
I always have a small real tree which I buy from a local family that grow them sustainably themselves, and then I make my Yule log from each years previous tree.
I place three candles in it, one to represent each of us in the house, that are in deep drilled holes, and so into the holes we place pieces of paper with our wishes on them. From the 21st of December, the first night of Yule, I light them each day for the 12 days, until they are completely burnt down, and on the 12th day I put the whole Yule log in the fire! So it’s a bit like a cross between the traditional yule log and an advent candle/wreath. This has become a tradition in our house now. That’s another thing I like about this time of year, it gives us an opportunity to not only reconnect with all of our family traditions… but as we change and grow, move away from families, lose elders, gain new family members, we can also create new traditions – this is the joy of following the pagan wheel, always knowing that we can shed the old and rebirth new ways of being.
As the wheel turns, this time of year provides time for reflection. That is the blessing of the pause, we can look back on the year, the highs and the lows, the people we may have lost, the new ones that have come into our lives – there is always space for finding gratitude, and I am deeply grateful, for every aspect of my life. Maybe spending some moments doing this and writing down your gratitudes can form part of a new tradition for you?
I would like to take this moment to thank everyone who has crossed my path this year, all my clients and students, the people who follow me on the social media platforms, subscribe to my newsletters and read my blogs, my friends and family – thank you all for being a part of my journey, I am grateful for your support, it really does mean so much to me and I value every interaction.
These last few years have been hard, scary, devisive and confusing for all of us, and the winter predictions of war, energy crisis and food expense is ever present! (I highly recommend not listening to the news, watching / listening to mainstream media, it will do wonders for your mental health – they are promotors of fear!) if we stick together we can keep shining our lights in the darkness, support those around us who need it, look out for one another – start small, it begins with looking after yourself, your loved ones and then that ripples out in ever widening circles. Together we are stronger, and our lights are brighter, shining out as a beacon for the others in our tribe, so we can find our way through the darkness as one!
Much love and blessings of Yuletide,