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Winter Solstice – The Pagan Yule Celebration

Last updated on February 28, 2024

Winter Solstice – The Pagan Yule Celebration

The Facts
This year (2014), the Winter Solstice or Yule begins on December 21st at 6:03pm EST (or 23:03 Universal Time). This marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year. What’s behind this? It’s when the Sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere and the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees.

traditional Christmas/Yule decorations

In English: When the North Pole is tilted furthest – 23.5 degrees – away from the Sun.

This causes the North Pole to experience 24 hours of night where the Sun doesn’t rise at all and the South Pole 24 hours of daylight (referred to as the Midnight Sun).

Origins of Winter Solstice

Numerous cultures across the Northern Hemisphere celebrate the Winter Solstice and have for thousands of years. From its origin, this tradition celebrates the rebirth of the sun. It also marks the beginning of winter and is one of the oldest known winter celebrations.

Four thousand years ago, the Ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of Ra, god of the sun, every day. As their culture flourished and spread throughout Mesopotamia, so did their practice of worshipping the rebirth of the sun. People saw the daily rising and setting of the sun echoed in the cycle of seasons where days grew shorter and crops would die and then flourish again. This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth gave rise to the importance of worshipping the rebirth of the sun.

The week long feast of Saturnalia in Ancient Rome worshipped the sun god Saturn. Among other things, Saturn was seen as a god of generation, plenty, wealth, agriculture, and periodic renewal. The Ancient Greeks held a similar lesser festival called Lenaea. While unknown exactly what type of worship occurred at these festivals, they may have been in honour of the rebirth of Dionysos. They held Lenaea roughly near the beginning of January, about the same time as Winter Solstice.

The Ancient Celts and Germanic peoples also celebrated the Winter Solstice to welcome the return of the sun in the new year. They prayed for blessings on their homes and brighter days ahead with good hunting, plentiful births among livestock and general bounty and good fortune for all.

Yule traditions

During Saturnalia Ancient Romans gave holly wreaths as gifts. They also used them to decorate public areas and homes to honour Saturn during Winter Solstice time.

Ancient Celts would plant holly in their homes as a form of protection. They believed holly held magical powers due to its ability to survive the winter months.

The Norse tradition of celebration during this time was called “Yule”. This celebration gave us the customs of wassailing, the Yule log, and the decorated tree. Germanic peoples would also honour the Pagan god Odin during celebration of the winter festival. Many believed he flew through the night sky on a magical flying horse and determined who would be blessed or cursed in the coming year.

outdoor Yule bonfireFor the Celtic Druids, mistletoe was a sacred plant called “All Heal.” Priests cut the plant from the tree, held a feast, and sacrificed animals underneath it. They believed mistletoe could cure illnesses, serve as an anecdote for poisons, ensure fertility, and protect against witchcraft. Some people hung it from their doorways or rooms to offer goodwill to visitors.

Iron Age Yule Traditions

During the Iron Age, the Celts and other ancient Europeans welcomed the Winter Solstice by feasting, merrymaking, and sacrificing animals. The Celts believed the sun stood still for 12 days, so lit a log fire to conquer the darkness. Similarly, Norse families lit Yule logs and ate around them until the log burned out – which could take up to 12 days. They believed each spark from the log represented a new pig or calf to be born in the coming year.

Winter Solstice time traditions in European folklore involved gift-bringers. Their origins are connected with the Yule (midwinter) festival in Germanic Paganism, and often associated with Odin (Wodanaz), leader of the Wild Hunt. Most of these traditions include the figure of a bearded old man and over time, mutually influenced each other. In Slavic countries, this figure is mostly referred to as Father Frost. Scandinavian folklore typically associates an elf-like figure or tomten with the Winter Solstice and comes at Yule.

All these traditions reflected goodwill, blessings on home, and the peoples’ hopes on brighter days ahead with the return of the sun.

Yule’s relation to Christmas

The Christian calendar originally focused on Easter and the Church didn’t decide to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birthday until the fourth century. Since the Bible never pointed to an exact date for this, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25. They had found the Pagans resistant to conversion and wouldn’t give up their holidays. So choosing this date was an attempt to replace the Roman Saturnalia with a Christian holiday.

As the new religion spread West, they built Christian churches on Pagan worship sites, while continuing to incorporate Pagan symbolism into the Christmas holiday.

holly wreath for yule

Within a few centuries, Christians worshipped this new holiday on December 25. Even after the new holiday gained popularity, Christian church leaders continued to find ways to relate the old Pagan holiday to the Christian one.

“This gave rise to an interesting play on words,” Harry Yeide, a professor of religion at George Washington University, told National Geographic. “In several languages, not just in English, people have traditionally compared the rebirth of the sun with the birth of the son of God.”

The Western Christian Christmas traditions of the decorated tree, gift giving, feasting, wreaths, and holly were all Winter Solstice traditions converted into the observance of the new holiday.

Modern Pagan Yule festivities

Today, modern Pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice in a similar manner to these early traditions. Exchanging gifts, lighting candles, throwing bonfires, hosting feasts, and decorating their homes are all done with a focus on friends and family.

Yule is one of the eight solar holidays celebrated each year and welcomes the new solar year. As a festival of the returning sun, the most important part of any Yule celebration is light. This includes the lighting of candles, celebrating around bonfires, and also hearth fires with a traditional Yule log.

Homes are decorated with red, green, and white decorations. These colours hark back to the Druidic traditions of holly, mistletoe, and white light.

Rituals can include meditating in darkness with lit candles, or singing Pagan carols while going home to home (wassailing). Lighting Yule logs, either in indoor fireplaces or outdoor bonfires, is still a part of the modern tradition. Front doors are often decorated with a hand-made evergreen and holiday herb wreath to celebrate the continuity of life into the new year (the circle). And, of course, modern Pagans still enjoy decorating evergreen trees with holiday decorations and Pagan symbols.


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