A message to witches/pagans/lumberjacks out there: As Christmas/Yuletide comes around I know you’re going to want to burn Yew for both its ceremonial properties and it’s slow burn, but please remember that it is a HIGHLY TOXIC tree with VERY toxic smoke. Fatalities in livestock, children, and even some adults have occurred for CENTURIES because of the handling and burning of this wood. I mean, death due to this stuff dates back to the Roman times and further! I would avoid it in the fires as much as I could.
And on dark nights lit up from within by the cold light of stars and the full lit moon, while others dreamt of sugarplum wine and christmas cheer, she kept vigil. She carefully made her lavender tea (with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and an incantation on top), and she sat by the window, with her candle and Cassius her cat. ‘You see, Cassius’ she whispered, as he began to purr at the mere sound of her voice, 'it’s not that people can’t do their own magic, or weave their own spells, but that most would prefer to keep the mystery intact. That it come from some other source, outside themselves. And I, well, who am I to ruin a good fantasy, or a good source of income?’ she smiled in her tea.
“…There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…”
So I have been thinking about our
Contemporary conceptualization of the Christmas season a lot lately and it’s
kind of interesting. So many things we associate with Christmas – Christmas
trees, greeting cards, Santa Claus, his reindeer and elves, gift-giving in
general – all of these things came into vogue in the 19th Century
and are very sticky-sweet, in my opinion. They’re lovely, but not filling. If
we just scratch the surface of the Christmas we know and love and peek back
into its history, we find something much meatier.
Before the cheerful Christmas tree,
a number of other plants were associated with Christmas. The holly, associated
with sacrifice and the blood of Christ, and the parasitic mistletoe, associated
with the death of Baldur in Norse mythology – these were the plants associated with
Christmas before the Christmas tree became the standard.
Also, the Yule log. The Yule log,
meant to provide light on the darkest night of the year, was a magic charm in
and of itself. If it did not burn through the night, it would be a terrible
omen. By watching the fire and coals of the Yule log, one could also predict who
would give birth and who would die in the coming year.
When our simple Santa Claus is reduced
to his predecessors, one is left with Odin, ancient Norse God of battle, Saint
Nicholas, the canonized former bishop of Turkey, and Father Christmas, the
hard-drinking gluttonous representation of holiday merriment. And all of them
brought ghastly friends – Odin, the spirits of the Wild Hunt and Saint
Nicholas, his helpers (including Knecht Rupert, Krampus, etc.). Father
Christmas, more of a personification of the season than a night visitor,
undoubtedly brought many hangovers.
Before stories about reindeer, snowmen,
or things of that ilk, there were ghost stories. Charles Dickens did not invent
the Christmas ghost story in “A Christmas Carol,” but popularized an already-existing
folkloric trend. If we look to the old tales of Christmas, we find stories
about witches that rode the night air, cursing the birth of the Savior. There are
stories about fairies, ghosts, and Devils that wreak havoc, frightening livestock
and damaging property. In an era before television or radio, homemade
storytelling was one of the primary forms of entertainment. And winter was the storytelling
You also have mumming, wassailing,
and caroling – dressing up in colorful costumes and (sometimes drunkenly)
begging for money door-to-door. As John Grossman notes in his book “Christmas
Curiosities,” Christmas before the Contemporary Period resembles our Halloween
more than it resembles the Christmas we know now.
Let us not forget, those of us who
acknowledge the Wheel of the Year, that the season of darkness extends from
Halloween to Christmas. This darkness only begins to fade when we gain back the
Sun at the Winter Solstice. From Halloween to Christmas, the dead may roam the
Earth and weird things may happen. In his classic “Mastering Witchcraft,” Paul
Huson notes that Yule is not a time for pleasant spell work, but cursing! It is
a time of dark magic and mystery. And we need this time. To understand the
light, we must understand the darkness – the witches, ghosts, and Devils of the
old Yuletide. Like the trees that go dormant, we must embrace the darkness of winter
to grow and thrive.
Summer is over, Winter is in full swing, and Yule is upon us.
Yule, pronounced “yool”, falls on the 21st of December in the Northern Hemisphere, a date that is also known as the Winter Solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere (below the equator), Yule falls on the 21st of June.
The Winter Solstice is the day of the year when the night is longest and the day is shortest. After the solstice, the days begin to grow longer and the nights shorter.
Some Historical & Cultural Stuff:
Yule is the time of the year when the “dark half” of the year ends and the “light half begins”.
Until the 16th century, the winter months were infamous for being times of famine in Europe - most cattle were slaughtered during this time so that they did not need to be fed during the winter. The feed was needed for the mouths of the farmers and the people. This meant that the solstice was a time when meat was plentiful, and is the reason why a lot of the celebrations surrounding this time of year centre around feasting and merriment.
In pre-Christian Scandinavia, there was a feast (named the Feast of Juul) that lasted for twelve (12) days. It celebrated the rebirth of the sun, and from this feast came the custom of burning a Yule log.
In ancient Rome, the Festival of Saturnalia (famously referenced in an episode of The Big Bang Theory) was the pillar of solstice celebrations. It was used to honour the God of agricultural bounty, Saturn and lasted around a week. Saturnalia was characterised by feasting, debauchery and the exchanging of gifts. Does that sound familiar? Well, it should! Many of these customs were absorbed and assimilated into Christian Christmas celebrations upon Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. This was done to make the conversion less of a shock.
Activities & Things to Do: Carolling. Wassailing, feasting, exchanging gifts; burning fires/candles; decorating a Yule tree and making decorations to put on it, such as Witch Balls, clove pricked fruit; make Winter potpourri.
Spells, Magick & Rituals: Cleansing, taking down old wards and putting up new ones, divination; reflective workings; workings related to new beginnings and fresh starts. Workings for goals and ambitions. Earth based magick.
The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans. It consists of either four or eight festivals: either the solstices and equinoxes, known as the “quarter days”, or the four midpoints between, known as the “cross quarter days”.
The festivals celebrated by differing sects of modern Paganism can vary considerably in name and date. Observing the cycle of the seasons has been important to many people, both ancient and modern, and many contemporary Pagan festivals are based to varying degrees on folk traditions.
In many traditions of modern Pagan cosmology, all things are considered to be cyclical, with time as a perpetual cycle of growth and retreat tied to the Sun’s annual death and rebirth.
Yule/Winter Solstice: a festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later undergoing Christian reformulation resulting in the now better-known Christmastide. A celebration the beginning of longer days, as this is the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight.
Imbolc: the first cross-quarter day following Midwinter this day falls on the first of February and traditionally marks the first stirrings of spring. It is time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life.
For Celtic pagans, the festival is dedicated to the goddess Brigid, daughter of The Dagda and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Among witches reclaiming tradition, this is the time for pledges and dedications for the coming year.
Ostara/Spring Equinox: from this point on, days are longer than the nights. Many mythologies, regard this as the time of rebirth or return for vegetation gods and celebrate the spring equinox as a time of great fertility.
Germanic pagans dedicate the holiday to their fertility goddess, Ostara. She is notably associated with the symbols of the hare and egg. Her Teutonic name may be etymological ancestor of the words east and Easter.
Beltrane: traditionally the first day of summer in Ireland, in Rome the earliest celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries.
Since the Christianization of Europe, a more secular version of the festival has continued in Europe and America. In this form, it is well known for maypole dancing and the crowning of the Queen of the May.
Litha/Summer Solstice: one of the four solar holidays, and is considered the turning point at which summer reaches its height and the sun shines longest.
Luchnassad/Lammas: It is marked the holiday by baking a figure of the god in bread and eating it, to symbolize the sanctity and importance of the harvest. Celebrations vary, as not all Pagans are Wiccans.
The name Lammas (contraction of loaf mass) implies it is an agrarian-based festival and feast of thanksgiving for grain and bread, which symbolizes the first fruits of the harvest. Christian festivals may incorporate elements from the Pagan Ritual.
Mabon/Autumn Equinox: a Pagan ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and a recognition of the need to share them to secure the blessings of the Goddess and the God during the coming winter months. The name Mabon was coined by Aidan Kelly around 1970 as a reference to Mabon ap Modron, a character from Welsh mythology. Among the sabbats, it is the second of the three Pagan harvest festivals, preceded by Lammas / Lughnasadh and followed by Samhain.
Samhain: considered by some as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets, and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the festival of Beltane, which is celebrated as a festival of light and fertility.
Yule is celebrated at the winter solstice which can occur between December 20th and the 23rd in the Northern Hemisphere. It marks the longest night of the year bringing about the promise of the returning strength of the sun. This Sabbat is celebrated with much joy as the Sun God, otherwise known as the Oak King, is reborn upon the next morning.
Some of the traditions known to Yule include the battle of the Oak and Holly Kings. The Holly King reigns over the dark half of the year and the Oak King reigns over the light half. During many Yule celebrations one can witness the reenactment of this duel between these two aspects of the God. The Oak King defeats the Holly King within battle taking his rightful place upon the throne until the return of the Holly King at Midsummer.
Another tradition (and my personal favorite) is wassailing. Wassail is a traditional Yule beverage which contains cloves, cinnamon, apples, and oranges. It’s a cider which one can either create with or without alcohol. My top choices for alcohol would be spiked cider, mead, or wine. However, rum and whiskey would be a close second. Below, is one such recipe for Wassail.
Other traditions include decorating the home with holly and ivy. This was thought to appease the Nature Sprites and create an inviting atmosphere for them to celebrate as well. Within my own tradition, we cast a sprig of holly upon the fire created from the Yule log and make a wish. The Yule log is traditionally made from Ash. It is said that the log must never be bought but should be either harvested from the land of the owner or given as a gift. Before setting it afire, the log is decorated with holly and other greenery, sprinkled with cider, and then dusted with flour or the ash from the previous Yule log.
Modern practitioners of the Craft and Paganism tend to use the Yule log as a base to hold three candles. These candles can be white, gold and silver, red and green, or representative of deities. The base of the log is then decorated with ivy, holly, berries, and other decorations for the season.
Many may recognize these symbols of Yule being represented within the Christian holiday of Christmas. These symbols include decorating a tree for the home as well as using holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Even Santa Claus, reindeer, and gifting presents are linked to Pagan roots. Below are some correspondences associated with Yule for your next ritual!
Symbolism: Yule Tree, Yule Log, Rebirth, Darkness and Light, Wassail, Holly and Oak King