While “Yule” has become interchangeable with every other winter holiday greeting, it’s actually its own thing, thank you very much. Yuletide stretches from the winter solstice through the new year.
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, today is the first day of winter. For witches and pagans, it’s a celebration of the turning of the year, moving from darkness toward light with the “growing” sun. Candles and fires represent this light. Yule altars might be set with evergreens and mistletoe, bowls of snow and bells. Pretty familiar to everyone who celebrates Christmas!
The Wild Hunt
Odin is said to lead a ghostly procession of Valkyries and the dead across the winter sky. Anyone who witnessed this procession might be snatched up to join the cavalcade. The Wild Hunt was also believed to portend death, war or other disaster. It became a piece of the Yule lore, a scary story to tell children around the hearth on a bleak winter’s night.
We freakin’ love to sing about winter holidays. Wassailing, Yulesinging, caroling… we’re down to clown with the festive tunes. Especially if it means we get treats from our neighbors.
The Yule Log
Like many holiday traditions, the history of this one is murky. It’s said to be tied to Germanic customs, but we do know it settled as an important tradition for Europe. It goes like this: you select a Yule log, truss it with greenery then set it alight on the hearth. It must stay lit until fully burnt. Or maybe you should burn a bit of it each night until Twelfth Night. Or maybe save a bit for next year’s Yule fire. Maybe you turn out all the lights and light candles and make wishes. Or maybe you just huddle around it to drink mulled wine and tell stories.
The Yule Goat
More holidays should celebrate goats. It may be that these precious babies became associated with Yule through Thor, who used to ride a goat-drawn chariot across the sky (natch.) The last sheaf of grain harvested was supposedly imbued with the spirit of the harvest and saved for Yule in Scandinavian countries, and was sometimes called the Yule goat (perhaps GOAT.) So naturally, representations of Yule goats are often crafted from straw or wheat. Various depictions of Santa, other gift-bringers or the spirit of Yule/Christmas feature a goat.
The Yule Boar
Ham on Christmas is probably another Yule carryover. A boar would be sacrificed for Freyr. A ham is thought to be the natural evolution of this practice.
Mother’s Night was held at what is now Christmas Eve. Anglo-Saxon pagans would honor female ancestors, possibly with sacrifices and celebration. Spectral figures of these women would sometimes appear in groups of threes. For modern pagans, this is carried over with depictions of the goddess in her three forms – maiden, mother, crone – as the year comes to its close and the god aspect is reborn.