(“The Light of Arthur”) The winter solstice was the shortest day of the year and coincides closely with the Christian Christmas celebration. The name ‘Arthuan’ is interesting in relation to Arthurian legend, as King Arthur was believed to have been born on the Winter Solstice in Castle Tintagel in Cornwall. This also was referred to as Yule, Mabon, Jul, Saturnalia, or Christmas.
Alban Arthuan was a festival of peace and a celebration of waxing solar light. Here the Goddess gives birth to the Sun Child and hope for new light is reborn. Many honored the forthcoming Sun child by burning an oaken Yule log, and honored the Goddess in her many Mother aspects. The Father God was also honored in various forms: as Santa Claus, the Old Sky God, Father Time, and the Holly King.
Yule was adopted by Christians as Christmas (December 25th), Yule is a time of awakening to new goals and leaving old regrets behind. The Christian tradition of a Christmas tree has it’s origins in the Pagan Yule celebration. Pagan families would bring a live tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a place to keep warm during the cold winter months. Bells were hung in the limbs so you could tell when a spirit was present. Food and treats were hung on the branches for the spirits to eat and a five-pointed star, the pentagram, symbol of the five elements, was placed atop the tree. The colors of the season, red and green, also are of pagan origin, as is the custom of exchanging gifts. A Solar festival, Yule is celebrated by fire and the use of a Yule log. A peice of the log is saved and kept throughout the year to protect the home. That piece is used to light the next year’s log.
The holiday of Christmas has always been more Pagan than Christian, with it’s associations of Nordic divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism. That is why both Martin Luther and John Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans refused to acknowledge it, much less celebrate it (to them, no day of the year could be more holy than the Sabbath). There had been a tradition in the West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month. Finally, in 320 C.E., the Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make it December, in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.
On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of the winter, ‘the dark night of our souls’, there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.
Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one knew when Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally began to catch on. By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or public business (except
that of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed to the delight of the holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor Justinian. In 563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. This last point is perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader, who is lucky to get a single day off work. Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a SINGLE day, but rather a period of TWELVE days, from December 25 to January 6. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in fact. It is certainly lamentable that the modern world has abandoned this approach, along with the popular Twelfth Night celebrations.
Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to many countries no faster than Christianity itself, which means that ‘Christmas’ wasn’t celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century; in England, Switzerland, and Austria until the seventh; in Germany until the eighth; and in the Slavic lands until the ninth and tenth. Not that these countries lacked their own mid-winter celebrations of Yuletide. Long before the world had heard of Jesus, Pagans had been observing the season by bringing in the Yule log, wishing on it, and lighting it from the remains of last year’s log. Riddles were posed and answered, magic and rituals were practiced,wild boars were sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of liquor, corn dollies were carried from house to house while carolling,
fertility rites were practiced (girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were subject to a bit more than a kiss), and divinations were cast for the coming Spring. Many of these Pagan customs, in an appropriately watered-down form, have entered the mainstream of Christian celebration, though most celebrants do not realize (or do not mention it, if they do) their origins.
For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Yula’, meaning ‘wheel’ of the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter Solstice, which may vary by a few days, though it usually occurs on or around December 21st. It
is a Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the modern Pagan calendar, one of the four quarter-days of the year, but a very important one. This year (1988) it occurs on December 21st at 9:28 am CST. Pagan customs are still enthusiastically followed. Once, the Yule log had been the center of the celebration. It was lighted on the eve of the solstice (it should light on the first try) and must be kept burning for twelve hours, for good luck. It should be made of ash.
Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree but, instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on it. In Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented the custom, and Catholics might grant St.Boniface the honor, but the custom can demonstrably be traced back through the Roman Saturnalia all the way to ancient Egypt. Needless to say, such a tree should be cut down rather than purchased, and should be disposed of by burning, the proper way to dispatch any sacred object.
Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe were important plants of the season, all symbolizing fertility and everlasting life. Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon, and believed it to be an aphrodisiac. (Magically — not medicinally! It’s highly toxic!) But aphrodisiacs must have been the smallest part of the Yuletide menu in ancient times, as contemporary reports indicate that the tables fairly creaked under the strain of every type of good food. And drink! The most popular of which was the ‘wassail cup’ deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon term ‘waes hael’ (be whole or hale).
Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless: that animals will all kneel down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the ‘100th psalm’ on Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas will bring good luck, that a person born on
Christmas Day can see the Little People, that a cricket on the hearth brings good luck, that if one opens all the doors of the house at midnight all the evil spirits will depart, that you will have one lucky month for each Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck is sure to follow, that ‘if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we shall see’, that ‘hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the month of May’, that one can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the weather for each of the twelve months of the coming year, and so on.
A 12-day celebration that lasts from Winter Solstice to New Year.
One of the earlier rites celebrated at this time was the Norse Yule sun-worship festival. Yule logs and Yule candles became a traditional part of Christmas, symbolising fire and light; so to did the Northern European custom of a candlelit Christmas tree, which was believed to shelter the spirit of the woodland spirits when other trees lost their leaves. Another Norse yule tradition was a feast with a boars head as the main dish. Decemder the 25th was itself a holy day long before the 4th century, when Pope Julius I gave the churches sanction to the dubious belief that the date marked the birth of Christ. From times immemorial the winter solstice had been a time when bonfires were lit all over the Northern world to welcome back the sun. Even today fire and light remain basic ingredients in a happy christmas, though few people now recognise how the prayers of their forefathers are recalled in the brandy fed flames on a Christmas pudding.
December 21 — Winter
Solstice — Yule
The sun is at its nadir, the year’s longest night. We internalize and synthesize the outward-directed activities of the previous summer months. Some covens hold a Festival of Light to commemorate the Goddess as Mother giving birth to the Sun God. Others celebrate the victory of the Lord of
Light over the Lord of
Darkness as the turning
point from which the days
will lengthen. The name
“Yule” derives from the
Norse word for “wheel”, and
many of our customs (like
those of the Christian
holiday) derive from Norse
and Celtic Pagan practices
(the Yule log, the tree, the
custom of Wassailing, et