Winter Solstice is also known as Yule, Midwinter, Alban Arthuan, Mabon, Jul, and Saturnalia. It was believed to be the day that Arthur and Mirthas were born. Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the year. Alban Arthuan was a festival of peace and a celebration of waxing solar light. This day is considered to be sacred to the Sun, Thunder and Fire deities. It is considered the best day to cut Mistletoe.
Traditional items for Yule included a Yule log, sacred tree, wreath, and many other things. The Yule log was picked to be a hard wood, and was expected to burn all-day or longer. It was a much-cherished item to have and was thought to bring blessings if it lasted 24 hours. It was also thought that the longer the Yule log burned the faster the Sun would come to warm the earth. Because Yule is the time the Holly king dies for the Sun king, homes were decorated with holly, pine boughs and mistletoe, and much like we do today. Traditional treats were Hot apple Cider, sweetened cakes filed with dried fruit (fruitcake?). Christmas trees were originally Yule trees and adopted by Christianity. Although the origin of the Christmas tree is generally ascribed to Martin Luther, its beginnings actually go back to pre-Christian times. Christmas trees are thought to have evolved from the rite of symbolically selecting and harvesting a "sacred tree," a practice found in many ancient cultures. Evergreens and firs were sacred to early peoples, including the ancient Greeks, Celts, and Germans. The first Yule trees were born when pagans went into the forests during the winter solstice to give offerings to evergreens. Pines and firs remained green while other vegetation lost their leaves and appeared lifeless during the bitter winter cold. Their mysterious survival and vigor seemed to signify a life force within, which carried with it the hope of renewed life. The pinea silva or sacred pine groves that were attached to pagan Roman temples also pre-figured the Christmas tree. On the night before a holy day, Roman priests called "tree- bearers" cut one of the sacred pines, decorated it, and carried it into the temple. In fact, the German word for Christmas tree is not Kristenbaum, or Christmas tree, but Tannenbaum, or sacred tree. Christmas wreaths are also ancient, and were traditionally made of evergreens, holly, and ivy. The wreath's circle symbolizes the wheel of the year and the completion of another cycle. Holly represents the female element; ivy represents the male. Like evergreens, holly was believed to contain a mysterious life force because it bore berries in the middle of winter. Both holly and ivy were thought to have magical properties, and were used as protection against negative elements. Kissing under the mistletoe is an old Druid tradition. Mistletoe was considered highly sacred by the Druids because, as a parasitic kind of vegetation, it never touched the earth (growing instead on oaks and other trees), and also because it bore berries in winter when everything else appeared dead. Druids gathered the leaves and berries from special oaks with sickles made of gold. They called mistletoe "all-heal" because they felt it had the power of protection against illness and bad events, and also because they believed mistletoe spread goodwill. Legend has it that enemies meeting under the mistletoe cast their weapons aside, greeted each other amicably, and honored a temporary truce. White linen clothes were spread beneath the mistletoe as it was being gathered so none of it would touch the ground, lest its power be accidentally released back to the earth. Mistletoe berries were considered to be a powerful fertility substance. A kiss under the mistletoe meant love and the promise of marriage. The ringing of bells was thought to chase away the darkness so in some cultures, bells were rang in the morning as everyone rose to chase away the darkened days bring and heralding the warmer days.
Herbs associated with Yule are Yellow Cedar, which wards off evil influences; Ash, which brings healing; Bay Laurel, which wards off bindings and curses; Blessed Thistle, which wards off bindings and evil influences; Chamomile, which brigns the warmth of the Sun; Frankincense, which is burned for purification and protection; Holly, which brings protection; Juniper, which is burned for purification and protection; Mistletoe, which brings healing, protection and beautiful dreams; and lastly, Pine, which brings healing and joy. For more information on the uses of these herbs at Yule read "A Druid's Herbal for the Sacred Year" by Ellen Evert Hopman.
Solstice traditions were held my almost every culture around the world. Solstice rites were practiced among such diverse groups as Native South Americans, Celts, Persians, Orientals, and Africans. Solstice was known as Sacaea to the Mesopotamians, as the Festival of Kronos to the ancient Greeks, and as Saturnalia to the Romans. According to Norse traditions, the Valkyrie looked for souls to bring to Valhalla during Yule. Norwegians abstained from hunting or fishing for the twelve days during Yule as a way of letting the weary world rest and to hasten the revived sun's appearance. In old Russia it was traditional to toss grain upon the doorways where carolers visited as a way of keeping the house from want throughout the rest of the winter. Ashes from the Yule log were mixed with cows' feed in France and Germany to promote the animals' health and help them calve. In Baltic regions today, corn is scattered near the door of the house for sustenance and ashes of the Yule log are given to fruit trees to increase their yield. Romanians bless the trees of the orchard on Yule with sweetened dough to bring good harvests. Serbs toss wheat on the burning Yule log to increase livestock bounty. For the Celtic peoples the ashes of the Yule log were cast in the fields to fertilize the fields. They also left offerings of seeds, oats and oatcakes for the "wee people" and for the Gods or Goddesses of the different tribes. This may have led to the modern practice of leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus.
A meditation for Yule:
Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Release all pent up energy and stress. Inhale and exhale again, and sense the Sacred Space that surrounds you. Draw its pure white love light close to you. Feel it spread out and fill your room with Love and Light and Peace. Sense that you are in the woods, on the coldest, darkest, night of the year. You feel perfectly safe and protected. See the pine trees around you are standing guard with their green, icy boughs. See the lake in front of you is frozen. Hear the ground crackle as you walk. Your nose is cold, but you feel fine... alive, and brisk, and well. The cold sharpens your senses.
You feel as though you can hear sounds you have never heard before. Ssssh. Listen for them. What do you hear?
You can see wonderful things you have never seen before, both with your outer vision and your inner vision. Watch them. What do you see?
In the darkness wonderful visions and ideas and solutions come to you...answers to problems you are facing. Remedies for distress. If you are looking for an answer to a problem, now is the time to be open to its arrival Tell it that it is welcome, and that it can find safe lodging with you.
Now sit quietly and appreciate the darkness and the clarity of the cold. Be aware of the energy of life beneath the dark, cold ground. Feel your connection with the seeds sleeping there, gathering strength and storing nourishment for their coming appearance on earth. Feel the connection with the seeds of your life getting ready to blossom in good health and vibrancy. In the safety of the dark and the cold, new healthy life is getting ready to appear.
Breathe deeply and exhale. Focus on your midriff now. Notice the golden spot that is forming there. Feel it warming you, providing inner heat. Sense its golden sphere spreading inside you. Feel its golden rays reaching up to, like an inner sun, to touch your heart and down to warm your navel area. And down some more into your legs, and down your arms, and up into your neck and head. Inhale and enjoy this inner warmth. Feel the heat warm your feet. Feel your hands and feet tingle with warmth, as you stand in the dark, cold woods on this dark, cold night. Sense the halo of warm, nurturing heat that is now surrounding your head. Feel the sphere of comforting, healing heat move down outside you, encircling your entire body.
Know that you have the safety and healing powers of both heat and cold. Know that you are balanced and whole. Feel that you are safely rooted into the ground, but that your spirit is free. Know that both the darkness and the light are safe for you. Focus on any area that needs healing. Allow the darkness and light to penetrate that area with healing power.
Take a deep breath and feel both alert and relaxed. Feel Safe.
Take a deep breath and say thank you to the powers that be for this feeling of safety and well being.
Take a deep breath and ask for continued protection for you and your safety and well being, and for anyone about whom you are concerned.
When you are ready, gently open your eyes.