The Pagan celebration of the winter solstice—also known as Yule—is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. For those of us who have always had electricity, it is perhaps hard to imagine how earlier generations depended on—and were affected by—the yearly cycle of the sun. And the winter solstice marks the moment when the strength of the sun—as witnessed by the length of daylight—once more begins to increase.
The Norsemen of northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons, and it is from the word for this wheel, houl, that ‘yule’ is thought to derive. The Romans also held a festival at this time to celebrate the rebirth of the year. The Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December, and rituals included decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
Before Christianity came to the British Isles the priests of the indigenous Celts, the Druids, would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
For modern Pagans, the winter solstice is the seed-time of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the birthday of the new Sun; on this, the darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives birth.