We celebrate the light overcoming the dark, as the two are brothers, rivals or the flip sides of the same coin. The Oak King rules from midwinter until midsummer, and the Holly King rules from midsummer until midwinter. Every year at Yule, the Oak King cuts off the Holly King's head and rules for six months until midsummer, when the Holly King kills the Oak King and the cycle begins again. You can see the vestiges of the myth in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Janet and Stewart Farrar devote a whole chapter to these two in their book The Witches' God.
In Celtic tradition, Yule is the time when the Oak King triumphs over the Holly King. The Holly King represents the death and darkness that has ruled since the onset of Samhain. At Winter Solstice, the Oak King brings the opportunity to be reborn and begin new life. The Yule Season raises one's spirit and brings tidings of comfort and joy as the carol goes... It is a period of reflection. During Samhain, one has recognized the lessons given in past experience and now Yule brings the opportunity to be reborn with new light. The customs created at this time are what are now identified with Christmas. A Yule tree is decorated and the house is adorned with holly, ivy and candles to represent the approaching light. Father Winter, complete with a white beard and red coat trimmed with fur, visits each home bringing gifts. The Yule log, which is made of oak from the previous year is burned into the fire to symbolize the Newborn Sun/Son.
Another version of the Oak/Holly King theme is the ritual hunting and killing of a wren. The wren, little King of the Waning Year, is killed by the Robin Redbreast, King of the Waxing Year. The robin finds the wren hiding in an ivy bush (or as in some parts of Ireland - a holly bush).
or Winter Solstice, represents the rebirth of light. During this longest
night of the year, the Goddess gives birth to the Divine Child of Promise.
His is the promise of summer and the return of the sun.
In early human civilization, as the days grew colder
and the nights grew longer and darker, candles and fires were lit to lure
back the sun. At this "time of darkness", while the Earth was sleeping, many
did not survive. Winter was a time of death and stagnation. Shelter was
drafty, disease was common and food was scarce. The night of the sun's
"rebirth" was celebrated with much joy. From this day forward, the days
would become longer. Even though the cold and darkness still prevailed, hope
was renewed and the people began to look forward to the warmth of summer.
Yule was not celebrated in early Celtic traditions. It was brought to
Britain by the invading Saxons who viewed Yule as the "turning time". Yule
literally means "wheel" in Old Norse. Because the symbolism of the wheel was
so important to this Sabbat, it became a day sacred to Goddesses of the
spinning wheel. Wreaths were a popular representation of the endless
cycle…the Wheel of the Year.
Evergreens were sacred to the Celts because they did not "die" thereby representing the eternal aspect of the goddess. Mistletoe represented the seed of the God, and at Midwinter, the Druids are said to have gone deep into the forest to harvest the mistletoe. They cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle and caught it in a white cloth for it was not to touch the ground in deference of its sacredness.
Yule is loosely translated to mean "Christmas". Though according to an online dictionary, the word yule is derived from the Scandinavian words "yol" and "geol" both of which mean a midwinter celebration of "pagan origin" (I love that phrase!) and also another word, "hjul" means "wheel". Now on to the phrase "pagan origin"... that is just the lazy way of saying "Our traditions come from so many different cultures and time periods, we just thought it would be easier to lump them all together in one term."
Yule is also known as the Winter Solstice. It is the time of the shortest
daylight hours in the year, and of course, the longest night. The Goddess
gives birth to the God at this time, representing a rebirth of light. It is
the time of year when the Earth (wood) spirits are encouraged to rest, in
preparation for all the hard work ahead of them to replenish the Earth with
the fresh blooms of new life, the forthcoming of spring. Celebrations were
held in honor of the wood spirits. Trees were brought into the homes, and
decorated with bells, candles and brightly colored threads to attract the
spirits. Bread, fruit and nuts were hung from the branches to provide food
for the spirits. Group singing (caroling) was also a way of guiding the
spirits towards the shelter of the homes and Yule logs were lit to provide
warmth. This festival has been adapted since its earlier Pagan origin to be
known as the more popular festival Christmas.
Yule coincides closely with the Christian Christmas celebration. This Sabbath represents the rebirth of light. Here, on the longest night of the year, the Goddess gives birth to the Sun Child and hope for new light is reborn. 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 Christian tradition of a Christmas tree has its origins in the Pagan
Yule celebration. Many 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. As a solar festival, Yule is
celebrated by fire and the use of a Yule log. A piece 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.
Christmas - Ravenna's Family Memories
Christmas is probably one of the most well known of the Winter Holidays in the world. And every culture that celebrates Christmas has its own quirks and traditions that are used.
My family is primarily German, Swedish, and Finnish (really we have a ton more, but I won't go into that), so we had some fantastic Christmas's during my childhood. My sister and I would open the presents at our house first, to see what Santa brought us, and then we would all pile up into the car for a ride to Gramma's house. We always went to my Maternal Gramma's house - that's where the WHOLE family would gather on Christmas day. We'd drink our Traditional toast of homemade EggNog to Baby Jesus (which came from my Gramma's side of the family), and then open our presents there. Breakfast would follow, and of course we'd watch "A Christmas Story" on TV (my fave scene... after the boy gets his mouth washed out with soap, he imagines going blind and his whole family cries and begs him to tell them what happened and he replied in a very dramatic way... "it was... it was...soap poisoning!" What a riot!!). The rest of our huge family would arrive, all my aunts, uncles and cousins, and then we'd have our Yummy traditional Ham dinner!
There were many Christmas's like that. Filled with love and joy and happiness. It makes me smile at the memory. After my sister and I moved in with our Grandparents during Christmas of 1990, things got even more interesting. My Grandpa and I were known as the Holiday Decorating Fiends. He and I went nuts when it came to decorating. The whole house would be beautiful on the inside, with bells, and holly, mistletoe, ribbons, tinsel, our tree... it was perfect. And then we went to work on the outside. We hung garland for days, with more bells, and evergreen wreaths! Oh what a sight it made when we put the lights up around the house! I found the magic there in those precious weeks with him. We would spray fake snow in the window with all sorts of Christmas greetings, a new one every year. My Gramma's favorite greeting was from her Finnish heritage (a distant family member in Finland sent us a Christmas card one year), "Hyuää Joulua".
Christmas mornings we'd get up and drink the traditional toast of EggNog, that much never changed, and then opened our stockings and presents. Family still came, though every year it seemed the family grew larger and larger - one year we had around 50 family members running around the house!
I won't talk about the sadder memories I have of Christmas, those thankfully didn't come until I was in my mid-teens, but still, those memories of the Great Christmas's make me smile and fill me with warmth and hope. I can only hope that my children will have those kinds of memories, and will carry on the traditions that have been in my family for generations.
- Other Names: Midwinter, Alban Arthuran, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, Yuletide
- Colors: Red, green, gold, white, and silver
- Symbols: Evergreen trees, Yule log, Holly, Wreaths, Spinning Wheels
- Ritual Meaning: Rebirth of God, Honor of the Triple Goddess, Return of the Sun and the Waxing Year.
- Key Action: Meditation and Introspection
- Ritual Oils: Rosemary, Myrrh, Nutmeg, Saffron, Cedar/Pine, Wintergreen and Ginger.
- Stones: Rubies, bloodstones, garnets, emeralds, and diamonds.
- Plants: Holly, Ivy, Evergreens, Mistletoe, Poinsettia, and Myrrh.
- Activities: Decorating Yule tree, Gift giving, and Storytelling.
- Taboos: Extinguishing Fires, and Traveling.
- Animals: Stags, Squirrels, and the Wren/Robin.
- Mythical Creatures: Phoenix, Trolls, and the Mermecolion
- Deities: Newborn God, Triple Goddess, Brighid, Isis, Demeter, Gaea, Diana, The Great Mother, Mary, Amaterasu, Pallas Athena, Rhea, Apollo, Ra, Odin, Lugh, The Oak King, The Horned One, The Green Man, The Divine Child, Balder, Father Christmas, the Lord of Misrule, Jesus, Mithras, Santa Claus
- Foods: Cookies and caraway cakes soaked in cider, fruits, nuts, pork dishes, and turkey.
- Drinks: Eggnog, ginger tea, spiced cider, wassail, or lamb's wool (ale, sugar, nutmeg, roasted apples).
The Christian tradition of a Christmas tree has its origins in the Pagan Yule celebrations, but using evergreens as a decoration was commonly used in the Roman and Greek cultures during their winter celebrations. The idea to use in during Christmas originated in 8th Century Germany, where legend has it that St. Boniface was trying to convert a group of Druids. He tried everything that he could think of to convince the Druids that the Oak tree was not sacred or invincible. He finally tried one last desperate measure... he cut the oak tree down. As the tree fell, it took down everything in its path, save but one small evergreen sapling. St. Boniface declared it a miracle and that the evergreen was sacred to the Christ-child, and ever after, trees were brought into the home and decorated for the holidays.
Christian 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.
Another reason that trees were first decorated with fruits, nuts and artificial flowers was to bring about the return of spring and fertility, warmth, and light, and to restore and maintain the balance between darkness and light, coldness and warmth, and death and rebirth.
In the earlier
parts of the 20th Century (and I'm not sure how long it dates back...) many
families would decorate their trees with candles. Then the family would come
together for the lighting of their Christmas trees - it was a spectacular
event, filled with the beauty of the candle glow from the evergreen
branches... but it was also a one time of the year event. It wasn't exactly
a safe thing to do, it was very easy for the lovely candles to cause the
tree to catch on fire. Still, it sounds like it would have been a lovely
sight to behold!
Yule trees are cut and decorated with images of what we wish to receive during the next year, such as love charms to draw love, nuts for fertility, fruits for a successful harvest, or coins to ensure wealth and prosperity.
The Legend of Santa Claus
Many believe that Santa Claus is really another form of the Norse God, Odin. Legend says that Odin was a nocturnal god, capable of flying around through the stormiest clouds on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.
Legend also says that the real St. Nick is an ancient Dutch bishop, Nicholas, who took pity on a poor family during the Christmas season and threw bags of gold into their home. One bag landed under the tree, and another bag landed in an old stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry overnight.
Today's version of Santa Claus was actually created by the Coca-Cola™ in the mid 1900's, and Santa's costume was designed after Nicholas' bishops robes.
Yule is a solar festival; Yule is celebrated by fire and the use of a Yule log. A piece of the log is saved and kept throughout the year to protect the home, and was thought to bring the home prosperity and good luck throughout the year. That piece is used to light the next year's log.
The Yule log, a phallic symbol, was usually cut from the God-related oak tree. Originally, the Yule log was brought into the home amid much dancing and ceremony before being lit in the fireplace.
drill three holes in the Yule log and fill them with three white candles, or
one white, one red, and one black candle to symbolize the Triple Goddess
(Maiden, Mother, and Crone). The Yule logs are then decorated with holly and
evergreens to symbolize the intertwining of the God and the Goddess who have
been reunited on this day. Bayberry candles are burned to ensure wealth and
happiness in the coming year.
The idea of gift giving is thought to have originated with the Babylonian celebration of Zagmuk, which is their Winter Solstice holiday. The practiced gained popularity during the Roman Saturnalia celebration, and finally was adopted by the Christians, who attribute the practice to the Magi who brought gifts to give to the Christ-child.