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A Yule Wreath Ritual

Yule Wreath

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This ritual is based on the advent wreath used in Christian churches, which in turn borrows elements from Germanic pagan customs and, I suspect, the lighting of Chanukah lights. The Christian advent wreath is described here. I have adapted it to be an earth-centered solstice celebration. In our family we celebrate both solstice and Christmas, and this ritual fits both.

Making the Wreath

The wreath itself consists of a large central candle, surrounded by four smaller candles. Laid around the large candle and among the smaller ones are evergreen boughs forming a wreath. You can make an actual wreath, or just lay the greenery in place.

There are various ways to make the wreath. You can buy a candleholder in the shape of a circle, with room for a central pillar candle in the middle. These are fairly common. You can make a holder out of wood or clay. Some people make them out of styrofoam donut shapes that are sold in craft stores. Or you can just place the candles in individual holders and lay the greenery around them.

My candleholder is a wooden disk about ten inches in diameter and an inch thick. Glued to one side of it is a circle quartered by a cross (*see note below), cut out of masonite with a jigsaw. Using a drill press, I drilled holes for the candles at the four ends of the cross. Here's a diagram to show what it looks like before adding the candles and greenery.

Yule Wreath Candle Holder

I lay the holder on a foil-covered plate and set a large pillar candle in the center, where the two straight lines cross. I set four taper candles in the holes. I usually use either a white candle in the center, or a candy-cane-striped red-and-white one. The four outer candles can either be red, or of varied colors. Once the candles are in place, I snip the ends of some juniper branches, with lots of berries, and lay them around the large central candle, so that they stick out around the smaller candles, forming a wreath. I spread a few leaves of grape holly on top. If you use a metal candleholder in the shape of a circle, you can wire the greenery onto it. I find that the greenery needs changing every few days to avoid a fire hazard, so it's easier not to wire it on.

The Ritual

I begin the ritual on November 23, four weeks before solstice. On that evening at dinner, I light one of the outer candles. Every night for the next week, I light one candle at dinner. I alternate candles, so that they burn down evenly. When they get too short and close to the greenery, I replace them with new candles. I save the four-inch stubs to use elsewhere in the house.

On the week beginning November 30, I light two candles every night. On the week beginning December 7, I light three candles every night. On the week beginning December 14, I light four candles every night.

In our family we celebrate solstice night on December 21, even though it often appears as December 22 on the calendar. The solstice generally comes somewhere between noon on December 21 and noon on December 22, so the evening of the 21st is the longest night. On the night of December 21, we light all five candles, lighting the central pillar candle for the first time. We continue lighting all five candles until the night of January 1. This makes for a total of 12 nights, which correspond to the traditional 12 days of Christmas. (The 12 days of Christmas actually go from December 25 to January 6, but in our American culture, the holiday season ends after January 1, so solstice night to New Years' night makes a good choice for the festival. Christmas itself comes on the fifth day, near the center of the 12 days.)

For the first few years we put the candles and the holder away after January 1. However, I found myself wistful in the dark days of January, with the holidays over and the sun still going down very early. So I decided to extend the ritual, winding it back down to a single candle. I often use red outer candles during December, and candles of spring colors during January.

For the week beginning January 2, I burn the central candle and three of the outer ones. For the week beginning January 9, I burn the central candle and two of the outer ones. For the week beginning January 16, I burn the central candle and one outer one. And from January 23 to February 2, I burn only the central candle. February 2 is traditionally Candlemas or Groundhog Day, when the days really start to lengthen and the first spring bulbs appear, so that's a good time to put away the candles. I read that there's a tradition that all holiday decorations should be put away by Candlemas. By slowly unwinding the ritual that builds up to the solstice time and Christmas, I find that I feel much less let down after the holidays.

* Note: The circle quarted by a cross is an ancient sun symbol in many cultures, including western European and Native American. I first discovered it in the fantasy series "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper. The title book is a very scary and wonderful Yuletide story about the power of light and darkness. You can read about it here. The symbol has Christian overtones as well, for it was adopted in Ireland as the celtic cross, and is used there in churches and graveyards. Therefore it seems an especially appropriate symbol for a ritual that can be both Christian and pagan, or in our case, a celebration of the fact that the days will no longer be getting shorter, and that spring, however far off, is on the way.

copyright 2002 by Karen Deal Robinson
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