Thursday, December 6, 2012

15 Days of Yule: History of the Holiday

For people of nearly any religious background, the time of the winter solstice is a time when we gather with family and loved ones. For Pagans, it's often celebrated as Yule, but there are literally dozens of ways you can enjoy the season. However, in a society where the ancient stigma against something can and does persevere, despite the best efforts of the people...I wanted to shed a little light onto what I believe. I thought it would be fun to break it down into a 15 day segment post, about the different facets of a wonderful holiday, called Yule.

Many cultures have winter festivals, which are in fact celebrations of light. In addition to Christmas, there's Hanukkah with its brightly lit menorahs, Kwanzaa candles, and any number of other holidays. The Pagan holiday of Yule takes place on the day of the winter solstice, around December 21. On that day (or close to it), an amazing thing happens in the sky. The earth's axis tilts away from the sun in the Northern Hemisphere, and the sun reaches its greatest distance away from the equatorial plane. As a festival of the Sun, the most important part of any Yule celebration is light -- candles, bonfires, and more.

Four thousand years ago, the Ancient Egyptians took the time to celebrate the daily rebirth of Horus, the god of the Sun. As their culture flourished and spread throughout Mesopotamia, other civilizations decided to get in on the sun-welcoming action. They found that things went really well... until the weather got cooler, and crops began to die. Each year, this cycle of birth, death and rebirth took place, and they began to realize that every year after a period of cold and darkness, the Sun did indeed return.

In the Northern hemisphere, the winter solstice has been celebrated for millenia. The Norse peoples viewed it as a time for much feasting, merrymaking, and, if the Icelandic sagas are to be believed, a time of sacrifice as well. Many of the traditional Christmas customs you enjoy now can all be traced back to Norse origins.

Winter festivals were also common in Greece and Rome, as well as in the British Isles. The Celts of the British Isles celebrated midwinter in a fashion unlike most other cultures. Although little is known about the specifics of what they did, many general traditions persisted through time. According to the writings of Pliny the Elder, this is the time of year in which Druid priests sacrificed a white bull and gathered mistletoe in celebration. Being a follower of the Celtic beliefs, most of my Yule celebrations and traditions will be taken from this specific region.

When a new religion called Christianity popped up in the British Isles, the new hierarchy had trouble converting the Pagans, and as such, folks didn't want to give up their old holidays. Christian churches were built on old Pagan worship sites, and Pagan symbols and traditions were incorporated into the symbolism of Christianity. Within a few centuries, the Christians had everyone worshipping a new holiday celebrated on December 25.

In some traditions of Paganism, the Yule celebration comes from the Celtic legend of the battle between the young Oak King and the Holly King....but that's a story for tomorrow.

Love and Lightning Bugs,
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