December 21st marks the longest night of the year. The very last darkening day- the end of the descent into mid-winter. For people living in the upper latitudes (like me) this darkness can hardly be ignored.Daylight deficiency syndrome drags you down to the depths of despair and is the only time I actively condone the use of a tanning bed. Ahhhhh fake sunshine does wonders for my mental state! For people who depend upon real sunshine sun for their living- the warm sun to germinate and grow a bountiful harvest- the winter solstice is a date worthy of celebration. The longest night always gives way to a re-birth of the light. a slow and gradual return of the light to the day- the dim beginning of a bright new year.
Amongst the sparse and secretive pagan community ’round here, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon Yula, meaning Wheel of the Year) celebrations mark this time of re-birth- the return of the sun. Pagan is a word that literally means ‘from the country’ but its modern meaning just about covers any and all types of pre-Christian earth-based religions: Wiccan, Druid, Animist and Goddess-worshipper. Ancient traditions observed the re-birth of the sun and you’ll be surprised to learn that may of the every day traditions practiced in our mainstream culture have grown out of older Pagan customs.
The Yule log was traditionally lit on mid-winter’s eve and kept burning all night long to usher in the waxing sunlight. It was believed to bring good luck and gave hope and light to peoples suffering from the dreary darkness. Nowadays, candles often take the place of a massive Yule log, but their meaning is the same. Lightness where there is darkness, hope to chase away despair. “I proudly wear my pentacle around my neck,” writes a practicing Pagan in Brandon who wouldn’t tell me her name, “I’ve observed [Yule] a few times with my hubby & kids making berry/Cheerio/popcorn strings to hang out for the birds, as a type of offering. Being the shortest day of the year there are candles on the go.”
Mistletoe too was considered by the Druids to be an aphrodisiac (magically, not medicinally- it’s toxic) and functioned as a symbol of fertility, paralleling the return of sun/ fertility to the lands, and the impending springtime births of livestock on the farm. Greenery, like holly, ivy and evergreen, was brought into the house to ‘spruce up’ the place, to bring life back into the home. And ancient traditions always included celebrations with family and friends, featuring plenty of food and drink.
Another Pagan sums up what the season means to her by saying that Yule is, “A celebration of the returning light, being aware of the cycle of seasons therefore the cycle of life. Being joyful and appreciative of the days getting longer by celebrating with lights of any kind and bringing live greenery into your house and of course celebrating the joy with good friends, food and drink!”
Pagans celebrate the season much like the rest of us, with similar traditions and customs. The meaning may be more organic with a focus on reverence for nature
but no one can mistake the striking similarities. Evergreen, mistletoe, good friends and good food. Celebrating the return of the light- for Pagans, hope springs anew this holiday season.