‘Tis the season for axial tilt, feasting, and ungulates coming to your front door for snacks. I’m celebrating the sun’s return and writing about yule and the winter solstice (or midwinter) today.
Midwinter, alternately known as Yule or the Winter Solstice, happens when the earth is tilted just right to make the day really short and the night really long. In the Northern Hemisphere this happens in December; in the South, June. As I’ll be talking about both the modern usage of the word Yule as well as historical, I’ll be focusing on the Northern Hemisphere usage.
Midwinter? you say. Um, my calendar says it’s the beginning of winter.
Your calendar is wrong. Seasons are not determined by weather, but by the amount of light we get. Thus, the shortest day of the year is actually the midpoint in the dark half of the year. The solstices mark midsummer and midwinter, and the equinoxes mark midspring and midautumn.
Now the next time someone wishes you a happy first day of winter on December or June 21st, you can educate them!
Or don’t. Take it from me, it does not win you friends.
The Day the Sun Stood Still
The Winter Solstice is the midpoint — the stopping point in between the light and the dark. Literally stopping point; the sun appears to stand still on the day, and that’s where the name solstice comes from. It’s the time of year when we can look up and say, Finally, the light is returning.
Even if winter still has several weeks of cold and frostbite to come.
It’s a time of hope, renewal, and rebirth. Winter solstice has been observed by human societies all over the globe for thousands of years. Despite the existence of my fellow night owls, as a species we’re pretty heliophilic. We love the light.
As well, throughout humanity’s history the changing of seasons wasn’t something we noticed just in passing, or to say “Oh hey, the leaves are pretty this year!” They were a matter of life and death. Our ancient celebrations stem from the fact that there were hard times ahead.
The winter solstice comes right before the hardest part of winter — the famine months. It’s the last big feast before everyone has to hold fast for spring — and more food — to come.
Observance of the solstice hasn’t ended with the advent of modern times and thus the ability to light our homes all night long. Granville Island in Vancouver does a yearly winter solstice celebration of light, and many folks these days — pagan and non-pagan like — mark the day with some sort of celebration.
My personal solstice tradition is to stay up all night in vigil for the sun’s return. I also re-watch the Lord of the Rings during solsticetide, as those movies symbolize the triumph of light over dark to me, so they’re very appropriate for the holiday.
Yule: Not Just for Goths Anymore
Yule is the modern English word for an ancient festival observed by Germanic pagans (or, the original Goths — insert Asterix reference here).
Germanic pagans knew how to party. The Yule festival was at least twelve days long and included tons of feasting, drinking, and a little sacrifice here or there.
Many Yule traditions became Christmas traditions as Europe converted to Christianity. You may already be familiar with the following:
- burning of the Yule log
- the Yule goat (common still in Scandinavia)
- a ham for Christmas — this is thought to come from the tradition of the Yule boar
- wassailing, or caroling — nowadays carolers are more often offered hot cocoa instead of wassail (a hot mulled cider)
- the Twelve Days of Christmas (which begin on Christmas, not 12 days beforehand — the last day is January 6th, Epiphany)
Fun fact: in Wales, wassailing includes Mari Lwyd, a horse skeleton that comes to a house and asks entry. The inhabitants of the house will give excuses for why Mari Lwyd cannot enter, and there’s a little back and forth. Eventually the inhabitants run out of excuses and must offer ale and food to the creature.
And you thought I was joking about ungulates coming to your front door, begging for snacks.
Celebrating the Sun’s Return and the Darkness
Yule was a festival, a time for feasting and drinking and probably breaking a few tables with rowdy dancing and/or fist-fights. But it was also connected to the Wild Hunt: a ghostly procession across the sky with elves, fairies, or the dead.
The Hunt is often led by Odin, or a figure associated with him. Among his many, many names are Old Norse words for Yule Father and the Yule One.
Seeing the Hunt pass by was not something you wanted. It was thought to presage disaster, or possibly drag you or your soul off to the underworld. If you think the Hunt might be passing by, best probably to shut your doors and windows and stay inside until sunrise.
In addition to the Hunt, Yule was also a time to honour the dead — the ancestors who had gone before. When offering drinks to the king, and to the gods, ancient revelers would also offer drinks to those who had gone before.
When you add all this to horse skeletons begging for snacks at your front door, it’s clear that the idea of contradictions within a holiday isn’t limited to Saturnalia.
Yuletide and the winter solstice are a time for celebrating the sun’s return — but for the light to return, there needs to be darkness first.
Katje van Loon writes epic fantasy with pagan themes, portal fantasy about pagan gods, and poetry inspired by witchcraft and ancient traditions. Zie’s not sure if she’s an expert yet, but boy howdy does zie know a lot about mythology and paganism.