Our calendars call it the first day of Winter, but the Yule Solstice actually signifies the return of the sun and the beginning of the end of Winter — small wonder it’s a time of celebration. Thanks to the Earth’s own axis tilt, the sun has been heading into the south since the Summer Solstice. From the Autumnal Equinox onward, the results have been ominously obvious: As the sun goes farther and farther south, it stays lower in the sky and the days are progressively shorter. Plants wither, animals migrate or hibernate, the Snow Demons reign. In ancient times, if the harvest was poor and the hunting was meager, Hel, the Norse Queen of the Underworld, began calling frailer folk to Her realm, optimistically called the Summerland.
In an age when winter was so potentially lethal (as it still is for some among us), knowing just how far south the sun would go was of crucial importance. The psychological impact would have been considerable — it still is. Hundreds of geographically diverse sites from antiquity, from Stonehenge and Newgrange to Chaco Canyon, incorporate sun-watching markers — stand right here and you’ll see the sun rise or set over that special hill, between those particular rocks, or reach in to illuminate this otherwise-dark place.
When that happens, the sun has stopped moving south and will briefly hold its position, rising in the same spot for a few days. The Latin roots of “solstice” mean just that: the sun stands still. In December, the sun’s southern-most declination (23º 25’ S) is reached around the 19th and held through about the 23rd.
Then the sun begins its move back toward the north. The longest nights grip us from about December 18th through around the 26th, after which the days begin to lengthen. “Sol” to the Norse peoples, “Sulis” to the Celts and “Sunna” to the Old Germans, the Goddess of Many Names begins returning north, gradually bringing with Her the birds and beasts, the green growing plants and the blesséd warmth. Slowly the earth becomes fecund and lush again.
Fertility is the underlying theme behind many Yule-season traditions, with the plants carrying much of the symbolism. In its living state, mistletoe was considered the genitalia of the oak-god, Zeus-Jupiter, and its white berries were equated with semen (Graves describes the berries as having a “spermal viscosity”). Virgil wrote of it as Golden Bough, saying the mistletoe gave access to the Underworld; in fact its Norse name is Guidhel, or “guide to hell.” Mistletoe’s wood is also extremely strong, apropos of its legendary use in spears (another phallic association).
Holly gets its name from Hel or Mother Holle, the Underworld Goddess, its red berries signifying female moon-blood. Linguistically, “holly” also connects with “hole” and the German word Hohle means both hole and cave.
Put this is sexual terms, and the symbolism becomes as clear as a snuggle-inducing midwinter night. Holly and mistletoe displayed together betoken female/male union, a ritual sacred marriage to re-fructify the earth. With a nod (and a wink) to the sexual preferences among your householders and holly-day guests, you might consider hanging the two plants in combination in some doorways, Holly alone hung in other spots, and the familiar Mistletoe on its own elsewhere. Bound to liven up the festivities.
Christmas trees originated with the sacred groves of trees consecrated to the Great Mother. Like caves, circular groves symbolized the Goddess’ vulva; a single tree within the circle represented both Her child and Her lover.
Suddenly the phallic significance of that yule log also seems obvious, if not downright blatant: the folk songs of Provence (fabled retreat of Mary Magdalene) tout the fertilizing prowess gleaned from even the ashes of the French “Noel Log.” Put a simple circle of small pine clippings ‘round the base of a hefty candle and and bring on the generative heat!
Single standing stones were credited with similar powers. With the winter Sun traveling low in the sky even at noon, the stones’ shadows remain at their annual most-virile extreme from sun-up to sundown.
This holiday seems far more sensual than our Fundamentalist friends might prefer for their lone divine birthday party. Jesus wasn’t always a Capricorn, of course. His official birth date didn’t land on Christmas until the 4th century. December 25 — often the first day of northerly solar motion after the solstice’s standstill — was already widely celebrated as Mithra’s “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” The nouveau church fathers, as usual, simply co-opted that date for their own Son. The Winter Solstice also marked the birthdays of Attis, Dionysus, Osiris, Zeus, Cuchulain and other northern hemisphere deities. The annual rebirth of the Norse god Frey was also marked then by the celebration known as Yule, the pagan name by which we know the holiday.
Lest all the emphasis seem to be on the son/sun, please note that Christmas Eve — known of old as Modranect or Mother’s Night — used to be considered an even greater festival than Christmas Day itself. Mother’s Night probably emphasized the act of giving birth, letting the Solstice itself emphasize that which was born: why not have two holidays?
In Yule ritual, darkening the room completely is very effective, as we journey into our own deep hearts on this long night — what inner work, “root-work,” is occurring now? What will we bring forth into the light in the coming months? And then we return, with lights, candles, perhaps a brilliant cauldron-fire (of clean-burning epsom salts and rubbing alcohol) to welcome the inspirations we give birth to.
RITUAL IDEAS and QUESTIONS
– Darken the room and then invite light to return
– Consciously cast off something in your life that feels “dark,” perhaps by writing it out and burning the paper
– Consciously invite in the “light” — ask for inspiration
– Perform a “Birthing,” pulling each person in turn through an arch of legs
– “What inner work — root growth — are we doing now?”
– “What will we take forward into the light?”
It’s hard to begin manifesting something we can’t at least imagine. Let your long-winter-nights dreaming spark forward into waking reality.
Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ God, (Phoenix Publishing: Custer WA, 1989).
Robert Graves, The White Goddess, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York, 1966).
Gerald S. Hawkins, Stonehenge Decoded, (Dell Publishing: New York, 1965).
Lucy Lippard, Overlay, (Pantheon Books: New York, 1983).
The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Published annually.
Renna Shesso, A Magical Tour of the Night Sky, (Weiser: San Francisco, 2011).
Peg Streep, Sanctuaries of the Goddess (Little, Brown and Co: Boston, 1994).
Barbara Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, (Harper and Row: New York, 1983).