The Wheel of the Year is turning towards the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere and the corresponding celebration of Yule. Acknowledging the eight “spokes” of the wheel of the neo-Pagan year gives you the opportunity to tune into and honor the Earth’s solar cycle, the natural world around you, and your inner cycles of change and growth. While Wheel of the Year ceremonies are spiritual, I appreciate that they give me another opportunity to get real about my life and the state of all life on this planet.
When I need to get a handle on a sabbat, which in Wicca refers to one of the eight spokes of the wheel of the year, I pull out The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, by Judika Illes, which is a thick, juicy, well-researched source for all things Pagan and witchcraft. According to Illes, Yule can be:
- a Nordic pagan festival that started at the Winter Solstice,
- an alternative name for Christmas that emphasizes the pagan elements that were incorporated into the Christian holiday, or
- the modern sabbat for the Winter Solstice.
I hear lots of “Christians stole our holiday” in the lead up to Yule. It is true that, most likely, Christmas trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, and other of the more secular bits of Christmas come from older pagan traditions. I believe it doesn’t matter much and I encourage you to find your own meaning in whichever symbols resonate with you. If there happens to be some crossover with other religions, so be it. At least you will find plenty of Yule-appropriate decorations in the stores.
The earliest versions of Santa Claus (yes, there have been several) appear to be heavily influenced by Odin, the Norse shaman-god. Odin was said to have learned shamanism from the Saami, semi-nomadic reindeer herders of the northern part of Scandinavia. Odin had a flying, eight-legged horse, led elves in the Wild Hunt, knew who was good or bad, and gave gifts. Sounds like Santa, doesn’t he?
The Romans celebrated The Saturnalia, a festival that honored Saturn, also known as Father Time, at the Winter Solstice. The Saturnalia was a merry festival of gift-giving, feasting, drinking, music-making, fertility rituals, gambling, gaming, and cross-dressing. Social norms were relaxed and might even be reversed completely. The Saturnalia reminds me of descriptions of Victorian Christmas festivities.
Those who lean Celtic, like me, may know of the Oak King and the Holly King. These two aspects of the nature god, horned god, or Greenman, battle for dominance either at the solstices or the equinoxes (and reaching the height of their power at the solstices). The Oak King rules the light part of the year and the Holly King, the dark. The myth is more modern than ancient, arising from “The White Goddess” written by poet Robert Graves (1895-1985). Depictions of the Holly King often remind me of Santa Claus.
What’s Real Here
I began visiting the place where I now live when I was still a baby and I have been here for Yule/Christmas many times. When I was a kid, there was always lots of snow already on the ground when we arrived and the lake was frozen enough to ice skate. We still have years like that, but more often there is little, if any, snow and the lake is still open, evidence of the changing climate. As I write this, about a week before the Solstice, it is raining, and the temperature is well above freezing. Tonight it may change over to wet, heavy snow. We have been warned to watch for flooding and downed power lines, not very seasonably merry things to deal with.
This autumn’s acorns and pinecones have been eaten or stashed and the squirrels have returned to my feeders. Blue jays are year-round regulars. Other songbirds have migrated south, to be replaced by chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice. In past years, after the Solstice, a barred owl roosts near enough to spot her in the trees from my window, and I hopefully look forward to her return. Once the snow piles up, deer and wild turkey will venture closer to the house.
Perhaps it is good that Yule season starts with a celebration of lights and light-heartedness, because January can be quite challenging. During most winters, the snow starts to pile up and temperatures drop low enough to keep us all inside. The world around me becomes still and quiet after the merriment is done. If I look to the Earth for clues, as I should, for my own way of being, I know it is time to get still as well.
Symbols of the Season
Whether you are decorating an altar, preparing a ritual, or just want to be in the energy of Yule season, here are some ideas:
- White snow, evergreen trees, and the red berries of holly and winterberry give us the colors of Yule. In addition to white, green, and red, gold and silver add some sparkle.
- Candles are important as they represent the returning sun.
- Evergreen boughs, trees, and wreaths typically adorn the interior and exterior of homes.
- A decorated Yule log can either be burned or hold candles.
- Gemstones in red and green, especially if they have a sparkle to them. Rubies, garnets, bloodstones, emeralds, and moonstones are appropriate choices. Jen of Hot Mess Healing, a regular podcast guest, turned me on to white howlite, which to me is a lovely representation of snow and ice as a stone. (Check out some of Jen’s gemstone jewelry on her Facebook page, like a sweet piece of howlite wrapped in silvery Yule finery.)
- Herbs for Yule of course include evergreens such as cedar, juniper, and balsam fir for scent. Cinnamon, clove, and mint show up in cooking as well as potpourri simmers. Sheri of Glitter Witch Gardens turns to mistletoe for a medicinal and magical Yule herb. (Read about mistletoe in Sheri’s post.)
- I am vegan and I have consciously stopped relating farmed animals to the Wheel of the Year, since their symbolism often involves their eventual slaughter. Wildlife provides ample examples of Yule energy, however. The ever-present squirrels remind me how to resource myself for Yule season. Reindeer, whether Santa’s or Odin’s, are of course part of Yule. The wren was revered by the Druids, who were said to be able to interpret the wren’s song to tell the future. Unfortunately, the ritual slaughter of wrens on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, has ruined the association of wrens with Yule for me.
Due to images of wolves in the snow, howling at the moon, I associate wolves with Yule, too. The reintroduction of wolves to former habitats after their near extinction reminds me of the return of the sun after it has sunk so low in the sky. I have chosen to honor wolves in my Yule ritual.
Biodiversity to Celebrate
One of my Shamanic Reiki helping spirits is a gray wolf. She prowls the edges of whatever space I am working in and feels protective. She has been with me almost as long as I have been practicing Shamanic Reiki. Out of respect for her, I pay attention to the status of the wild wolves.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity:
“Since wolf recovery plans were first written in the 1980s, people have learned much more about wolves’ behavior, ecology and needs. We know, for example, that returning wolves to ecosystems sets off a chain of events that benefits many species, including songbirds and beavers that gain from a return of streamside vegetation — which thrives in the absence of browsing elk that must move more often to avoid wolves — and pronghorn and foxes aided by wolves’ control of coyote populations.”
Despite the clear benefits of wolf recovery, some members of the U.S. Congress are trying to remove their protections nationwide. In some areas, where protections were removed in 2020, hundreds of wolves have been killed each year since, including 25 members of the Yellowstone pack, whose reintroduction provided evidence of their ecological importance.
I am watching with interest what will happen in my home state of New York, where wolves were eradicated by hunters in the late 1800s and have been absent until just recently. DNA and other tests on a 2021 hunter’s kill proved that it was a wild wolf. Believing them to be extinct here, New York never enacted state-level protections for or hunter education about wolves returning to the state. I would like to see that happen.
Feasting is a big part of a Yule celebration. It is also a big part of Christmas celebrations and the food works for both. Here are a few especially good for Yule:
- Fruits (especially oranges which are full of the sun’s energy) and nuts
- Yule Log cake (Bûche de Noël) is a thin sponge cake layered with buttercream, rolled into a log shape, and iced (There is a delightful vegan recipe here.)
- Drinks include wassail (spiced cider), egg nog, and hot chocolate
- Roasted apples and apple pie
If you work with cacao personally or in ceremony, consider what you might add to cacao drink to connect to the season. You can turn your cacao into a hot cocoa drink by sweeting and mixing it with a plant milk. Almond is a good choice. Add orange or peppermint extract to give your cacao a fun Yule flavor.
Offering to the Earth
During Yule season, offer the Earth a portion of your feast. Nuts and bits of fruit are best, as the squirrels and birds will enjoy them. You can also pour some wassail under an apple tree, or any tree if there is not an apple tree nearby. Please consider all wildlife when giving back to the Earth and do not leave anything as an offering that may be toxic to those smaller than humans, including chocolate and other sweets.
Activities to Try
Tune into the Yule season energy by trying one or more of the following activities, on your own, with your family, or with a group:
- Light a candle on Solstice Eve and let it burn all night. At dawn, bring it outside to welcome the return of the sun. I put my candle in the bathtub overnight to keep it away from the cats and anything flammable.
- Cut evergreen boughs (with permission from the trees) and tie them into garlands or make a wreath to decorate your home.
- Make suet “ornaments” for the birds and decorate a living tree with them. This is my go-to recipe but pinecones covered in peanut butter and rolled in birdseed are great, too.
- Take some quiet time to meditate or write in your journal. This is, after all, the season of introspection.
- Have a bonfire in the snow.
- During the cold, dark winter days, realign with your life’s purpose and commit to well-being for you and all beings.
A Deeper Meaning
As the Wheel of the Year turns, each season’s energy in some way supports your inner work as well as what you are bringing into the world. It is up to each of us, individually, to find a deeper meaning in our ceremonies and rituals, but I can lead you to an area to explore.
The Yule season is a time for REFLECTION, especially in the new year when holiday obligations are past. I know I am not meant to be busy, but rather to reflect the stillness outside by turning inward. Instead of rushing to make resolutions I will not keep and to set goals I will not meet, I use the winter to reflect on what I truly desire to manifest for my own well-being and the well-being of all. My well-being includes my mental and emotional health, so I may use this time to get needed counselling or other support for shadow work. The work might mean taking a good, hard look at my own reflection and opening up to the truth as it is, in this moment. Ultimately, the reflection leads to clarity and a renewed commitment to my purpose.
I wrote a piece for the Olympic Mountain EarthWisdom Circle during the last Yule season. Perhaps it will inspire yours.