A Ramble Toward the Meaning of Yule

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about the horror of Black Friday. In case you live under a rock–or in a country that worships capitalism less than the United States–this is the Friday after (the American) Thanksgiving. It’s long been considered the real start of the Christmas Season in this country, and for years has been acknowledged as the “biggest shopping day” of the year. In more recent times–I’m thinking within the last twenty years, because I don’t remember it being such a huge thing before that, but it could have begun sooner–it’s become a cultural meme for rabid materialism, as retailers offer rock bottom prices and push their Friday hours toward ever earlier start times, requiring workers to service hordes of deal-hungry customers instead of enjoying a peaceful holiday at home.

During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to my friend that I don’t have anything in particular against shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving as long as it starts AFTER Thanksgiving. That day is the source of many of my few good memories of my childhood, because my family always went down to the big department store in downtown Detroit, Hudson’s (which I believe is now out of business), where they had a wonderful Christmas maze leading to a visit with Santa Claus. My friend responded that she hates Christmas with a passion for numerous valid reasons: The materialism, the hypocrisy of a holiday supposedly celebrating the birth of a person whose message was one of peace and love (in whom she doesn’t believe anyway, being an atheist) being turned into a capitalist orgy, the sappy messages and moralizing and their striking contrast to the way many people are really treated, and Santa Claus himself, whom she thinks is the creepiest fictional character ever.

We see Santa Claus as the spirit of hope and generosity.
We see Santa Claus as the spirit of hope and generosity.

I get all of that, and I even share a lot of my friend’s opinions. Still, I love Yule. It’s my favorite of the eight major seasonal holidays of the Pagan calendar–which is pretty odd, because when I was a kid, it was about the most traumatic time of the year for me. But even then there were things I loved about it. I’ve always loved ritual, theater, and spectacle, and in the Presbyterian church of my childhood, Christmas was the only holiday where any of these were in evidence. I loved being allowed to set up the Nativity scene, both at my father’s church and at home. I loved the evergreen decorations, bringing down the boxes of candles and figurines we only saw once a year. Opening them and finding the perfect place for each one. I loved the ritual foods that appeared during the winter: cookies and pecan rolls, boxes of fruit from parishioners who had moved to Florida and California, sausages and cheeses, choco0late and nuts. Most of all, I loved decorating the tree, which is the lone activity I remember us doing as a family. I loved seeing the ornaments and hearing their stories, from the gorgeous blown-glass balls, to the mess of glitter and string I made in kindergarten, to the hideous fish that always got hung on the far side of the tree “for the cats.” And always, I loved giving gifts more than receiving them. To get in touch with the spirit of the person for whom I shopped, to remember what they liked and what they didn’t, to bring to mind offhand mentions of interesting items, and then to put all that energy into finding the perfect present. To see the smile that told me I had succeeded in reaching something unique, when the present was opened. For me, the winter holiday has always been about connection.

Okay, I was a very weird kid. And sure, I liked getting presents and I got overstimulated and threw tantrums, and behaved as expected for a child. Still, I remember going into the Hudson’s kids’ shopping area with an envelope of cash pinned to my coat and a list in my hand, and perusing the wares. Wondering if my mom would like the blue velvet cat with the perfume bottle–was that her? And my dad, what would speak to him?

One thing I value about the Pagan path I follow is that it allows, and even encourages, a person to keep the things of personal value and let go of the rest. Michael and I have developed our own rituals for the Yule season over the years, and we keep them up as time, resources, and varying stress levels permit. Many of them are not so different from the rituals of my childhood, but one thing that is different is that we try to maintain an awareness of the symbolism of each act, knowing that interacting with symbols is a way of making magic and unexpected things can come from interacting with symbols unknowing.

Historically speaking, most cultures participate in some holiday to mark the time when the days stop getting shorter and begin getting longer once more. Of course, this tradition would have no meaning in equatorial climes, but as one gets closer to the poles it becomes not only desirable but necessary. I remember winters in Michigan as times of unending dark and bone-penetrating cold, and I’m sure that without the assurance that the year would turn and summer come again, as represented by the winter holiday season, I would have gone quite mad. (Madder than I am.) Modern Paganism has a lot of myth and tradition from which to draw, part of it conflicting with other parts–but for this one time of year, that seems much less important than at others. The more powers you can enlist to combat the Winter Dark, the better, I say.

The Goddess of Yule with the newborn God.
The Goddess of Yule with the newborn God.

At the Winter Solstice, Yule, we (in the Northern Hemisphere) might say the Goddess, who represents Earth and Nature, has given birth to the God, who represents the sun. Many Pagans have reinterpreted the crêche, or Nativity Scene, as a tribute to the She who labors alone to bear the one who is Her son and will become her lover, husband, and sacrifice. I’ve been collecting figures for my own Nativity for years, but I haven’t yet found a goddess icon that speaks to me. I do have Obi-Wan Kenobi for one of the wise men, however. The crêche provides an important meditation tool and connecting point to the energy of renewal, which is part and parcel of the Yule season. By considering the journey of each figure, one can internalize the differing ways the change of seasons might affect those of different backgrounds and even species. Here, Pagan practice, not being limited by a story in a sacred book, can allow a person to pick the figures she needs to participate in the sun’s rebirth, in order to learn the appropriate lessons. For example, the shepherd of Christian tradition might be less valuable to a modern Pagan than a schoolteacher, who might see the turn of the year as a time to put aside mistakes made in the autumn and embark on new, more successful, ways of imparting information.

The Holly King
The Holly King

We might also honour the Holly King, another god form who can both protect creatures from the dangers of winter and bring killing ice (in some fairy tales, he appears as King Frost). The cold and dark have their own lessons to impart, one of them being that everything happens in its season and even the land needs time to recover from the productive months of summer. Sometimes we talk about the epic battle between the Holly King of Winter and the Oak King of Summer, which occurs the day after the longest night (Spoiler: The Oak King wins). The British tradition of Hunting the Wren is emblematic of this battle; wrens are associated with the Holly King, and they nest in the same areas robins do later in the year. By driving out the wrens, the hunters symbolically make way for summer by clearing the nesting grounds for summer’s birds.

Of course, we love the lights and the evergreen, both of which have symbolic value. Evergreen, which appears to live through times when everything else dies, is a symbol of hope and a sign that not all things succumb to the cold. Keeping lights burning through the dark, especially on the longest night, encourages the sun to return by sympathetic magic. It’s the same idea as that behind the Yule Log. And yes, we do know that the sun is going to return whether we keep the lights burning or not. Knowledge doesn’t diminish the impact of the act. Keeping the lights going helps put us in touch with those who came before us, who might have been less assured of the sun’s return. We can imagine our ancestors gathering in a drafty hall, tending the fire that was the only thing standing between them and death by cold, and the imagining gives us a better appreciation of the thin line between light and warmth versus cold and death. I’m sorry to say this is one tradition my household has become rather lax at keeping in recent times. We used to keep a fire burning in the hearth all night, and stay up all night to tend it. We also used to use nothing but candles from sundown on the Longest Night until sunup on the next morning. Since we moved into a house without a fireplace, our symbolic fire is a single candle which we burn only on Yule. And lately we use electricity through that night. The fires are something I’d like to get back to, some day.

The ritual I treasure most these days is the feast. Every year, no matter how poor we are or how little we’re in the mood, we have our Yule goose with all the trimmings at sunset on the Longest Night. Part of the reason I relate to the feast so much is, a feast in the dead of winter carries the same weight it always has. To eat the best of what you have put by at the season when you’re least likely to be able to replenish your stores is an act of trust, an act of faith. Now that I think about it, the entire Yule holiday is a celebration of those two things: trust and faith. We trust that life will improve. We have faith we’ll live to see the sun. We open our hearts to the stranger, give to those less fortunate, acknowledge difficulties past and celebrate successes to come. It’s funny to me that this holiday bears so much meaning to me, since I do not consider myself either a very trusting person or one whose faith is particularly strong. But this one time of year, I can find it in myself to believe. And it’s this belief in the goodness of the world and this trust in the dependability of nature, whether or not it results in personal gratification, that sustains me through the bad times and helps me stand against rampant materialism, ignorance, and injustice. Not just in a particular holiday season,  but all through the year.

May light and life bless all creatures, of every species, and of all religions or none.

So Mote It Be.