Let's start with some terms that you might hear during this time of year. Winter Solstice, Midwinter, and of course Yule, they are not all the same thing.
Winter Solstice refers more to an astronomical alignment, while Midwinter is used to connect the Winter Solstice and the celebration together.
Yule is more on the side of the religious and spiritual aspects, and it has been used for centuries, 1800's ish?
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. Usually, around December 21st, that is when we deem the first day Winter Begins. It's not surprising that our ancestors celebrated this because it meant the days will get longer and the night shorter starting at this point. When following the seasons through the movements of the sun and seasonal changes Midwinter was just that. Middle of winter, middle of the shortest days. Because of the calendar now it falls more on the first day of winter but it is still the middle point of the shortest days of the year.
So what is Yule?
Yule is connected to different spiritual and religious followings through the ages. In many of these followings, the winter is the time of the Goddess, the carrier of life and in some cases the measurer of life. Through many of the religious and spiritual stories, it is often the goddess giving birth to the sun which returns the warmth and life-giving light needed for survival.
If there is a Goddess there has to be a god around somewhere, it's balance. Well, there were gods involved in all of this but not in the way that some of us have heard the stories. They were often connected to the idea of the sun, the return of light and vigor to the world, The association to the sun, is most likely where the idea of the Goddess giving birth to the God came from even though, we can surmise that there is a good chance that is not what was being implied.
There are other aspects of Yule that are still practiced to this day without us even realizing it. The feast for instance. The gathering of friends and family and the large feast was once known as the Feast of Fools, honestly, in some instances, it should still be called this. Anyway, the term Feast of Fools was given by the church to all the unruly feasts happening during Midwinter and Yule. These feasts were loud with a lot of food, often including mocking religious ceremonies, and were barely controlled chaos.
The get-together and large feast are still done to this day, ever been to a company Christmas Party? Need I say more? What we celebrate is different, for some it is the same but for the most part, it is getting together with those we care about and rejoicing with food.
Gift giving was once offerings to the Goddess and Gods for favour, a healthy return of Spring, and crops. To stave off starvation and to bring back the sun and its warmth and live giving light. There were gifts to the Fae folk and Gnomes for protection of the home and land, gifts to land owners, and gifts to loved ones. On December 6th St. Nicholas visited homes and gave gifts to good children, those who were not good, got stones and rocks. So the idea of gift giving was again, widespread and for different reasons, it was to get the next Playstation or the newest gadget or toy. There was purpose and meaning to each of the gifts.
Most of you know what the Yule Log is, yup that sweet chocolate cake in the shape of a log that is out every year around this time. No, that's not what I am talking about, though it is tasty, not that Yule Log.
Traditionally the Yule Log was either oak or ash, ash is known to bring good luck. The eldest (most senior) male of the home would go out looking for the perfect log while the woman of the hearth would cleanse the home in preparation. Once the perfect log was found it could take several people from the household to bring it back home. It was trimmed down to fit into the fireplace where it was lit by kindling from the year before's yule log.
If you consider candles, lights, cedar, and many of the other known traditions that our ancestors held while during Midwinter and Yule have been integrated into how we celebrate our Seasonal Holiday celebrations. For many Wiccans, Yule has become a time of energy work with their given Deities while continuing the community celebration of Yule logs and feasts, (not many homes have fireplaces so the Yule Log has become a dessert).
To summarize what exactly Yule is, it is a celebration of family and tradition passed through generations. It is separately celebrated from Midwinter though you can mix the traditions together as people have in recent years.
Look for 3 fun recipes for Yule following this post.
Enjoy the season, family, and fun.
Material Sourced from Llewellyn's Sabbat Essentials: YULE