The pagan sabbat we know as Yule is also often called Midwinter; it occurs on the Winter Solstice when nights have reached the maximum length and daylight hours are most scarce. Yule is the final pagan sabbat of the calendar year, so it is a very special time of year for many pagans, especially witches.
Yule usually falls on December 21st or December 22nd. This year, 2020, Yule falls on Monday, December 21st. In the Northern Hemisphere, we mark the beginning of winter with the Winter Solstice. Because Yule occurs on the day of the Winter Solstice, Yule also kicks off the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere.
Twelve Days of Yule
The celebration of Yule is not just one day. Most modern pagans celebrate the Twelve Days of Yule. There are variations in the ways these twelve days are selected to be observed.
If you Google “Yule 2020 date,” the ‘on the record’ answer is that Yule begins on Monday, December 21st (the Winter Solstice) and ends on Friday, January 1st (New Year’s Day).
However, the most common observance of the Twelve Days of Yule is December 20th through December 31st, regardless of what day the Winter Solstice actually falls on.
The pagan Twelve Days of Yule is the origin of what later became the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Traditional Yule Celebration
The exact origins of Yule are unknown. However, there is documentation of Yule celebrations dating back to the 4th century. It’s believed that ancient people celebrated Yule even before that. Let’s explore some of the ways people traditionally observed Yule in centuries past.
Feasts of Fools
Feasts of Fools were celebrations for Yule that the church frowned upon because they involved uproarious dancing, feasting, and merrymaking. The decorum was not that which the church considered proper for the time. These festivals were the people’s way of rebelling against the church’s iron fist of control.
During Feast of Fools celebrations in England, a “lord of misrule” would be appointed by the lords and nobles in the area and entrusted with the duty of watching over the festivities to make sure things didn’t get too out of hand.
In ancient Rome, festivities were presided over by a “mock king” who was selected spontaneously. The mock king’s job was to look and behave as foolishly as possible. Additionally, slaves and masters swapped places for the duration of the festival, which stretched multiple days.
These festivals were much like modern Mardi Gras celebrations. They persisted in many parts of Europe well into the seventeenth century, despite the church’s best effort to put a stop to them.
Giving gifts for the winter holidays did not begin with Christmas. This tradition began with Yule in ancient times. Some of the original gifts were not given from one person to another but were instead offerings to appease the winter deities. People made offerings to the winter gods and goddesses to stop freezing weather, prevent famine, etc.
Deities were not the only beings people sought to curry favor from with offerings during Yule. People also made offerings to fairy folk.
In Sweeden, there is a specific gnome (a subtype of fairy folk), the Tomte, who lives around houses, barns, and sheds. The Tomte are mostly benevolent creatures as long as they are shown proper respect. If you build a positive relationship with the Tomte by making offerings and being respectful, they will protect your home from accidents and disasters during the winter. An offering that is popular with the Tomte is bowls of porridge.
People commonly gifted each other with charms or talismans to offset danger or ensure safe travel. In Rome, it was customary to give gifts of palm branches, honeyed sweetmeat, and figs or dates. Gilded fruits, coins, and bronze or terra cotta lamps were also common gifts at this time, especially to one’s patrons, emperors, or other officials.
Traditionally, the Yule log was made from oak. However, a Yule log made of ash was thought to bring good luck and insight.
To prepare for the Yule log ceremony, the house had to be cleansed and blessed. Traditionally it was the women’s duty to do the cleansing of the home. While the women were cleansing, the oldest or most senior man of the household would search for the right log to use.
It was customary to select the largest log possible. It usually took several family members to drag the Yule log home. Once they managed to bring the log home, they would trim it to fit into their fireplace.
After trimming it, they would add decorative carvings to the log, often in the shape of a Cailleachthe Celtic mother crone. She is the embodiment of cold and death and was tossed into the fire so the family could see winter replaced by heat and light, symbolically.
They would add greenery to the Yule log and anoint it with ale, mead, or whiskey.
The lighting of the log happened on solstice eve. If they could light it using a piece of last year’s log as kindling, that was the ideal way to start the fire. After lighting the Yule log, they watched it all night, telling stories and making wishes and toasts over it.
Modern Yule Celebration
It’s been quite some time since the first recorded celebrations of Yule in the 4th century. However, modern pagans still observe Yule as a sacred and important sabbat. The way a person celebrates Yule will depend on what type of paganism they practice.
For Wiccans, Yule observance typically takes place on solstice eve and solstice day. Rituals involve casting a circle; calling the four quarters, directions, or watchtowers; raising energy; and working with a deity. A Yule log is also frequently a major focus for Wiccans on Yule. The purpose of their rituals may be peace, goodwill, and a prosperous New Year.
Witches who follow the Reclaiming tradition may not have structured rituals. If they do, they will look much like typical Wiccan rituals. The main difference between the Wiccan tradition and the Reclaiming tradition is that witches in the Reclaiming tradition intentionally keep vigil over the Yule log all solstice night. After that, they midwife the rising sun’s rebirth, followed by “singing up the sun” at dawn.
There are lots of other types of witches, as well as non-witch pagans who all have their own individual traditions and practices for observing Yule. For example, Heathens who celebrate Norse traditions, celebrate Midwinter as a twelve-day festival. Then, there are those following Celtic Reconstructionism who don’t observe Yule at all because they do not believe the ancient Druids celebrated at the Winter Solstice (although there is folkloric evidence that Celtic people did celebrate Midwinter).
Due to COVID-19 health concerns, there will be very few in-person Yule festivals this year. However, many organizers have moved their events online so that no one has to miss out on Yule celebrations just because of the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders.
A quick Google search for “Yule 2020 virtual event,” will reveal your many options for virtual festivals and celebrations to attend throughout December to observe Yule safely from your home.
Victoria is an eclectic witch based in the Midwest who stays actively involved in the online pagan community. When she’s not writing, you can find her offering guidance to less experienced witches and moderating large witchcraft groups and forums. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @witch_imightbe