The ancient peoples of what are now Denmark, Scandinavia, Finland and Norway had good reason to celebrate. While most cultures celebrated the turn of the season in one way or another, to the icebound dwellers at the top of the world the return of the sun meant life itself. No more would their lives descend into frozen darkness. The worst was over—though the winter had hardly begun. With every day a little longer hope could survive and grow.
The personification of this frosty threat was the Yule Cat, who gave warm woolen presents to the industrious and ate the lazy—much as would the harsh elements.
The word itself, “Yule,” is sometimes attributed to a similar Scandinavian word that means “wheel”. However, this seems unlikely, as the word Yule predates the introduction of the wheel by more than a thousand years. Still, the association to the wheel of the year is apt.
To the Celts, arriving late to the northern latitudes, the Winter Solstice was called Alban Arthuan, after the Arthurian legend that placed the birth of King Arthur on the Solstice. The term means, literally, “Light of Arthur”.
To celebrate this longest night and the return of the sun, the Celts lit huge fires, as on Beltane and Samhain. Burning the Yule log comes from this custom. The ceremony starts by lighting the new log with the remains of last year’s fire—thus confirming the unbroken cycle of the seasons. If the log burnt for twelve hours it was said to be a good omen for the coming year.
To the Celts we also owe the custom of decorating the home with evergreen plants, especially the magycal mistletoe, which was another custom derived from the Norse tradition where it was the “plant of peace”.
Kissing under the mistletoe, though often attributed to the English, comes from the Norse legend of the much loved god Balder and his loving mother Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty. Frigga worried about the safety of her son and so extracted promises from all the elementals never to harm him. The one exception was the mistletoe. Loki, the evil trickster, fashioned an arrow from its wood and tricked Balder’s brother Hoder into using it to kill Balder. Frigga’s tears then became the white berries of the mistletoe.
The story has a happy ending when Balder is returned to life. As a reward, Frigga elevates the mistletoe to be the symbol of love and promises to give a kiss to anyone who passes beneath it.
And while the English may not have originated the custom of kissing under the mistletoe they may have perfected it.
Here is a passage from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers:
"From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just suspended with his own hands a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honor to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum."
Besides the loving virtues of the mistletoe (also called “allheal”) it is considered a strong herb for healing and protection—though its berries are poisonous and must be kept away from children and pets.
To this end, the Druids performed a mistletoe ceremony on the fifth day after the new moon following the Winter Solstice.
We have this from the Roman historian, Pliny:
“They prepare a ritual sacrifice and feast under the tree and lead up two white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time on the occasion.
A Druid attired in a white vestment ascends the tree and with a golden pruning hook cuts the mistletoe which is caught in a white cloth.”
Pieces of the mistletoe were then cut and given to the people to place in their homes as a safeguard against thunder, lightning and other evils.
In addition to the ceremonial uses of the mistletoe, the indoor greenery was thought to be a winter home for the fairies.
When the missionaries arrived on the backs of the Roman invaders they usurped the Pagan holidays and gave them Christian themes. The winter solstice became the birth of Christ—Christmas—though Christ was most likely born in a warm month since the Romans never called for a census in the winter.
Later Martin Luther adapted a Pagan custom when he wrote of a silent night when stars shone through the boughs of a fir tree giving him the idea for the Christmas tree. The practice was already in use thousands of years before in the Celtic custom of placing small torches in the branches of trees on the night of the solstice.
Today Christmas, primarily commercial, hangs on by a thread to its spiritual roots. In celebrating Yule we regain our connection with the seasons of the year and the Wheel of Life. The shortest day is also the longest night. Balance and harmony prevail in the realm of our Pagan Gods and Goddesses.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Did you know that a lot of the Christian Holidays have bits and pieces from the Pagan holidays mixed in? If you ever wondered what "YULE" is, check this passage out!