You know the usual winter holidays — Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve. There’s also Saint Lucia Day, Boxing Day, and a little something called the Winter Solstice.
For the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually Dec. 21, which harkens to the return of the sun as each day afterwards grows longer. It also goes by a name that you may have heard in some of your favorite Christmas songs or when tuned into a crackling fireplace on Netflix — Yule.
Yule comes from the Old Norse Winter Solstice “jōl” and for many modern Wiccans, witches and pagans, it’s a very important holiday.
“More than just a synonym for Christmas, Yule has reclaimed its place at the holiday table as a distinct and valuable religious and spiritual tradition,” wrote Jason Mankey in “Llewllyn’s Little Book of Yule.”
“It’s celebrated by Witches, Pagans, and Heathens, and for many secularists and atheists, the Winter Solstice has become a viable alternative to Christmas,” Mankey continued.
At the the wellness center of 4 Sisters Holistic Remedies in Renton, the High Priest and High Preistess of the Triple Goddess Coven held their Yule ritual the weekend before Dec. 21.
The Triple Goddess Coven is a British Traditional Wicca order which Syleena, the coven’s High Priestess, says is not eclectic but more traditional and “church-like.”
“The four solar holidays have been revered for thousands of years,” Syleena said, referring to the equinoxes in spring and fall and solstices in summer in winter. “What we do in Wicca, we just keep that old way alive.”
Every year, the coven does a different mythos of the solstice from around the world. “For this year, we’re doing traditional Celtic view on it with the death of the Holly King and then the re-birth of the Oak King,” said Syleena.
In the form of a skit, coven volunteers Julia Sayn played Mother Earth, or Gaia, and Noah Tassie of Tacoma played the Holly and Oak King, whose death marks the end of long, dark nights and whose re-birth marks the eventual return of the sun. As Syleena said at the end of the skit, “the sun is reborn and the waxing year begins!”
The ritual, which took about an hour, also included a guided meditation, energy work, gingerbread snacks and spiced wine or tea. As Syleena said at the beginning of the Yule ritual, Wicca does not have dogma and everyone attending the ritual is there of their own free will. Several guests to the ritual were dressed in festive gowns and formal-wear, while others chose to wear more casual clothes, which even included a sweater with Santa Claus all over it. “The coven has always been open and welcoming,” said Sayn. During the ritual, guests got to create their own “witch orbs” resembling a Christmas tree ornament that everyone filled with their choice of herbs, glitter and sigils.
During the ritual, Kalu, the coven’s High Priest, said that in Wicca, Yule is simultaneously the end and the beginning of the Wheel of the Year, a calendar that marks the eight holidays — called sabbats — that tie-in with the solstices, equinoxes and other markers of the seasons. Some sabbats coincide with more mainstream holidays like Halloween (Samhain, pronounced “sow-wein”) and Easter (Ostara), which borrow from these older traditions.
While Wicca is a more modern religion (it should be noted that Wiccans are often called witches, but not every witch is Wiccan), many of its traditions come from ancient practices, especially for the Triple Goddess Coven. Ancient Winter Solstice traditions can be found throughout the world, from Scandinavia to China to the Inca Empire of modern Peru (which celebrates its Winter Solstice in June).
“Almost every culture marks the Winter Solstice,” said Karin Olsen, a pagan of Thurston County. “I don’t think there’s any culture that doesn’t celebrate it.” Olsen teaches online classes about Yule, though she says she prefers to say that she celebrates the Winter Solstice.
“I am Scandinavian so Yule could be the way I work with it, but I prefer Winter Solstice in my personal practice,” said Olsen, who has been practicing for over 25 years.
For Olsen, celebrating the Winter Solstice means inviting family and friends over for dinner and a gift exchange. “I like to encourage people to think of how we celebrate other secular holidays like the Fourth of July or secular Easter and often times, people come up with food as a commonality,” she said.
“Because we’re eclectic — my partner is Jewish and my in-laws are Christians — I give the gift of light to everyone who comes to my Winter Solstice. It’s a fun accessible ritual that feels safe to a wide range of people and that’s the goal. I want everyone at my table to be comfortable and I also want to celebrate my spirituality and my framing of the world.”
Octavia McAloon is a forest witch and pagan living in western Washington who also celebrates Yule. She likes to bake, cook, watch the burning Yule log on TV and listen to playlists of the Wheel of The Year (a term for the calendar year that is most associated with Wiccans but is often used by witches and pagans).
McAloon, a professional musician and singer, says she likes to listen to songs about the Winter Solstice over “regular Christmas songs” since they’re something different. “The new Christmas pop stuff, in my opinion, is awful,” she said, though she likes the “old jazzy ones.”
For John B. of Seattle, a solitary practitioner of witchcraft for 18 years, the Winter Solstice and Yule are very important to him. “I like to mix the traditions of different forms of witchcraft into my practice so I often have a Yule log which I like to burn at night,” he said. “But in more recent years, since I don’t have a fireplace, I’ve been ordering Yule log-shaped cakes.”
The tradition of burning a Yule log is believed to have come from Germanic and Scandinavian pagan practices, though it’s often incorporated into Christmas celebrations as well.
Like Olsen and McAloon, John also incorporates food into his celebration of the Winter Solstice, along with gift-giving. These are practices that are also often associated with Christmas, but both traditions can be traced back to the winter holidays of Saturnalia and Kalends.
Pagan celebrations of Yule and the Winter Solstice are, in many ways, precursors to the modern traditions of Christmas.
According to an article from Christianity.com, though Jesus’ birthday is traditionally celebrated on Dec. 25 — around the time of the Winter Solstice — about 37% of Christian denominations put the Nativity story in January and that the exact month and date are difficult to decipher.
In another article from HowStuffWorks.com, the first mention of a date for Christmas wasn’t until over 1,800 years ago and noted that Christmas wasn’t celebrated until about 250-300 C.E.
Modern Christmas can trace its roots back to winter holidays of the Roman Empire, like Saturnalia and Kalends, holidays filled with merriment, decorations and exchanging of gifts. Over the centuries, more and more pagan and folk practices became mainstays of Christmas, like Christmas trees, mistletoe and Christmas carolling, or wassailing.
Despite the similarities in the winter holiday traditions, many witches and pagans like John and McAloon sometimes feel compelled to keep their craft, and by extension, their Winter Solstice practices to themselves.
“I don’t say it explicitly, but I don’t hide it. People have a pre-conceived notion of what a witch means,” said McAloon, who has worked as a professional singer in churches in the past. “I wouldn’t want to mention that around them.”
While witchcraft and witchy aesthetics have seen a rise in popularity over the last few years — popular movie and television actress Aubrey Plaza has now co-written two children’s books titled “The Christmas Witch” and “The Return of the Christmas Witch” — many witches and pagans consider “coming out of the broom closet” to be a tough thing.
“I don’t often feel the need to tell people around me that I’m a witch on a regular basis and sometimes it’s a little scary to do so because you never know how someone is going to react,” said John B. “There’s a lot of bias in the Western world when it comes to witchcraft. Many people like to assume we sit around worshiping the devil or casting curses all day rather than worshiping nature and trying to better our environment as well as help those around us.”