Yule, Christmas, Solstice, whatever you want to call it, is the festival of the rebirth of the sun and the return of light to the land. Historically it was celebrated on the longest night of the year, and marked the start of the days growing slowly longer and warmer. The actual date of Yule varies from year to year but usually falls between December 20 and December 23.
On the night of Yule traditionally bonfires were lit in the fields and crops and trees were toasted with Wassail (a spiced cider mixture). Children went from house to house handing out gifts of apples spiked with cloves and bright oranges (to symbolize the returning sun). These were carried in baskets filled with the branches of evergreen trees. An ancient symbol of immortality because they appear to never die, no matter how cold it gets.
They also carried stalks of wheat to symbolize rich harvests, each stalk dusted with flour that represented the victory of light and life over dark and cold. Holly and Ivy (sacred evergreens to the Druids) decorated the inside and outside of homes to entice nature spirits to join the celebration of the triumph of nature. A sprig of this holly was kept near the door of the house all year to invite good fortune to visit those that lived in the house. Mistletoe was hung as a symbol of the seed of the Divine and life returning to the land.
The center of the celebrations was the Yule log, traditionally in the North this was Ash, representing the World Tree. Bought into the house from the land of the homeowner, it was decorated with Evergreens and Holly berries before being set alight to burn long into the night. Some would leave the yule log to smolder for 12 days, other cultures would burn it to ashes on the night of the Solstice
Feasting was common, a way of signaling to everyone that even in the depths of the cold and dark season of the year, they still had plenty and all was well.
It's easy to get swept up in the over commercialization of the modern celebrations and forget what the Winter Solstice is actually all about. No matter which particular tradition or religion you follow, this time of year is about celebrating new life and giving thanks for the plenty that we are blessed with.
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