Yule is the time of greatest darkness, but soon the dark will give way to light. The cycle of life seems to be suspended while the Dark King (the old year) is transformed into the Infant Light (the new year). We watch for the coming dawn, when the Great Mother again gives birth to the Divine Child Sun who brings hope and the promise of continuing life. As the Wheel of the Year makes its final turn toward the light, we call forth the sun from the dark womb of night.
Much of our modern holiday symbolism comes from Pagan tradition, which comes from the Druids, Saxons and ancient Celtic people who picked up some ideas from the Romans who borrowed a bit from the Persians. It’s all a mélange of this very fluid thing we call culture.
Almost all civilizations have had some sort of winter celebration. Most of these are deeply rooted in the cycle of the year and stem from the very ancient practice of honoring the return of the sun. Winter Solstice celebrations can be traced back at least four thousand years. At Newgrange in Ireland, it is during the three days of the Winter Solstice (the day before and the day after) that the light of the rising sun illuminates a triad of spirals on the back wall opposite the entrance.
What we’ve come to celebrate as the modern mainstream holiday is a mix of Celtic, Saxon, Mithraic and Nordic ritual and display.
The holiday wreath represents the Pagan Wheel of the Year. The annual cycle is complete at Yule, which is a time of transformation – endings become beginnings. The word Yule comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that means wheel. The ancient Celtic people (who generally followed a lunar calendar) celebrated the New Year at Samhain, but 10th-centurty Nordic Pagans shifted the celebration to Yule to coincide with the solar year.
Fire is an important part of winter holiday tradition. Putting bright lights on Christmas trees, in windows and around the house began as the practice of lighting bonfires to honor the return of the sun. The burning Yule log itself is traditionally oak and represents the new shining sun. A piece of the Yule log is kept and used the following year to symbolize continuity – as the old year finishes the new one begins. Death is followed by rebirth.
The full moon before the Winter Solstice is called the Oak Moon. With its roots deep in Mother Earth and top-most branches high above the ground, the oak tree is symbolic of living in both the earthly and heavenly worlds. Trees figure largely in the Yuletide season. The Druids saw them as sacred. For them, Yule marked the struggle between the Oak King (king of the waxing year) and the Holly King (king of the waning year). To the Druids holly symbolized death and oak rebirth.
The use of mistletoe can also be traced to the Druids who gathered it from the highest branches of oak trees. Mistletoe is also called “the golden bough” and is considered powerfully magic, especially for fertility. At Yule its white berries are plentiful and symbolize the sacred seed of the God who embodies the spirit of vegetation and the divine spark of life.
Also at this time of year, holly is bright and vital, promising on-going life. These abundant red berries symbolize the Goddess’s blood – source of life.
Holly is named for the underground Goddess, Holle who was also called Hel. Her dark realm is within the earth and includes the deep underground waters. But her great palace is not a place to fear. It is a place of renewal and rebirth – quite the opposite of later myths that called the underworld Hell.
The Christmas tree began its present wave of popularity in 15th-century Europe. In the British Isles it was decorated with images of what was wished for in the coming year. Many other similar traditions are connected with tree decorations.
Like holly, evergreen trees were considered sacred because they didn’t seem to die each year and so they represent the eternal aspect of the Goddess. The Great Mother Goddess/Mother Earth remains constant while the God dies and is reborn each year.
This cycle has been played out in many cultures. December 25th was the birthday of the Sun God Mithra who was celebrated by the Romans and Persians. In the old Julian calendar, Winter Solstice occurred on December 25th. Mithra was born of the Goddess Astarte. At this time of year in ancient Egypt, Horus was born of Isis whose headdress includes a solar disk. In Babylon, Tammuz was born of Ishtar. The Norse Goddess, Frigg, gave birth to Balder. And in Palestine, Mary gave birth to Jesus.
It all comes down to basically the same thing no matter what your spirituality. It is the birth of the Sun God, the Son of God – whatever name you call him and by whatever name you know the Mother Goddess. The return of the sun/son brings light, hope and spiritual renewal.