Why Emphasize Yule?

In the Wheel of the Year, Yule isn’t very important. It’s one of the minor holidays. It’s a bottom-rung holiday, less important than the four major fire festivals, and less important than the two most important of those: Beltane and Samhain.

Via elinorp Flickr CC

Yet Yule is given a lot of attention. We decorate, we buy presents, we sing holiday songs and give Yule far more attention that it’s equally important counterparts Ostara, Midsummer and Mabon. We treat Yule as if, well, as if it’s Christmas.

I think that’s the real reason Yule receives so much attention. Maybe because we all have some fond memories of the Christmas season, but I think more because Christmas drowns everything else out. Our over-emphasis on Yule is a way to stand up and declare “We are here! We exist!”

This year I have consciously abstained from Christmas. I am buying no presents, attending no holiday celebrations, and, except for a Happy Holidays sign on my front door, I have not decorated. I’m celebrating Yule as a solitary and eschewing group functions. At first, this seemed a bit ascetic but as Yule draws closer I’m finding myself more at peace and even more joyful.

In a way, abstaining from Christmas has reclaimed Yule for me. Without all the stress of all these outside expectations and overwhelming noise, there is a quiet dignity to the season. I may even hold a vigil until dawn this year. The Winter Solstice is a switch, a shift from darkness into light. It is the harbinger of Imbolc, of Candlemas, that cold festival of ice and fire.

I’m not suggesting everyone celebrate in my Grinchy, hermity fashion, but I think it’s worthwhile to think about how much of our Yule festivities are shaped by Christmas for good or ill, and what Yule looks like entirely separate from the pressures and influence of the overculture. What does Yule look like from a purely Pagan perspective? Away from the rush and noise of Christmas?

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About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • William

    For Wiccans it may be a less important holiday, but historically and for modern Heathens our Yule is a very important holiday. It is the year end/new year for us as well as many other important facets. Just wanted to point out the difference there.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Right, which is why I began by placing it in the Wheel of the Year framework.

      • William

        Good point, but not everyone realizes that that is a particularly Wiccan thing. Some people use it as a general term, I’ve even seen some Asatruar use the term “Wheel of the Year.”

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          It’s been adopted by the general Pagan community, certainly, but I can’t write everything with the assumption my readers are extremely ignorant. It would do them a disservice. There will always be an exception and unfortunately you can’t always convey every nuance in a group of faiths as diverse as Paganism.

          • William

            Oh of course not, I wasn’t trying to criticize how you wrote the article. I have no problem with that. I was just throwing additional, tangential information into a comment.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paganswithdisabilities/ Tara “Masery” Miller

      Yule isn’t in the bottom rung for me either. My major holidays are the solstices and equinoxes.

  • fffh_moderator

    As another grinchy hermit, I approve :)

  • Starwinde

    For myself, seasonal decorations, particularly here in south Florida, help me to connect with the seasonal changes. That said, disconnecting with the commercialism has been in the forefront of my mind; while buying is still done for (Christian) relatives, it is usually accomplished online. Key to my celebration is quiet, peaceful reflection, certainly not observed by those who celebrate Christmas! As you mention, Yule is a minor seasonal shift, and I wholly support the idea of downplaying the event.

  • http://about.me/CosettePaneque Cosette Paneque

    I don’t conflate Yule with Christmas. Other than the usual altar change, I don’t decorate for Yule, buy presents, or sing Yule songs, many of which are contemporary Paganized versions of traditional Christmas songs. I celebrate Yule pretty quietly with my coven and observe the winter solstice on my own as well. It’s definitely not the big hoopla that Beltaine and Samhain are.

    Then I celebrate Christmas, in a secular fashion, with my family. The house is decorated with non-religious items like snowmen, candy canes, and images of Santa Claus. The big, family dinner is on Dec. 24, Noche Buena. There’s a gift exchange on Christmas morning.

  • http://www.blackpagan.com lynn

    Maybe it’s a primeval thing, like maybe there’s something inherent in the darkness of this time of the year that makes people want to have a grand celebration, I dunno. The early Christians couldn’t get people to stop celebrating the solstice holidays so they eventually had to co-opt them into Christmas. Likewise, despite Yule’s supposed minor status among some Wiccans, many if not post pagans do treat this sabbat as a big deal.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Because I’m living with family members at the moment, I can’t remove myself from the festivities as much as I’d prefer; however, I have my own way of celebrating/observing them.  I’m coming into the third night of Saturnalia at present, I have a Saturnalia wreath that I made, and I look forward to Sigillaria on the 23rd very much indeed–though, from an Antinoan perspective, the 21st is the most important date in this week-long festival.  Then, on the 25th, I look forward to celebrating Sol Invictus’ dies natalis as well with a song and a prayer.  (One ancient bearer of part of my name, Virius Lupus, was one of the first priests in Rome of the reformed Sol Invictus cult under the Emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century, so it is important to keep that part of my “heritage” intact, definite, and separate from the other holiday occasions during this period as well!)

    I have not done the conventional “Christmas” stuff for about a decade–I no longer get presents for any of my family or Christian friends, and while I think they assume it is because of chronic unemployment, it isn’t.  I certainly don’t refuse gifts if friends or family insist on giving them to me, but I don’t ask for them either.  I have exchanged Yule/Sigillaria gifts with a few co-religionists on a few occasions over the last couple of years, and that is always fun, because it usually involves getting the other person something that they really actually want, which is usually some book that furthers their knowledge about polytheism!  ;)  It beats the hell out of socks–though, as often as not, I could also use socks…

  • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

    You’ll find the same thing happening with Hanukkah, which was always a very minor holiday, but it’s become more elaborate and more emphasis placed on it over the last decades by American Jews to compete with the bombardment of Christmas that takes place during this time of year.

    On a side note: there was a news article on the front page of Yahoo earlier about an anonymous person who put letters in all of their neighbors mailboxes somewhere in Michigan. The letters informed all of the residents that their Christmas lights where actually an evil, Pagan tradition and they shouldn’t put them up if they really loved Jesus. It was quite an amusing read.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Ah, the good ol’ days when Roman villas were decorated with flashing strings of colored lights, blinking in sync with the latest R&B Saturnalia album.

      • LezlieKinyon

        LOL! Aren’t we the clever geniuses? And – now! – we’ve even given our neighbors fire-safe, energy efficient LED twinkly lights! 
        (It was, BTW, Nick Holonyak, an engineer who invented the LED light, and not  a Roman… I don’t know what his spiritual path was/is.)   (Too bad, those ancient Romans – not to mention the Egyptians and the Celts – would have really loved them!)

  • snowcrashak

    I disagree completely.  Yule is not a bottom-rung holiday. The way I see it, the solstices and the equinoxes are the lynch pin of my path, the most important holidays to celebrate. They are solid, stable, the points in the year I feel closer to my gods & goddesses. Why emphasize Yule? Because of exactly what you said -  it means we are emerging from the dark winter days (believe me, in Alaska they are pretty dark) and finally heading into light days. It means hunkering down with my community and celebrating the sun’s return. It’s a time of celebration and joy. I don’t associate  Yule w/ Christmas – they are two very separate celebrations. I don’t celebrate Yule as a way to ‘get back’ at Christianity – I  celebrate it because it’s a turning point in my environment and my spirituality. And I celebrate Christmas because I live with non-Pagans & have non-Pagan family, and I want to honor them.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      The way you’ve phrased your thoughts at the end of your comment here have made me realize something:

      Many of us Pagans do an awful lot of “honoring”–both our own traditions, deities, and so forth, but also those of others.  I’ve seen many Pagans over the last few days comment about taking part in some aspects of Christmas because they want to honor their non-Pagan family and friends.  (I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with doing that, incidentally!)

      But my question then becomes:  why doesn’t anyone, or why do so few people, “honor” our own traditions who are outside of them?  Why must we always be the ones who have to “honor” someone else’s traditions to feel included and to maintain connections with people?

      It’s not a question I’m asking you so much as just one I’m putting out there in general…It seems very one-sided to me, and thus a bit unfair, and so I think it is an issue that deserves some thought, at very least.

      • snowcrashak

        Very good question! It’s something that bears some thought, too. We should have that reciprocation of ‘honoring’. My husband honors my holiday – he greatly respects my path even though is he himself is very non-religious (agnostic fisherman path lol)…but he knows how important it is to me to celebrate my holidays. My immediate family does not show any interest in my Pagan spirituality (they are “Christmas/Easter Catholics”). So, I bite the bullet and celebrate Christmas with them without their ever saying “Happy Yule!”. That’s a personal choice I make in order to celebrate with them. I have massive amounts of friends who are Pagan or pagan-friendly, and we do celebrate Yule (or they honor my celebration). So…it’s a give and take I guess.
        I don’t really have an answer or ‘fix’ for that. Christmas is a social holiday – it’s so ingrained in our culture that even if I don’t celebrate it religiously, I’m expected to honor it socially. It *is* unfair. But how to change that?
        I guess, for me, I just try to educate my family and friends on my religion and my holidays…..and I don’t compromise on my beliefs for the sake of them. If my family wanted me to go to church with them, I would say no….but I would come over for dinner and open presents with them. Reversed – I wouldn’t expect my Christian (or similar) friends to come to a Yule ritual, but I could confidently say they would come over for Yule dinner.

      • Ursyl

        That is a very good question!

        When we are able to visit my parents for their Christmas, we participate in as much as gifts are exchanged, but I never thought of it in terms of honoring them or their holiday.

        I may have to keep this in mind depending on where the conversation flows next week.  When my brother called the other day, wishing me a happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas. I wished him those and “happy Solstice” in return.  He sort of “blinked” then wished me “happy Solstice” back too.

        This is my family. When the parents used to visit, I’d go to Mass with them, and they’d come to our UU with us.

        Maybe if this question gets asked more often, in a way that provoked conversation instead of confrontation, this one-sidedness will end.

        I can hope.

    • http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com/ thalassa

       “I  celebrate it because it’s a turning point in my environment and my spirituality.”
      This.  Actually, for our family, the solstices and equinoxes are the more “important” holidays celebrated.

  • http://www.themonthebard.org/ Themon the Bard

    E very culture/society has some recognition of the fact that the seasons are cyclic — unless they live underground in caves all the time — and that generally includes a beginning/end of year. For us moderns, because of our calendar, that date and time is Dec 31 at midnight. 

    The Celts may have celebrated Last Harvest (Samhuinn) as beginning/end of year, but for moderns, that is a bit of a grafting process, because we have a calendar that “starts” on Jan 1. Chinese-Americans have the same issue with the Chinese New Year (generally celebrated in the spring), and Muslim-Americans with Ramadan and Eid (which floats around the calendar) — the original Muslim countries being close enough to equatorial that a lunar calendar works just as well as (if not better than) a solar calendar.

    As a culture, we need some kind of celebration around our calendar turn. When you look at the general timing of the “Christmas Season” — particularly that week between Christmas and New Year’s — it seems to me a perfect expression of our commerce-oriented society. It’s a final “putting up” of the “harvest” of commerce (including inventory) for the calendar-based tax-year.

    That’s also why the season is so “commercial.” It’s the same reason that agricultural societies find the autumn so “busy” and full of hard work. Samhuinn marked the end of that season of labor. December 26 marks the end of our season of commercial labor.

  • LezlieKinyon

    There is an assumption that the Solstices & Equinoxes are “minor” holidays on the Wheel in all of  Wicca – it just ‘t’ain’t true.  As my teacher said (back in the palaeolithic before the Internet): “diversity ‘r’ us.”  Which is one of the problems about being  essentially a mystery religion:  it all depends upon the Tradition you are a member of.  Some emphasize one holiday – others another- for some the Cross-Quarter Days are the important ones, for others it’s just one out of the year:  Beltane or Midsummer when the weather is good & you can throw a festival.  For some small Circles, you do it that way twice, and it seems, it’s a tradition (small “t”).   Yule is important for all of us on a Cultural level, quite separate from the important Spiritual one: for thousands of years, in a good part of the world where the sun grows weak and the snows blow (and, even in climes where there is little snow involved) we humans have drug greenery into the house, made a great feast, gathered together to sing, to dance, to keep the hearth fire burning, and to warm our hearts in “goode companie”:  telling ourselves and our children the stories about who we are.  During the longest night of the year we don’t really need to think in terms of who’s religion is dominant, but who we are sharing our hearth with.   IMHO: This is probably why so many Pagans & Wiccans of my generation  joined folk dance troupes and historical re-enactment societies early on: we could hang the mistletoe, put up some pretty sparkly things to “encourage” the Sun, burn a Yule log, and learn the steps of the Abbott’s Bromely or go Mumming at Winter Solstice in context of the sense of wonder and mystery that is at the heart of Wicca.   (I’m kinda in the middle between the Elders who wrote the first books and all of you lovely young’un bloggers.)

    The other reason why Samhain and Winter Solstice are both a time to celebrate is because we can celebrate something with all of our neighbors: be they our brother & sister Pagans on similar paths, or the Unitarians or the  Buddhists or the atheists: the sun crosses the equator at  5:30am Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on December 22, 2011 and the Wheel Turns.  Spring will come and we are reminded that the beauty of the Earth and Sky are revealed all around us.  That we are exactly where we are supposed to be: between Earth & Sky, at the very  Heart of the Circle of the World.

    The other reason is because caroling, dancing, singing, and Mumming is a lot of fun.

  • Matthaios

    While Beltane and Samhain receive star status–Samhain as the quintessential Witches’ holiday and Beltane being, well, Beltane, I disagree that they are more important. All Sabbats, I think, are equally important and Yule is by no means a “bottom-rung holiday”.

    Yule does get more festive than the other quarter Sabbats, but I think that is an important thing. I appreciate your finding the quiet dignity in the Winter Solstice but, for me, the festivity and the time spent with friends and family is very important. During this time of year when darkness has its greatest hold over our world, it is with loved ones that we find that spark of light that gets us through this difficult season.

    Just my $.02.


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