Yule is perhaps my favorite sabbat. When I first began to walk the Pagan path I liked how similar it was to Christmas, a holiday-time I’ve always cherished. My family has always celebrated Christmas, and that celebration has always been secular. We sometimes went to Midnight Christmas Eve services, but that was always more for the beauty of candles in the darkness and the carols. (Christmas was the one time of year I liked singing hymns in church.) Decorating with evergreen trees, lights, and holly has always felt pagan or medieval to me. Only the most jaded of Christian is going to argue that those things have something to do with Jesus. When the Lady and the Horned God came calling, I looked at those traditions and found renewed power in them. Here was an easy way to connect with what some pagans did a millennia ago.
If anything, Paganism has contributed to the rituals and traditions in my life around the Holiday Season. Growing up my family never quite shared my infatuation with old European customs and traditions, but my wife whole-heartedly does (or at least pretends well). The houses I celebrated Christmas in as a child always had a fireplace, but we never had a Yule Log or any ritual associated with it. In the tired afternoons after the presents had all been unwrapped I used to gaze into the fire and claim the largest block of wood within it was our “Yule Log,” but it wasn’t a game anyone played with me. As a Pagan, today my wife and I have a Yule Log that we display proudly on our fireplace mantle. It’s not a piece of firewood, but it has notches for candles, and those flames are now our traditional Yule Fire.
The cleansing power of Yule’s new light is something that we’ve brought into our Midwinter rituals. Lighting the Yule Log isn’t a tradition to honor on the twenty-fifth, it’s a a ritual we perform on the longest night of the year. For one night our Yule Log comes down off of its perch and takes up space on our ritual altar. While it’s there we light it with special words and for that night the candles are never blown out and are simply allowed to go out on their own. In our ritual room they are the last source of illumination and as they shine bright in the night they remind us that even in darkness there is light.
When I was younger Christmas was always magical, but it was seldom spiritual. It was exciting to wait for Santa Claus and be with my extended family surrounded in a cocoon of holiday warmth, but it lacked something, especially as I grew older and some of the magic faded. As a teenager I filled some of that emptiness with church. As I mentioned earlier my family sometimes went to Christmas Eve services (and there was at least one year I simply went by myself), with the highlights being song and candle-light. The church-sanctuary would go dark and one by one four hundred taper candles would fill that chamber with a soft glow. Sermons meant nothing, that light filled up at least a small piece of me, and it produced a feeling I couldn’t quite articulate back then, but can now.
Even then I was celebrating the return of the light, the rebirth of The God upon the longest of nights. In quieter moments I used to reflect upon the Goddess giving birth alone in the cold to her little Lord of the Sun. It was nothing I ever really built ritual around, but it was something I would think about when walking home from work in the cold and snow; the sun already setting in the afternoon sky.
Over the last few years that myth has come alive for me in new ways. Now I see the Lady cradling her dead love as the world slips into the long dark night, and as she holds him in the cold she cries. As he dies his soul slips away into the cosmos, to journey among the stars and perhaps glimpse other worlds and other lifetimes. With her tears and longing she calls him back to serve the folk and her heart. Without her hand reaching out in the night he would be forever lost. Finally, as the veil of night is lifted his soul settles into this world once more, and when it does his light pierces the darkness. All that dies shall be reborn.
Over the last few years Yule has come to represent something else too, it’s a holiday I celebrate with chosen family. My father is never going to light the Yule Log with me and call the Watchtowers, but he doesn’t have to. I have people for that, I have friends and loved ones who have chosen to spend the holiest of holy days with me in our temple room. That’s powerful, and I’m always reminded of it more at Yule than any other sabbat.
Beltane is joyous, Samhain is dark and mysterious, Imbolc and Ostara fill me with hope. Mabon and Lughnassa are a time to give thanks and Litha stirs the imagination and the fey. Yule has a strange way of filling all of those feelings in just one night. The ritual has darkness, and then hope as the light returns. We often invite Santa to be a part of our rites, a changeling if there ever was one. With death conquered the coven feasts, laughs, and plays games. In the space of a few hours I’ve experienced all the joys and beautiful heartaches that my faith inspires.
I still celebrate Christmas, but make no mistake, Yule is where my heart is this time of year. The nights are long but my Lord and Lady fill the darkness with their light and their love. Blessed Midwinter.