The Haskell family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. Instead, they celebrate Yule. And though the term “Yule” is often used as a synonym for “Christmas” or a generic winter holiday, it has specific significance for the Greeley, Colorado, family of four, as well as for many other Pagan and Wiccan families.
Yule: The solstice celebration
Yule may not be as well-known as other winter holidays, but it isn’t because it’s a new idea: It’s one of the oldest winter festivals celebrated today. Yule falls on the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. It’s not known exactly how many people celebrate it, but there are nearly 700,000 people who are Pagan or Wiccan (two groups that mark the winter solstice), according to the U.S. Census.
“Yule is based on changes in season and the alignment of the planets,” Haskell explains. “As Pagans, we’re celebrating the return of the sun and of life to the earth,” she says. Wiccan families often celebrate Solstice as the rebirth of a god that brings light back to the planet. As Patrick McCleary of Tampa Bay, Florida, explains, “In my family’s tradition, Yule is the rebirth of the Sun God, and as such it’s the beginning of a new year.”
For many Wiccan families, the Celtic-based legend of the Holly King and Oak King (also known as the Sun God) plays a large part in their Yule celebrations. These two rulers battle for supremacy over the seasons on earth. The Oak King is the ruler over longer days and warmer weather—when the deciduous oak tree would be full of leaves and color. The Holly King rules over the longer nights and cooler weather—when holly bushes are able to persevere and bear fruit. Yule celebrates the beginning of the Oak King’s victory over the winter Holly King.
For Pagans, the Celtic legends aren’t as important to their celebration as the science of the season. Haskell and her family view the Oak and Holly Kings as lore. “For us, the winter solstice is about the return of light, rotation of the planet, and welcoming the return of the sun,” Haskell says.
How families celebrate Yule
If a casual observer looked into the Haskell family’s windows on Yule, they’d probably just assume the family was celebrating Christmas. They have an evergreen tree (“traditionally, that was all that was alive in the dead of winter” in the Northern hemisphere, Haskell explains) and they decorate it with brightly colored ornaments reminiscent of the colors of the sun, including a sun-like lighted topper.
They also prepare a Yule feast, focusing on foods that would have been available at mid-winter before the modern era of trucking foods across the country, as well as foods that have bright sun-like colors (sweet potatoes and winter squash are favorites). And while they don’t get visits from Santa, the Haskell kids do get showered with gifts the morning after the solstice. “When I was growing up, I would tell people ‘We do pretty much the same thing you do; we just get to open presents sooner,’ ” says Haskell.
The McCleary family’s Wiccan celebration focuses on the Sun God’s return. On the night of the winter solstice, the family stays up to watch the sunrise so they can welcome back the longer, light-filled days. They also have a decorated tree, as well as a Yule Altar, decorated with pine boughs and acorns as well as religious ritual items (like candles and incense) that they keep on the altar year-round. “We also have a small collection of candles we light in succession to represent the overnight hours,” McCleary says. “It’s a symbol to us that the sun will be growing stronger soon.”
The shared traditions of Yule
Many of the traditions that the winter holidays hold dear have their roots in ancient Pagan celebrations, particularly Saturnalia, a Roman mid-winter celebration. Caroling, Haskell says, comes from a Pagan tradition called “wassailing,” or singing to trees and the earth to encourage rebirth and a good harvest. Holly is a common decoration, whether you’ve heard of the Holly King or not. And then there’s light: Christmas and Hanukkah lights are some of the most recognizable holiday symbols there are, and while each religious tradition has its own meaning for lights, decorating with them and assigning them symbolic importance began with the Pagans’ long-ago solstice celebrations.
There’s also the Yule log, which most people probably associate with a chocolate-filled roll cake. But in the past, many Christian families used to cut a piece of fresh wood for Christmas Eve fires, lighting it with pieces saved from the previous year’s Yule log. Then, they’d offer prayers asking for protection for the house and its occupants from evil and bad fortune. The Yule log is still an important symbol for Wiccans and Pagans, since burning the Yule log is another symbol of light returning.
Bringing Yule into your family’s celebration
No matter what religious tradition you follow (or if you follow none at all), understanding the solstice celebration can add a new dimension to your family’s winter holiday. “Many holidays this time of year already talk about the return of light to the world,” McCleary says. “So it isn’t a big step to recognize this event—the days getting longer—and add small things to your celebration that honor this change.”
And just understanding Yule and solstice celebrations, and why they’re important to those who celebrate them, is a step in the right direction as far as Haskell is concerned. “I had to learn as a little kid that there are people everywhere who don’t under- stand Paganism and can be really, really mean about it,” she says. “I tell my son, who is seven, that in school when kids talk about Christmas, it’s okay to call what we do ‘Christmas,’ too.” After all, she says, they do presents. They do songs. They feast and decorate with holly and greenery and ornaments. And they have a tree that reminds them of why they celebrate.
“What I tell my son is what I learned to say: ‘Everyone believes different things, and that’s okay,’” Haskell says. Whatever your family celebrates, you share at least one thing with the Haskells, McClearys, and millions of other families: the joy of bringing meaning to the final days of the year.
Does your family celebrate Yule? Tell us about it in the comments section below!