Celebrated on 21st December in the northern hemisphere and 21st June in the southern hemisphere.
The Winter Solstice, Yule, is the solar festival that marks the shortest day of the year, with the sun rising and setting at its most southerly points. The winter quarter of the year runs from Samhain to Imbolc, so Yule stands at the midpoint of winter. It is a time of change and transformation, when the days will start to lengthen and like the first beginnings of the return of the sun, life will return and conquer death.
This link with the rebirth of the sun means that Yule was chosen as the birthday of the main deity in many religions. Dionysus, Mithras, Helios, Horus and Jesus (despite the Bible’s indication of a spring birth) were all reputedly born on 25th December, the date on which the Winter Solstice used to fall before calendar changes. The Druidic name for Yule, ‘Light of Arthur’, identifies the legendary British King Arthur with the sun god.
Saturnalia, the Romans’ seven-day festival in honor of Saturn, took place from 17-23 December each year and was a time of great merriment and gift-giving. The Roman name of the Yule festival was Sol Invictus – the Undefeated Sun, and this was designated as the birthday of Christ in 336 by Pope Julius I in order to appropriate one of the most important of the pagan festivals.
The Winter Solstice sees the crowning of the Holly King, God of the waning year, and his fall to his lighter aspect, the Oak King, God of the waxing year, who is reborn on this day (days grow longer after Yule). This aspect of the festival is seen in the Christmas carol ‘The Holly and The Ivy’, whose refrain concerns ‘the rising of the sun’, and which begins and ends:
The Holly and the Ivy, When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, The Holly bears the crown.
Decorating with evergreens over the Yule period is an ancient custom, most commonly seen today in Christmas trees and wreaths. Such plants were considered magical and protective in being evidently alive at this seemingly dead part of the year, and so are symbolic of the survival and rebirth of the sun at Yule. An evergreen Yule wreath symbolizes the survival of sun through the wheel of the year. Mistletoe, a symbol of fertility, gives us the promise of future fruitfulness and after seeing out the longest night, we greet the now waxing sun and feast as a mark of what is to come.
Alternate Names: Midwinter, Celtic ‘Rebirth of the Sun’
Druidic Name: Alban Arthuan (Light of Arthur)
To conclude, here is an edited version of the Salutation To A Friend by Fra Giovanni. It was written on Christmas Eve, 1513, and its sentiments sit particularly well with this time of the year:
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven!
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!
The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy.
There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see – and to see we have only to look.
Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty – beneath its covering – that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.
Have a peaceful, happy and cheery Yule!