Yule: Embrace winter at the solstice with logs, cakes and mistletoe

winter landscape

Photo courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.net

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 21: Wherever you live—and as long as men and women have walked the earth—the solstices have been auspicious turning points in the calendar. For our Northern readers, today is the winter solstice, also known as the longest night of the year. Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts. One of the oldest celebrations of winter, Yule conjures visions of steaming cinnamon wassail, a crackling fireplace and the serenity of a blanket of snow. Despite the darkness and bitter cold, Yule is a time of joy: while enjoying the tranquility of midwinter, Pagans, Wiccans and many world citizens welcome the reemerging sun. Winter solstice marks a turning point when days begin, once again, to lengthen, and nights to shorten.

Recipes! Bake a tasty version of a Yule log with recipes from Food Network, Taste of Home and Martha Stewart. Sit back, grab a hot drink and relax in the serenity of winter.

YULE IN ANCIENT TIMES: Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule,” and during Yuletide—which lasted approximately two months—many participants paid tribute to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky) and the god Odin (the leader of the Wild Hunt). Of course, this depended on where you lived in Europe at that time. Traditionally, enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule. So merry was the atmosphere in these activities, in fact, that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods.

YULE AROUND THE WORLD: Solstice traditions have many names around the world: Inti Raymi in the Incan Empire in honor of the sun god Inti, and Soyalangwul for the Zuni and the Hopi. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.

THE LOG & THE MISTLETOE

In ancient pagan tradition, the Great Mother gave birth to the new Sun King on winter solstice—a belief still held by Pagans today—and as centuries progressed, outdoor bonfires were moved indoors to a hearth with a Yule log. (Note that in some regions, Yule bonfires are still held outdoors.) In the hearth, a large oak log ceremoniously placed is kindled at dusk, being allowed to burn for many hours or several days—tradition varies. In Druid custom, mistletoe is cut from an oak tree. Decorated Yule candles help welcome such beloved traditions as wassail, toasts and caroling. Today, Pagans and Wiccans still celebrate with wassail, feasts and, sometimes, a Yule log. In some Scandinavian countries, this season surrounding winter solstice is known as Jul.

DIY: EMBRACE THE UNIQUE JOYS OF WINTER

Winter got you down? Recharge with some all-natural ideas from the Huffington Post, such as enjoying the beauty of firelight or relaxing to some Classical music.

Get in touch with nature by decorating your home with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; for a warm scent, make a pomander by decorating oranges with cloves (get instructions from Martha Stewart), noting the orange’s resemblance to the sun.

Instructions for a Yule ritual with candles and blessings is available at this UK site.

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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc: Feasts, festivals anticipate spring

Men in black cloaks, suits and hats, one holding a groundhog, gathering to look at a small paper scroll

Punxsutawney Phil and other Groundhog Day participants at Gobbler’s Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, but woodland creatures and coming-of-spring myths have little to do with the Christian feast that falls one day later: It’s the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known better as Candlemas.

No matter which holiday you’re celebrating, though, do so with the unifying themes for these first two days of February: renewal and hope. The first days of February bring new beginnings, and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring. (And, this year, you can even raise a glass to Groundhog Day! That’s right—Punxsutawney Phil, the “official” groundhog of Groundhog Day, now has his own namesake “Philsner”—er, pilsner.)

CANDLEMAS: CANDLES, COINS AND BELLS

The feast of Candlemas focuses on the Gospel of Luke, which describes Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the Temple, Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future held tragic events for her young son.

Ice cream and chocolate drizzle on top of a crepe

Crepes are common fare across Europe for Candlemas, and the dairy products that often top them are symbolic foods for Imbolc. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served, often at a party thrown by the person who found the baby Jesus trinket in an Epiphany King Cake. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as Snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today. (Just don’t bring those Snowdrops inside before the feast of Candlemas, because that’s considered bad luck!)

IMBOLC: SPRING, WOODLAND ANIMALS AND BRIGHID

On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere usher in February with the centuries-old Gaelic festival of Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, marking the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. (Get a step-by-step, DIY version of Brighid crosses here.) After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

Did you know? The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings.

Legend has it that on Imbolc, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring. Snakes and badgers begin emerging from the earth to “test the weather” (thus, the beginning of modern Groundhog Day traditions.) In Wicca, Imbolc is a women’s festival, in honor of Brighid.

GROUNDHOG DAY: SEASONAL PREDICTIONS AND GOOD OL’ PHIL

On February 2, many of us ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

What started as an ancient pagan festival’s legends on woodland animals “testing the weather” has slowly morphed into a national phenomenon in the United States. Groundhog Day, spurred by German immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries who brought groundhog traditions with them to America, gave birth to “Punxsutawney Phil” and the array of groundhog-related events that fill lodges and streets in Pennsylvania in the first days of February each year. Annually, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day, where “Phil” is regarded as the “one and only” weather predictor for the day. In 2017, Phil will even be the namesake of a beer bottled in his honor: Punxsutawney Philsner, which is, according to handlers, already proving wildly successful. (Read more here.)

Getting it straight: Tradition tells that if a groundhog sees his shadow in sunlight, he will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter; if he sees no shadow, he will emerge, and an early spring is in the forecast.

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Categories: ChristianNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan