Yule, The winter Solstice, celebrated approx. 22nd December.
Since time has been measured more accurately, and the Earth's orbit of the Sun has accelerated slightly over thousands of years, the solstice now falls approx. on the 21/22nd of December. At one time the solstice occured usually on the 25th December, and it was this day that was always celebrated by the ancients as Midwinter Day, the re-birth of the Sun. It was and still should be a traditional day of getting together and feasting, the sharing of gifts and thinking about others. Sadly, now in the 21st century, it is more like a mass exercise in commercialism, even though the church has tried to take over the ancient festival of Yule, so called Christians seem to have no idea what or why they are celebrating! All I see in my town are houses decked out with trashy lights and folk rushing about buying tacky gifts and even worse, loading up their shopping trollies with enough food to feed a third world country!
I would like to think that most Pagans or anyone of a spiritual path, or even anyone who just cares, will celebrate Midwinter's Day in the tradition of the ancients, by giving thanks to Mother Earth and the re-birth of the Sun. By thinking about others less fortunate, and cherishing their own family and friends. By caring about all the other life that we share this planet with.
Yule is the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun and taken from the old Nordic word Jul, meaning wheel of fire. The Sun is re-born and hence the cycle starts again, the "wheel" turns once more, and most of the Pagan celebrations at this time of year are based on the the Nordic Yule.
The longest night shall pass and give birth to longer days. Between Sanhain and Yule, the God of Night, the Holly King has ruled and been our guide.
The Goddess as Old Wise Woman has shown us wisdom. We now prepare ourselves for the God Of Day, the Oak King. Yule-tide traditions abound, decorations which precede Christmas by millenia are still preserved, but most people mistakenly believe these to be Christmas customs.
Holly is used as a decoration to depict the out going Holly King, usually in the form of a wreath, hung upon the door, and a Yule Log is brought in (today in the form of a cake) to celebrate his rebirth as Oak King. Mistletoe which is sacred to the Sun is used to invoke fertility and the healing powers of the increasing Sun. Sacred trees are decorated with offerings (The Christmas tree only dates back to Victorian times in this country). It is a time of gift giving and thanks giving to the Goddess and God for the gifts that they will bring to us.
Also worth a mention here is the Roman feast of Saturnalia, gift giving of "luxury" items seems to originate in this holiday. The feast of Saturnalia which honored the god Saturn was long established by the Romans before they invaded Britain, and was celebrated on the 19th December, originally for just the day, but later extended to seven days during the Golden Age. It was a time when masters waited on servants at mealtime, and gifts of light were given, particularly candles (this may have been in honour of a solar deity for the upcoming solstice).
Greeting the new year with friends and spirits is customary in many parts of the world. Residents of Scotland mark the arrival of the new year with particular passion in a holiday they call Hogmanay that draws on their history of Viking invasions, superstition, and ancient pagan rituals.
Hogmanay's origins date back to pagan rituals that marked the time of the winter solstice. Roman celebrations of the hedonistic winter festival of Saturnalia and Viking celebrations of Yule (the origin of the twelve days of Christmas) contributed to celebrations in Scotland around the new year. These celebrations and other ceremonies evolved over the centuries to become the Hogmanay holiday celebrated in Scotland today.
For many centuries in Scotland, Hogmanay was a far more important holiday than Christmas. Historians suggest this may have been a result of the Protestant Reformation after which Christmas, and its close ties to the Roman Catholic Church, was seen as "too Papist." Others point to the grueling work schedules of labourers during the Industrial Revolution which did not provide time off for the Christmas holiday.
A costumed reveller watches the burning of a Viking long ship during the Up Helly Aa festival in Scotland's Shetland Islands. The festival is one of many customs practiced in Scotland to mark the new year.
Only in the mid-19th century did Christmas emerge as the popular holiday it is in other Christian countries. But don't be fooled—New Year's still reigns supreme. In the last several years, two of Scotland's cities have hosted some of the largest street parties in the world.
Hogmanay—Then and Now
Today, Edinburgh and Glasgow are renowned for large outdoor street celebrations similar to New York City's New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square. Despite cold weather, the festivities draw large crowds and are marked by drinking and carousing into the wee hours of the morning. Thanks to marketing efforts, attendance has grown so overwhelming in recent years that tickets are now required to control crowds.
Some of the country's more interesting Hogmanay traditions are found in private homes and in the Scottish Highlands and islands. A number extend well into the new year.
A custom known as "first footing" dictates that the first person to cross a home's threshold after midnight on New Year's Eve will determine the homeowner's luck for the new year. The ideal visitor bears gifts—preferably whiskey, coal for the fire, small cakes, or a coin—and should be a man with a dark complexion. Why? The answer hearkens back to the 8th century, when the presumably fair-haired Vikings invaded Scotland: a blond visitor was not a good omen.
Although less commonly practiced today, friends celebrate first footing by visiting each other's homes shortly after midnight. They share food and drink and exchange small gifts. It is also customary to sing Auld Lang Syne, the traditional song famously transcribed by Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Another custom is to clean the house thoroughly and burn juniper to rid the house of evil spirits in the coming year.
Many Hogmanay traditions involve fire, another throwback to pagan and Viking times. It is believed fire symbolized the sun's return after the winter solstice or was used to ward off evil spirits.
Locals in the small town of Biggar in southern Scotland have built a bonfire every Hogmanay for hundreds of years, despite the complaints of some residents.
In Stonehaven, a town on Scotland's east coast, the Ancient Fireballs Ceremony unfolds as sixty locals march through the town swinging large flaming spheres over their heads.
Even more extreme is the ritual known as Up Helly Aa, which is carried out in towns in the Shetland Islands on the last Tuesday in January. A custom dating only back to the early 1800s, Up Helly Aa involves entire towns dressing up as Vikings and ceremonially burning a replica of a Viking ship—followed by raucous celebrating.
No one can say for sure which traditions came from exactly where exactly when, only that thousands of years of history have blended to create the cultural centrepiece of the Scottish holiday season.
Even the origin of the word Hogmanay is a subject of debate. A few possibilities: It may derive from the Gaelic oge maiden meaning "new morning"; the Celtic hogunnus meaning "new year"; hoog min dag, a Flemish-Dutch phrase meaning "great love day"; or the Old French word aguillanneuf, which refers to both the last day of the year and the gift traditionally given on that day. The last possibility seems especially likely since one of the old Scottish traditions was for children to run from door to door on New Year's Eve asking for presents and shouting, Hogmanay!
Whatever its origins, Hogmanay is an integral part of Scottish culture today. Apparently, one day to recover isn't enough: January 2nd is an official holiday in Scotland, too.
Extract from the "Nationalgeographic.com" by Lara Suziedelis Bogle,
31 December, 2002.