trees covered with snow
Pagan Holidays

The Meaning Of Yule: Why We Celebrate The Winter Solstice

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Modern witches can only discern the meaning of Yule by looking at our history. Because early Christians were fascinated by old pagan traditions, many of these pre-Christmas traditions live on in modern times.

What is the meaning of Yule for pagans and Wiccans? Yule is a holiday that taps into the eternal cycle of life and death and the battle between light and dark. It reminds us that there is hope in knowing that the sun will return even in the darkness.

medium long-coated black and white dog standing on snow during daytime
What is Yule to you? Do you worship a specific pagan deity during the Winter Solstice?

Also known as the Winter Solstice, Yule is a holiday that celebrates the shortest day of the year and the sun’s waxing. The Winter Solstice is the most intense and challenging night of the year if you’re a farmer or live off the land.

Early humans had to prepare extensively to survive this time by building up a stock of food. They also had to hunt for furs to keep warm and make sure their shelters were ready for harsh winters.

This is a time of settling in, and in that way, Yule encourages inner reflection and a more profound spirituality than other parts of the year.

In many parts of pagan Europe, the winter was bitterly cold, barren, and long. There was little hope of finding fresh food unless one wanted to brave the cold to hunt game. This lack of new food made all early humans aware of their mortality. For that reason, death is at the forefront of our minds.

For pagans and some witches, the Winter Solstice marks the beginning of the 12 days of Yule. At this time, we respect the underworld, ward off spirits, and honor the rebirth of the sun god.

What is the meaning of winter solstice? With illustrated leaves and geometric lines in gold color on a dark purple background.
Winter Solstice is one of many winter pagan holidays. What does Yule celebrate? The rebirth of the sun and warmer days to come.

When Is Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice is an astronomical occurrence that happens between December 20 and December 23. It is the shortest day of the year, after which the sun is waxing and growing in strength.

YearWinter Solstice
Winter Solstice 20205:02AM on Monday, December 21
Winter Solstice 202110:58 AM on Tuesday, December 21
Winter Solstice 20224:47 PM on Wednesday, December 21
Winter Solstice 202310:27 PM on Thursday, December 21

The Winter Solstice Throughout History And Across Cultures

The Winter Solstice itself lasts only a moment, but its celebration is often multiple days long.

Ancient Romans celebrated both Saturnalia and Juvenalia around the Winter Solstice.

Saturnalia was a weeklong celebration in honor of the god Saturn. Juvenalia was a feast celebrating the children of Rome.

Emperor Aurelian then established December 25 as the birthday of Sol Invictus, or the “Invincible Sun.” This date was also when he established the Sol Invictus cult as an official religion.

The Inca Empire celebrated the sun god Inti at the Winter Solstice. His holiday was called Inti Raymi, Quechua for “sun festival.”

The ancient Egyptians didn’t have evergreens to celebrate their Winter Solstice. Instead, they used palm fronds as decoration and in their rituals.

The Chinese celebrated Dong Zhi, while in Japan, they celebrated Toji. Both of these holidays were about bringing in positive energy and having a healthy and lucky new year.

While most Western cultures celebrate a secular form of Christmas, many of these celebrations’ customs and lore stem from ancient pagan cultures.

2019 Winter Solstice celebration before sunrise.
When is Yule? Around the Winter Solstice, which changes every year. In 2020, Yule is at 5:02AM on Monday, December 21. In 2021, Yule happens at 10:58 AM on Tuesday, December 21.

The Symbols Of Yule

As with all holidays, some symbols are more sacred and useful for this holiday than others. You can probably guess most of the symbols and themes: Reds and greens, evergreen plants, etc. 

But why are these symbols so crucial at this time of year?

Evergreen Plants

Evergreen plants were traditionally cut down and brought into the home to hang around doors and windows. 

Ancient witches used them to ward off death and destruction. They also symbolized life, rebirth, and renewal.

These plants’ green never dulls. That is why they were thought to have power over death and could ward off death even in the depths of winter.

Because they were thought to be strong enough to stop death in its tracks, they represent immortality and eternal life.

Holly

Holly is another evergreen plant. Its bristles are said to repel spirits and protect babies when holly is soaked in water, then sprinkled on the newborn.

Sacred to the goddess Holle, a goddess that rules the underworld, it symbolizes everlasting life and life energy itself.

The red berries represent the monthly blood of women, which also ties this plant to the moon.

Mistletoe

This plant was special to the Druids and was known as a healer and a protector. It must be cut specifically to ensure that it never touches the earth.

This is a liminal plant, it lives between heaven and the earth. In that way it represents the Winter Solstice, which is between death and life, dark and light.

The white berries represent the masculine semen, a symbol of life.

Yule Logs

The ancient Scandinavians began the custom of burning the Yule log. Their log was huge and felled from an Ash tree. It was burned to honor the god Thor.

Celtic tradition has the log coming from an oak tree, where it was brought into the home to keep the hearth fire burning into the new year. This was done to prevent unwanted spirits from entering the home.

Some pagans write their dreams and goals for the year to come and then burn those papers on the Yule log’s flames.

Traditionally, fathers and sons would drag home the massive logs that were used as Yule logs. Ancient pagans did this in recognition of the sun’s great power.

Personally, my family won’t be cutting down a gigantic tree to use as a Yule log this year. However, we might hold a bonfire where we will sing and tell Christmas stories to the children.

Some pagans also bake Yule log cakes, which are decorated to look like logs. They are a fun way to have a Yule log without dragging a huge trunk home!

In some traditions, you keep a few pieces of the wood from the previous year’s log. These are then used to start the fire for the next year’s Yule log.

Most of the Yule logs’ traditions are about selecting the right ones and then celebrating the tree’s sacrifice through ritual, burning, and saving pieces of the log.

Yule Trees

Yule trees represent the Tree of Life or World Tree. In ancient times, these trees were decorated with gifts that represented what people wished to receive from the gods.

The trees were also decorated with natural objects like pine cones, berries, and fruit.

Sol Invictus And Sun Worship

This Roman god of the sun is celebrated on the same day as Christmas, December 25th. 

We celebrate him and the sun because the Winter Solstice marks the renewal and growth of the light. The Unconquerable Sun is growing stronger as we welcome in the new year.

Sol Invictus eventually blended with Mithra. Then, his cult possibly influenced the early Roman Catholic Church while it was developing its holidays.

While many Christian scholars dispute that old pagan rituals have anything to do with their Christmas celebrations, Sol Invictus is still present in how we celebrate this ancient holiday.

As the sun rises, the promise of hope and growth in the new year grows in us all.

Candles

Candles represent the eternal flame, the same as an undying hearth fire does. Candles are used to chase away spirits and guide the sun back into the sky.

The smoke of candles also carry our wishes and spells out into the universe, whispering our desires to any spirits that may be able to help us.

During the Winter Solstice, you can light a special candle that has been anointed and blessed. This candle will then be used as the fire source for the entire night, for any ritual that you do.

This tradition honors the ever-burning sun as it enters into its growth phase.

Wreaths

They symbolize the wheel of the year and the eternal cycle of life and death. Made with evergreen plants and decorated with pine cones, acorns, and berries then hung throughout the home.

Bells

Bells are a tool used to drive away demons and negative energy, which makes them a great tool for this liminal time when we are banishing what is bad for us and drawing in all that is good. Ring them in the mornings to chase away the darkness.

shallow focus photo of red fruits
The many symbols of winter solstice in paganism include gold colors, mistletoe, and Christmas trees.

Yule Traditions

What you do with your family around the Winter Solstice are your Yule traditions.

Having dinner with your loved ones, singing songs by the fire, and sharing presents are all traditions that can be found in many cultures around the world at this time of year.

Let’s look at some more traditions, and explore why we practice them.

Hanging Mistletoe

Mistletoe represents femininity and fertility. The white berries of mistletoe represent the semen of the Forest God or Oak King.

When Druids harvested the mistletoe from their sacred oak trees, they did it with golden scythes. Any branches that may fall were catched by maidens to stop the sacred energy of the plant from escaping back into the ground.

Hang mistletoe over doorways to protect against storms and evils, or wear it as an amulet for fertility.

Carolling

Carolling was traditionally done by children who were honoring the Winter Solstice. In return for their singing, their neighbors would reward them with gifts like sweets.

Drinking Wassail

Wassail is hot mulled cider that was traditionally drunk while caroling (or wassailing). Offerings can be anointed with wassail to honor the gods at this time.

Giving Gifts For The Winter Solstice

At Saturnalia, the Roman god Saturn is celebrated. He is the god of agriculture, time, and liberation.

During Saturnalia, there was, of course, much feasting. At the same time, people reversed their roles.

Slaves were given special rights during this time, while the wealthy had to live as slaves (or at least have the appearance of living as slaves).

Saturnalia was also when people gave gifts, especially the wealthy giving gifts to the poor and slaves.

Until the Victorian era, Western countries most often exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day instead of Christmas.

It seems that giving gifts on the Winter Solstice is both an ancient and a modern tradition.

Different plants that are sacred during Yule
Witches celebrate Winter Solstice in very similar ways to Christians and secular people.

What Is The Meaning Of Yule

The themes and true meaning of Yule death with life and death.

Yule tells the story of the cyclical nature of life. Birth, death, and rebirth. From Christianity to paganism, this holds true in many cultures and religions that recognize the importance of the Winter Solstice.

Look at the deities that we celebrate at this time. Baldur, who was killed by a spear made of mistletoe and then restored to life.

Demeter, who tells the story of the journey to the underworld for her daughter and the subsequent death of the land until they are reunited again in the spring.

The Oak King and the Holly King, who each rule for half of the year. At Yule, the Holly King surrenders his life to fuel the life of the Oak King.

Because of this connection, it seems obvious that this is a time to let go of those things in our lives that no longer serve us, and to be reborn as new people for the new year.

Allow yourself forgiveness for the mistakes you made in the past year. Consider your relationships and which ones you shouldn’t continue. Take inventory of every part of your life. Now is the time to change. The magic in the air makes it naturally easier to do so.

This is also a time to look to the future, and all of the hope and possibility the future holds. Dream a little bigger during Yule, and allow yourself to really believe those dreams can come true.

A lot can happen in just a year, after all.

A woman wearing antlers and standing in a window snow storm
What does Yule mean? The original meaning is unknown, but the word itself stems from the Norse word jol. This is the name of a heathen feast

Food And Drinks For Yule

Christmas and Yule have a flood of holiday treats. We enjoy chocolate yule logs, eggnog, chocolate oranges, peppermint everything, krumkake, and gingerbread at this time of year.

Whether it’s a wassail or a hot pot of soup, every kitchen witch is spending plenty of time at the stove during these holidays. This time of year is filled with magick that originates in the kitchen.

On top of the roast turkey, ham, and veggies that we all love to scarf down at holiday dinners, there are all the sweets! Like the Yule log cake, which originated in the 19th century in France.

Take the time to be merry and bright while cooking your food. Put the extra effort to chant mantras and affirmations into everything you cook.

These special foods show your loved ones how much you love them. When you put positive energy into the food you make, it flows to them and helps them to relax and enjoy the end of a long year.

Here are some ideas of what you can make to celebrate Yule:

  • Yule log cakes
  • Gingerbread
  • Fruits
  • Berries
  • Nuts
  • Pork
  • Turkey
  • Eggnog
  • Ginger tea
  • Sugar cookies
  • Spiced cider
  • Wassail

Colors Of Yule

The color correspondences of Yule are probably obvious. The winter solstice is the growing sun’s season, so gold is used to correspond with the sun’s power and energy.

Evergreen plants give us the greens we use to symbolize Christmas and Yule. The red berries that help wild animals survive the winter give us the reds.

Many churches use white as the color of Christmas. Of course, it’s also heavily associated with the snow that we get in more northern countries.

Christmas and Yule trees are decorated with roses made of colored paper, apples, gilt pine cones, wafers, tinsel, and colored lights.

Here is some more information on the color correspondences of the Winter Solstice:

  • Red (Represents the Holly King, who is giving his power to the Oak King)
  • Green (Represents the Oak King, who will be ruling in the Holly King’s stead)
  • White (Purity and hope for the new year)
  • Silver (Represents the moon and moon deities. Silver also represents The Lady Sun in Finnish paganism, who spins silver yarns and makes silver clothes from them)
  • Gold (Represents the sun and sun deities)
At the end of the Pismo Beach Pier in Pismo Beach, California. The bokeh effect makes the lights come alive and radiate the warmth of Christmas.
Discover your own Yule meaning this year by worshipping the old gods and casting spells.

Crystals For Yule

One traditional stone of Yule is the ruby. This is a stone that protects us and draws in passion and prosperity.

Another is the garnet, which has the energy of flames. It is creative energy for visualizing a new and better life in the coming year.

Other crystals for the Winter Solstice:

  • Rubies
  • Bloodstones
  • Garnets
  • Emeralds
  • Diamonds
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Deities Of Yule

In some modern pagan traditions, the Winter Solstice is the time when the Holly King is defeated.

The Holly King and The Oak King are two deities that fight for supremacy throughout the year. The Oak King is defeated at the summer solstice, and then The Holly King is defeated around Yule.

In Finland, the witch goddess Louhi kidnaps the sun and moon during the winter. She holds them captive inside of a mountain, causing the long cold and darkness of the season.

The Greek goddess Alcyone nests every winter for two weeks. While she nests, the usually wild sea calms down.

Every culture has myths of their deities during the Winter Solstice. Tonantzin in Mexico, Horus in Egypt, the Spider Grandmother for the Hopi, and Amaterasu for Japan.

This season is also connected to Demeter’s mourning for her daughter Persephone as she lives in Hades for half of the year, the Wild Hunt, and many stories of birth, life, death, and then rebirth.

  • Freya
  • Gaia
  • Diana
  • Isis
  • Demeter
  • Päivätär
  • Mabon
  • The Sun God
  • The Oak King
  • The Holly King
  • The Green Man
  • Saturn
  • Sol Invictus
  • Odin
  • Lugh
  • Apollo
  • Ra
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Tips For Remembering The Meaning Of Yule

While dwelling on the eternal cycle of life and death isn’t always pleasant, it is necessary to prepare us for the deaths we will all experience through our lives. If we never examine mortality, then the sudden death of a loved one or friend will wreck us even more.

Here are ways to meditate on, or celebrate the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth:

  • Spend some time during this season to visit the grave of a loved one. Remember their life, celebrate their memory, and leave an offering for their soul.
  • Work with a death deity in a ritual or on your altar.
  • Observe how perennial plants seem to die away and then return in the spring.
  • Add symbols of death, rebirth, and immortality to your altar.
  • Try to do a ritual to celebrate the cycle of life and death.
  • Spend time in nature, even when it’s cold. Remember that we are all a part of nature and its cycles.

Christmas And Yule Gift Guides

If you're looking for the perfect Yule or Christmas gift for your witchy friends, these posts have you covered. Get awesome gift ideas for everyone, even the witch that "has it all"!

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