"Beneath the tree of light and life, a blessing at this season of Yule!" —a traditional Norse prayer
Some of my merriest childhood memories are of Christmas mornings at my dad’s house. All of us would unwrap presents, taking turns in a circle—my dad, stepmom, two stepsisters, brother, and me. At some point, we’d break for pancakes, silver-dollar style golden disks flipped off an electric griddle. Holiday tunes played from the radio, and after breakfast, we’d either get down to business with the new toys or finish unwrapping (if the haul was particularly good).
As a non-religious person, these memories are what Christmas has meant for me: gathering with loved ones, giving and receiving gifts, and savoring delicious meals. The details have differed, depending on if I was with Mom or Dad and whether extended family was there, but the rituals were largely uniform. I’ve attended Christmas Eve church services, but always as a tag-along. The magic of the holiday wasn’t so much in the birth of Jesus Christ as in the joy of family and belief in Santa Claus. Coming into adulthood, I’m fascinated and often enchanted by different religions, as well as their celebrations, but I fall more in a vaguely spiritual category. I want to honor the holidays I grew up with, but in ways that are authentic to my beliefs. Alongside Christmas, my favorite holiday is New Year’s Eve, the day—or rather, the changing of days—that welcomes new light and fresh starts. In seeking a way to recognize both, I encountered Yule.
Yule—also called Yuletide—is a 12-day festival that begins on or around the winter solstice. The celebration stems from Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, most notable of which is likely the Norse festival Jul. In Jul, as well as ancient Roman, Greek, and Egyptian festivals, people spent nearly a fortnight celebrating the coming light and anticipating prosperity in the following year. So many Christmas traditions popular in the United States align with Yule practices, such as decorating an evergreen tree, giving gifts, and wassailing (which we call caroling). Current Yule observants may celebrate in these ways, and other practices include creating an altar, invoking prayers, and burning the Yule Log, which symbolizes triumph of light and warmth over the bitter winter.
The overlap of Christmas and Yule does not end with common practices. Many Christmas decorations feature holly, and I will never forget the lilt of my mom singing “The Holly and the Ivy” during winter. I’m hard-pressed to think of a romantic holiday film that doesn’t feature mistletoe. Each of these plants carries strong symbolism in the Yule tradition as well, and they often appear in Yule altars and décor. Holly signifies the waning daylight in winter, recalling the tale in which the Oak King defeated the Holly King around the winter solstice in order to bring in the new year. Together, holly and ivy represent protection; holly’s spiky leaves provide a sort of armor, while ivy often overtakes its host and lives on even after the original plant has died. Mistletoe, according to Norse lore, symbolizes peace and fertility, both of which are necessary to survive long winters and flourish in spring.
One of my favorite Christmas songs has always been “We Three Kings,” a haunting, hopeful tune about the three men who are said to have visited Jesus after his birth. In some Christian traditions, the day of the kings’ arrival is called Epiphany and falls 12 days after Christmas. Not only do these 12 days mirror the length of Yule, but also the kings present gifts, including frankincense and myrrh. Both substances are resins and appear throughout different belief systems, including as ingredients in natural medicine. Frankincense has been used to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, while myrrh has served in treatments for nerve disorders, pain, and weak immune systems. On Yuletide altars, these resins protect, purify, and bring prosperity to the home.
Many contemporary pagan practitioners recognize Yule as their main celebration, forgoing other December holidays altogether. For me, though, the choice isn’t that stark. Just as many non-Christians observe Christmas, I believe that anyone can recognize Yule without worshipping anything in particular. For me, celebrating Yule means incorporating non-religious blessings into decoration and devoting time to reflection on the last year and preparation for the new one. I also plan to witness the sunrise on all of the 12 days of the festival (which hopefully won’t be too difficult, considering winter sunrise times). My traditional Christmas staples—gifts with loved ones, holiday music, plenty of baked goods—will be as present as ever, and I hope the spirit of Yule will help me be present with them.
This season, Yule begins on December 22, 2019 and ends on January 2, 2020. I wish you happy holidays, whatever you celebrate, and a joyful new year!