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A Brief History of Yule

by Paige Curtin

For those of us working to divest from the religious holidays of our upbringing (and from the Christian-Capitalist society we find ourselves in), Christmas is arguably the toughest ritual to avoid. The commercialization and perceived secularization of Christmas has allowed it to stay ingrained in our hive-minds as basically a synonym for Winter: Christmas decorations and advertising are literally everywhere from Halloween til December 25th, and with them the first pangs of seasonal depression. Pair that with family obligations, the financial pressure to give gifts, and the general grief and trauma that can bubble up for folks for any number of reasons and boom, you’ve got yourself a secret spell for SAD

But, you deserve to be happy, for as many moments as you can string together. Say that to yourself as many times as it takes. 

Luckily as with most major holidays, there are pagan roots to Christmas that can make it a little easier to celebrate your own connection to the season in the face of all that Santa. 

Yule probably hear the word 'Yule' a lot (sorry, I had to just once!) as an alternative to Christmas, because its rituals pre-date the christianization of the holiday. It was originally a fertility festival (weren't they all, wink wink) for the Norse god Odin, but also referred to the entire two-month winter season. Those early Odin fests and his journey across the sky may be the rough origins of the jolly old elf Santa himself!

Modern Yule goes from December 21st through January 1st so don't feel pressured to have your entire celebration on one day, BUT Winter Solstice on the 21st is a pretty straightforward one to observe as it marks the beginning of longer periods of sunlight. Basically all the winter folk-holidays that were flattened into “Christmas” were meant to celebrate the wheel of the year tipping back into the light. Modern Wiccan rites focus on the transition of power from winter’s Holly King to spring’s Oak King, and our babe-a-licious friends Risa Dickens and Amy Torok from Missing Witches remind us of festivals like the Roman festival of Sol Invictus on December 25th and the matriarchal Mother’s Night on December 20th:
“This is a time to draw closer to your maternal ancestors. Mother’s Night begins this season in the dark, tied with our breath and our voices to all the possibilities inherent in that space before and between. We keep the Yule Log burning to keep us on this side of life, to stay warm and survive until tomorrow. This moment is a dangerous encounter with death, just like the labor of childbirth has been for most of human history. And in this way this moment is, by its very nature, dangerous to the patriarchy.”

Maybe this is why I feel so connected to my maternal bloodline this time of year, my Italian ancestors. As much as I don’t identify with my family’s religious history, it still feels grounding to me to celebrate how my ancestors celebrated. At Halloween/Samhain I feel really in tune with my paternal Irish heritage, whereas Yule/Christmas feels more like an invitation from the Italian side. So I kicked off on December 13th by celebrating the Italian Feast of Saint Lucy (Or Saint Lucia), whose name literally means “light” and whose presence I welcome long after her designated feast day is over. Her legacy is threatening to the patriarchy for SURE. 

Lucy was born to a rich family who planned to marry her to a rich man, but she preferred to distribute her considerable dowry to neighbors in need instead. When the powers that be tried to make Lucy repent for her actions she refused, and the story goes that when they tried to drag her to prison she was so rooted to the spot that even a team of oxen couldn’t move her. They tried to burn her but the kindling wouldn’t catch, and she was finally killed by a sword in her neck which appears in much of her iconography.

Lucy may be a Catholic saint, but her legacy stands for radical wealth redistribution and extending her festival feels like a tiny act of rebellion, so during Yule I donate as much as I can in her name, keep her altar filled with flickering candles, and do what I can to bring that shimmer to the rest of the house. That makes it easier too to remember the spirit of "the giving season” and appreciate the twinkling Christmas lights all over town. Those decorations remind even the most NIMBY of neighbors to have some goddamn pride in their community and help out. Lucy of light, keeping her neighbors safe and warm. 

So yeah, this is really where all the traditions merge, into this one major theme: light. The light is returning. Any way you can bring light into your space is the right way to celebrate. Candles, the titular Yule Log, even strands of electric fairy lights. The light symbolizes life and vitality, the promise of a fertile Spring. The iconic Christmas Tree comes from this theme too: lots of people know by now that bringing evergreens into the home is a witchy tradition from way back, a symbol of everlasting life during the dark days. Well thanks to the inescapable aisles of Christmas decorations, you can have your very own Yule Bush in whatever size, shape, and color you want! Like witchy secret agents co-opting the holiday. If you don't have space or resources for a full-size tree that's okay! I love those tabletop Rosemary trees from Trader Joe's, but I actually diverged entirely and chose a super fake, sparkly gold tree for my own home. I didn’t want the house faeries to think I was trying to trick them with disingenuous pretend greenery and I think we all love the glitter, so I've officially dubbed my own observation of this holiday "Sparkle Season". Secular and sparkly, what's not to love?

Other Spell suggestions for Yule:
-Sit with the darkness for as long as you can. Notice what you notice when the lights are off, what senses are heightened. What does your energetic body feel like in the dark? When you turn the lights on, what’s the first thing you see? What patterns dance in front of your newly-opened eyes?

-Connect with your angels! Outside of religious iconography, Angels are luminous spirit beings of unconditional love. Author Yamile Yemoonyah wisely writes: "In the beginning of my spiritual explorations, I always skipped angels, because they only seemed connected to Christianity... I also didn't like how they were almost always portrayed as European-ancestored blond, blue-eyed females in white gowns... Just like other types of spirit guide, angels are non-denominational and help people of all religions and spiritual lineages. They're high-vibrational beings who exude pure love. There's no other type of spirit guide that carries that kind of peaceful energy." Since the collective invokes their image so much this time of year in the form of tree-toppers and Nativity scenes (and of course the iconic Christmas episode of My So-Called Life, "So-Called Angels"), it’s a perfect opportunity to reach out. Thinning veils aren’t just for shadow work. Go get yourself some divine validation. 

-Give radically. I don’t mean give until you have nothing left, I mean when you have to give, make it count. Shop small or secondhand where you can, and consider making donations for the acquaintance-level folks on your list. Maybe you don’t need to break the bank on a $20 knicknack for each of your six ex-roommates from college. Maybe you can make a $5 donation in each of their names to a mutual aid org like Solidarity North Shore or Trans Santa and let that full $30 go further than $120 in Dunks gift cards ever would have.

-Build a gingerbread house for your ancestors to come home to for the holidays. Add their favorite candies and sweets (I like to include mini bottles of beloved liquor) and make sure they know they have a space in your home. 

How else do you honor the season? What makes you go hmmmm about the holidays? Make sure to tag us in your celebration Stories so we can feel like we're having a big ol' coven Winter gathering! See you in 2022!