The Winter Solstice is a strange time of year in Canada. It’s often forgotten being so close to Christmas and the end of the year, and even though the astronomer in me recognizes the significance of the event, it’s so dark and dreary outside that I curse it! The good news is that the Solstice, being the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, means that the days will get a bit brighter from here on in. Even though the coldest months of January and February are still to come, I’m glad to have made it past the darkest day.
Ancient cultures knew about the shortest day of the year, and we can find all kinds of evidence for celebrations that signified the ‘renewal’ of the Sun. Even before the Christian traditions of Christmas, there was the Scandanavian Juul, which we still see leftover signs of today as Yule.
During Juul, fires were lit to symbolize the heat and light of the returning Sun. A Juul (Yule) log was obtained as a gift or harvested, never bought, and burned to honour the god Thor. It was usually Ash wood, as the Ash tree was considered sacred and represented the sacred world tree Yggdrasil, herb of the Sun. The log would be decorated with holly, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before being set ablaze with a piece of the previous year’s log. After smoldering for 12 days, the ashes were considered sacred, and used for fertilizer or as a charm to protect a home from thunder and lightning.
Lighting a Yule log at Christmas is a leftover of this ancient tradition, and modern day Wiccans and Pagans follow this same tradition to celebrate Yule. But the log isn’t the only ancient tradition to carry over to Christmas. The celebration of Juul also involved putting holly throughout the house, inside and out, to welcome nature sprites into the house to join the celebration. Mistletoe was also hung as a decoration, and represented the seed of the divine.
It always amazes me how astronomical events have woven their way into modern traditions. Our ancestors beliefs about celebrating and sacrificing to gods to gain favour has carried us forward into modern day traditions of spending time with friends and family, giving to those in need, and exchanging gifts to bring joy to one another. Whatever it is you believe, make sure to do some extra good deeds, and spend some time with those you love. Happy Solstice!