Yule: 5 ways to celebrate the Winter Solstice during lockdown
Updated: Mar 14
Happy Witches New Year! As the sun rises on 21st December, we look forward to longer days like a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Scots word ‘Yule’ comes from the Old Norse ‘jól’, which is known as the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice.
Marking the shortest day and longest night, the Winter Solstice falls on the 21st December this year in the northern hemisphere.
In modern times, our attention is solely focused on Christmas and getting through the last of this turbulent year – however, it’s important to understand its origin as ritual and history surrounding the solstice in this country and all over Europe, predate the arrival of Christianity by thousands of years.
The ancient people of Northern Europe were hunter-gatherers, many of whom worshipped the sun. In Scotland, before the arrival of Christianity, Celtic priests would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing the festival of Alban Arthuan (Yule). Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.
It was also the Druidic priests who maintained the tradition of the yule log. In some areas of Scotland the log was called the 'Cailleach na Nollag', potentially burning away An Cailleach’s power over the year (Kondratiev 134).
It could also be seen that the Cailleach’s log was burned as a form of transforming Cailleach energy in to the goddess Brighid’s energy for the home. The ancient Celtic people believed that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit, using the remains of the previous year’s fire. It was believed it would conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
This Winter Solstice was immensely important to them because they were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons (hence celebrating each sabbat in the Wheel of the Year) Food shortages were common during the first months of the winter, so this festival was the last celebration before deep winter began.
As the country is currently in lockdown, many of us will be spending the festive season alone or away from our families. I have compiled a list of ways to celebrate safely and enjoy Yule as much as we can. Times are hard so it’s important to stay connected and trust it will get easier – at the end of this article I have included a list of helplines should you need support during this difficult period.
1. Decorate the tree with symbols of what you wish to receive in the new year
The modern practice of gift giving evolved from the tradition of hanging gifts on the tree as offerings to various Gods and Goddesses. So hang gold and silver objects to symbolise wealth, paper hearts for love, mistletoe for healing, whatever you like to get you manifesting what you truly desire in the new year.
2. Give handmade gifts
As previously mentioned, gift giving was in the original form of offerings to the Gods and Goddesses. Nowadays, this has extended to the ones we love. As this year has been difficult for small businesses across the country, what better way to spread the festive spirit by supporting artists, makers and local independent businesses. When you buy handmade, you are not only buying a gift for your loved one, but you are also investing in the skill, time and passion of its maker.
3. Bake some Yule bread Sour scones, cakes, bannocks and pannich perm were also prepared but most important was the special Yule bread – often an oat bannock instead of the everyday barley bannock that formed a staple of the diet – was baked, one cake for each member of the family. Usually these were made as normal, formed into a round and then quartered into farls for toasting on the girdle by the fire. In Shetland, however, the Yule-brünies were shaped into a round with a hole pressed into the centre, and notches pressed in around the edges to represent the sun.
4. Walk in the sun and forage holly for the home
Just like pine, holly is an evergreen of protection. The Celts believed holly's spiky bristles are believed to repel unwanted spirits. Newborn babies used to be sprinkled with 'holly water', water in which holly leaves had been soaked, potent after being left under a full moon overnight. Together, mistletoe and holly represent the Sacred Marriage at this time of year with the re-birth of the Sun, as well as the legend of the Holly King and the Oak King – who fight twice a year (Summer Solstice & Winter Solstice) for the affection of the Maiden goddess. As the Winter Solstice marks the sun returning in terms of days growing longer after the 21st, it’s important to get outside and welcome the sun on your skin. Go for a walk around your neighbourhood (abiding to social distancing measures) and see if you can forage some holly to decorate your home.
5. Light some festive scented candles & carve some time out for meditation As mentioned, the sun is returning so why not welcome its returning warmth and light by filling the home with festive-scented candles (or candles in shades of green, red or gold). As we’ll be spending a lot more time indoors this season, finding a space that is safe and cosy is crucial for our mental health, especially if we are alone. Light some candles and sit comfortably on a chair or pillow on the floor. Gently close your eyes and focus on opening your chest by sitting upright and taking some slow breaths. Count your breaths as they come and try not to change their natural rhythm – simply observe. If you find your thoughts are running away, label it as ‘thinking’ and gently draw your attention to your breath. Focus on rooting yourself to the ground beneath you, as if your tailbone was connected to the earth below. Allow yourself to relax further and take this time to get comfortable within yourself, find that safe place within yourself (you can even visualise what your ideal safe space might look like if you don’t feel as safe where you are currently). After some time focusing on this comforting safe moment, start to draw your attention to what you hope to achieve in the coming year – perhaps a new job or home, better health, travelling to a new land or to see your loved ones again. Really imagine yourself with what you desire in front of you, open your arms to it and fully embrace that you are deserving of everything you ask for – as if the Universe is truly abundant and willing to provide. Let these images melt away as you take a few more breaths, bringing yourself back into the present – feel the ground beneath you, wiggle life back into your fingers and toes, and gently blink open your eyes. Whenever things feel too much, you can return to this safe space you have created at any time. The more you allow yourself these moments of meditation, the easier it gets. Please see below a list of helplines should you need support this season:
For mental health crisis support, you can ring the SANEline on 0300 304 7000 between 4:30pm-10:30pm, each evening.
For general mental health help, you can access help via text from Shout. Simply text SHOUT to 85258 for 24/7 crisis support. This service is available for free on major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere.
Childline is a confidential line offering support for young people under 19 (and their relatives), offering advice about any topic. You can speak to a counselor by calling 0800 1111 or via one to one chat between 7.30am and 3.30am every day.
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is a helpline for men and is open from 5pm-midnight on 0800 58 58 58. The CALM webchat is also open during these hours.
The Silver Line is a line, open 24/7, for those over the age of 55 offering information, advice and friendship: 0800 4708 090.
For eating disorder support, contact the Beat Helpline on 0808 801 0677. The phone line will be open 4-8pm from 24st December to 1st January. Sometimes their lines are busy so, if you can't get through immediately, please try again or try their one-to-one webchat.
The national Rape Crisis helpline is open every day 12pm-2.30pm and 7pm-9:30pm. The helpline offers confidential emotional support, information and referral details.