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The Winter Solstice.

What is the Winter Solstice?

The Winter Solstice is a magickal event, yet sadly, it is in the main a forgotten celebration. At this time, Christmas preparations are taking place, and the focus is primarily on ‘what colour scheme to go for? Will the wrapping paper co-ordinate? Have I forgotten anyone? What shall we eat? Will my funds stretch!’

The Solstice is however, the complete antithesis of what has now become Christmas in contemporary society. Also known as ‘Yule’, the Solstice is generally celebrated on the 21st of December, (although the astronomical date changes from year to year – this year the actual Solstice takes place on the 22nd, at 00.22a.m). The Winter Solstice is the shortest day, and longest night of the year, and is the traditional time to celebrate the truly important things in life: your family, your children, your home and looking forward to a wonderful year to come.

Yule is a time throughout time that honours love and new birth, as well as the collective unity of man. Just as Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, Yule celebrates the birth of the Sun God - child of the Goddess in the Pagan belief system. Yule is primarily the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun. Many people associate the Winter Solstice, or winter itself with death, as it is the season in which nature is dormant, and in which many plants die off and crops are scarce. Conversely, the Winter Solstice, although it is the longest night, (boasting more than 12 hours of darkness), it is also the turning point of the year, as following this night the sun grows stronger in the sky, and the days become gradually longer once more. Thus the Winter Solstice is also a celebration of rebirth, and there are many traditions that stem from this perspective.

Traditions: Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe

The Holly and the Ivy

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

Chorus:
Oh, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The shining of the winter stars
As the longer days draw near.

The holly bears a blossom
As white as any flower
As our Mother bears the infant Sun
In the winter's darkest hour.

Chorus

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
As our Father bears the hunter's spear
for His hungry children's good.

Chorus

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn
As we shall bear our song of hope
On triumphant Yuletide morn.

Adapted by Hilda Marshal.


The tradition of bringing sprigs of Holly and Ivy into the home pays homage to the masculine and feminine elements. Both of these powerfully magickal plants are evergreen, a reminder in itself that the earth never dies, but merely sleeps during the winter months, (a tradition which was the precursor to our modern tradition of the evergreen Christmas tree). The male element is represented by the prickly holly; with its sexually potent red berries. The mistletoe is the female; entwining, gentle yet powerful. An alternative view of Holly is that the leaves of the plant represent the male, whereas the red berries symbolise the resting Mother Goddess, and life returning to the land.

The symbolism of Holly is especially potent. The Holly King and the Oak King are part of Celtic/Pagan mythology, and they represent two sides to the Greenman, or Horned God. Since the Summer Solstice, the Holly King has ruled the half-year of waning light, yet on this night the Oak King will take his throne to rule. In other words, the Oak King rules over the lighter half of the year, (Yule to Litha), and the Holly King over the darker half (Litha to Yule).

Another account of the Holly King and Oak King imagery is that they do not directly switch places twice a year, but rather both exist concurrently. The Oak King is born of the Goddess at Yule, growing in power through the spring, peaking at Beltane and then weakening through autumn until he dies at Samhain.
The Holly King however lives a reverse existence, and is born at Midsummer (Litha), increasing in strength throughout summer and autumn, reaching his zenith at Samhain. His sway then diminishes until it is his turn to pass at Beltane. Thus the two Kings enjoy a more elaborate sense of duality in this account, and it is perhaps a better illustration of their twofold nature, and their varying levels of influence throughout the year. As such they both have their characteristics. The reign of the Oak King is a time for growth, development, healing, and new beginnings. The Holly King's time is for rest, reflection, and learning. Thus the Holly King is honoured with the boughs of Holly, and the Oak King is honoured with Mistletoe – the belief being that Mistletoe is best grown on the Oak as Mistletoe’s most powerful host, (a belief strengthened by the opinion of the 17th century herbalist, Culpepper). Ivy is representative of the Goddess; mother of both Kings, both Kings also being her consort – again powerful ideas of duality.

Mistletoe has a most compelling and influential history. According to ancient Druid tradition, Mistletoe was the most sacred of all plants. Mistletoe was used by the Druid priesthood in a very special ceremony; held five days after the New Moon following winter solstice. The Druid priests would cut Mistletoe from a holy Oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. The priest then divided the branches into sprigs and dispersed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection. The folklore, and the magickal powers of this plant, have blossomed over time, although most are now forgotten. It was believed it had miraculous properties that could cure illnesses, antidote poisons, ensure fertility and protect against witchcraft. It was also a sign of peace and goodwill. When warring tribes came across Mistletoe, a temporary truce would be observed until the next day.

However, although Mistletoe carries a broad array of customs, and benefits in ancient times, the tradition which has lived on is that concerning fertility and love. According to most current day traditions, a young woman stands under the mistletoe and awaits her lover's kiss. But from where did this tradition spring? It is considered that Mistletoe and kissing tradition is borne of a Norse myth.

The Norse god Balder was son of Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son to such a degree that she had the four elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth- promise that they would not harm her son. However, Loki, an evil spirit, found the one thing that could defy this promise - mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood, which was shot at Balder's heart, and he fell dead, and Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. Balder is however, restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant--making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.

In the true spirit of Yule, focus your celebrations as a family upon love, and the fact that every ending is a new beginning. There are many simple rituals that you can enjoy as a family, to seal your bonds and celebrate each other at this magickal time of year.

Yule Celebrations and Activities


With family togetherness in mind, there are many wonderful ways of celebrating Yule. A lovely way to combine Yule and Christmas is to make gifts with your children to give to other family members and friends. Not only is this a lot of fun, it is also a wonderful way to show how much you care about someone – shun store-bought gifts that are over-priced and mass-manufactured! Spend the day of Yule together around the kitchen table creating gifts and decorations, ready for your evening celebrations!

Yule Morning - Yule Log Walk


Materials: Warm Clothes, boots or Wellingtons, bags.

In the morning (this does not necessarily need to be Yule morning, a crisp, dry morning will do up to a week before Yule itself), wrap up warm and head for the park, or woods. As you walk along, looking for that special Yule log to place in your hearth. Oak, Ash and Cedar make the best Yule logs, but remember make sure it will be the right size to fit in your fireplace! If you don't have a fireplace, select a smaller log, which is flat on one side so that it won’t roll. Also look for natural decorations for each member of the family: Ivy, mistletoe, (be mindful that mistletoe is a poisoness plant!), pinecones, nuts, holly, etc. Only take things that have naturally fallen, (including your log if possible), as many species are protected, such as Holly.
 

Yule Afternoon - Salt-Dough Decorations


These are wonderful gifts to give – decorations for the home or tree that have real sentimental value.

Materials:

200ml (1/3 pint) water, 300g (10oz) plain flour, 300g (10oz) salt, 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, cookie cutters, waxed paper, decorative thread or ribbon, acrylic paints, baking sheet.

Combine flour, salt, and water in a large bowl. If the dough seems sticky, add a little more flour. On a flat surface, lay down some waxed paper. Take a handful of the dough and roll out with a rolling pin. Cut dough into shapes with the cookie cutters. Make a hole in top of the decoration for the ribbon (a dry piece of spaghetti is good). Place on ungreased baking sheet and put in oven at 180 degrees Celsius, 350 degrees Fahrenheit, gas mark 4 for 8-10 minutes or until slightly brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool thoroughly. Paint with acrylic paints. Allow to dry, and thread your ribbon through the hole. Decorate your tree, wrap for gifts, or hang in windows.

Yule Afternoon - Sun Burst Ornaments

Materials:

Mug, scissors, thin card, gold foil paper, pencil, glue stick, thin ribbon or decorative thread and needle.

Using a mug, draw around it to make a cardboard template (ideally about a 4” circle). Using the template, trace and cut out 14 circles from the foil paper. One by one fold a circle in half, half, and half again. Unfold the circle and cut along the fold lines, stopping about ½ inch from the centre. Repeat until all the circles are cut. Form the points of the Sun by wrapping each of the eight segments around the point of a sharpened pencil (facing away from the centre). Secure the points with glue. Thread a needle with 18" length of thin ribbon or thread, and thread through all the centres of the circles from the foil side of the first seven and the plain side of the last seven. Gently pull the circles together to create a ball. Knot the ribbon, using excess to form a hanging loop. These look stunning hung in the windows as they reflect the winter sun beautifully. This is also a good opportunity to explain to how the sun gets stronger in the sky each day starting at Yule.

Yule Evening - Decorating Yule Log

Materials:

Holly, mistletoe, pinecones, evergreen sprigs, glue, florists wire, gold string/ribbon, apple cider, apple juice, flour.

Once your Yule log is clean, let the children decorate it however they chose using their collected items from earlier in the day, as well as golden ribbon and other appropriate items. Ensure that everyone has decorated the log, (glue, wire, or small holes in the log will help to adhere the decorations). Once the log is decorated, "wassail" (toast and douse) it with apple cider, (apple juice for the children!). Finally, dust the log with white flour, set in grate in fireplace, and (grown-ups only) set ablaze. Tell the children the story of the Yule Log - how Yule logs used to smoulder for 12 days before there was another ceremony to put the log out; how a part of the log was saved to be strapped to the plough the next spring to spread the blessings over the land, and another piece to light the next Yule's log, the following year.

Above all, have a very merry Yule!