Offering someone “yuletide greetings” may seem simply an antiquated Christmas phrase, but despite all their similarities, Christmas and Yule are two separate celebrations. Yule, which honors the winter solstice, has no clear and direct history thanks in part to the number of cultures that celebrated the slow shift to longer daylight hours. However, some historians theorize that the holiday’s symbols and traditions were co-opted by Christian leaders in the Northern Hemisphere in an effort to slowly embed Christianity and replace Pagan beliefs — though, in many ways, this gave the Pagan traditions a safe cover to continue on. In modern times, people looking for a secular winter celebration often land on Yule, allowing the 12-day holiday to reemerge as a way to honor our place in the natural world.
At its core, Yule honors the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Also called Midwinter, the holiday recognizes the wheel of life — the cycle of life, death, and rebirth reflected in nature’s seasonal changes. Yule celebrations begin on the winter solstice (which always falls on December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere) and last 12 days, providing a moment of merriment in a season where survival was historically difficult.
Yule is often attributed to German and Scandinavian cultures, but the idea of celebrating the longest night of the year (and coming warmer, longer days) spans the globe. Europeans did shape much of the Yule traditions we know today, but the solstice was also honored by the Egyptians, whose falcon-bodied god Horus was reborn each winter solstice. Greeks feasted in honor of Poseidon, lighting bonfires and gifting women various fertility-themed cakes; Romans took part in Saturnalia, a week of merry mischief that included feasts and gift-giving. And ancient Celtic Druids held ceremonies involving mistletoe. Archaeologists and historians believe stone structures and ceremonial mounds in Ireland, Peru, Mexico, India, and England were tributes to the sun’s cosmic shift. Recognizing the sun’s importance, and reflecting it with bonfires, candles, and light was a huge emphasis of almost all early celebrations among agricultural societies.
While modern decorations and symbolism are generally European-derived (and seemingly similar to Christmas), the solstice’s importance across cultures allows Yule to be inclusive of everyone, regardless of ancestry, religion, or cultural background.
Symbols of Yule
Many of the holiday decorations placed around our homes to celebrate the winter season are influenced by German and Scandinavian Yule, with subtle meanings that honor the concepts of death and rebirth. Candles and fires were used to signify the sun, beckoning its return while keeping the home safe from wandering winter demons. Evergreen boughs, which remained green when all other trees dropped their leaves, were formed into wreaths and sprays that decorated doorways and mantles to protect dwellers from death. Evergreen trees remained outdoors, decorated with berries, fruit, and nuts to attract wildlife. Other greens, such as holly and mistletoe, were seen as sacred plants that survived winter’s chill and provided protection from unwanted spirits. Yule logs, a symbol that remains today, were large chunks of wood decorated and doused with salt and wine before burning over the course of the festivities. Lore suggests that a portion of the year’s log would be saved to start the next Yule’s fire, and the ashes were kept to protect the home from lightning strikes — a real fear at a time when most houses were made of fire-prone wood and thatching.
Beyond the decor of Yule, two figures symbolize the coming solar change. The Oak and Holly Kings, brothers who share the task of ruling the seasons, switch places at Yule. The Holly King, who brings shorter days and cooler weather, loses his power at yuletide, and the Oak King’s longer sunlit days and warmer weather regains the throne until the summer solstice.
As for the length of celebration, there’s no clear answer as to why nearly two weeks are dedicated to Yule, especially since the number of solstice celebration days varied among cultures. However, some Pagans believe the number 12 was used to bestow a day of worship upon different Nordic deities, such as Frigga, Freya, and Thor. (While Yule runs for 12 days, yuletide generally refers to the entire month of December, giving maximum time for festivities.)
How Yule Is Celebrated
Yule’s composite background leaves a lot of room for interpretation — unlike many holidays around this time with specific religious ceremonies and traditions, two people who celebrate Midwinter might do so in very different ways. But this patchwork of ideas makes the holiday customizable across ethnic and cultural backgrounds, allowing you to tailor traditions and activities to carry unique intentions and meanings.
People who identify as Pagan or Wiccan may perform rituals that honor the cycle of life represented by the sun’s waxing and waning. Constructing an altar is one option; building a centerpiece with candles, pinecones, evergreens, and other gathered items can pay tribute to a specific deity associated with the sun or nature (such as Odin, Isis, or the Green Man). Some Midwinter recitations and ceremonies are performed with family and friends, while other spirituality-based rituals might be pursued alone, like meditating and reflecting on the year ahead.
For most Yule observers, spending time outdoors is a significant component of the season. Because Yule encourages us to reconnect with the natural world and our place within it, forest bathing, observing wildlife, or just taking a winter walk are simple ways to honor the season. Bringing nature inside is also common; decorating your home with Yule symbols such as evergreen wreaths, holly or mistletoe, and trees can add yuletide cheer to the celebration. Yule is also a time to try out nature crafting — the art of gathering natural items from your backyard or a nearby wooded area (pinecones, acorns, or perhaps some sliced and dried fruits) and creating decor or gifts.
Like many holidays this time of year, Midwinter focuses on giving back to others and the world around us. Honoring the natural world and the home it provides can be done by leaving offerings for wildlife — something as simple as filling bird feeders, leaving corn and nuts for squirrels, or pre-ordering trees to plant in the spring. In the same spirit, helping others, whether by donating toys or funds to a charity or offering your time to assist a neighbor, is encouraged.
And, like any good holiday, gathering with friends and family to share a meal is a tenet of Yule. While there’s no one traditional meal, savory dishes are popular, including roasted turkey or ham, plum pudding, mulled wine, and Yule log cakes.
Yule’s festivities overlap with the restart of the Gregorian calendar, connecting it to the ideas of self-improvement, forgiveness, and a rebirth of our better selves celebrated at the New Year. Some choose to honor these intentions by letting go of grudges and debts or by setting personal goals for the year ahead — a tradition that spans all holidays, religions, and cultures for centuries past and to come.