The observance of winter solstice was very important in ancient times and its significance was obvious to early human civilizations. As the nights grew darker and longer, the days colder and shorter, and the rural folk faced lean times, it was imperative the sun be "lured" back to the earth.
Of the many pagan customs that eventually became the foundation of the Christian Christmas season, many were adapted from the Norse and their mythology. The celebration of the Yule month, or Thor's month, began on the night before the Solstice which they called the Mother Night...for it was in the darkness that the goddess Freya labored to bring Baldur, the young son (light) to birth once more. It was also a night for spirit contact and celebration with one's ancestors in much the same way that the Celts did at Samhain.
The festival itself was called Yule, derived from the Norse word Jul, means wheel, a symbol of the Sun revolving across the sky. It was traditionally held for 12 days or more, beginning on Mother Night and ending on January 6th. The most important symbols of Yule continue to live on in our modern Christmas celebrations. For example, the evergreen tree and holly which remain green throughout the long months of cold and darkness, were widely used in in the Pagan celebration of Yule because they hold promise that spring will once again return to the land.
Because ancient Norwegians believed the sun was returning, as part of their Winter Solstice celebration, the Vikings would cut a huge log, drag it back to the village and set it on fire. This Yule Log was supposed to drive away the evil spirits and bring good luck to the people as well as welcome back the sun. From Scandinavia, the Yule log custom spread through the European content and England. Some decked out their Yule log with greenery, ribbons, and paper flowers and sang Yuletide songs as they dragged it home.
Thousands of years ago, the Scandinavian god, Odin, rode through the world at Midwinter bringing reward or punishment, and Thor, his son, came from the far North. His color was red, and at Midwinter, he fought the gods of ice and snow ...conquering the cold. The elves connected with our current Santa Claus are remnants of the supernatural nature folk of the Old Religion, and our modern custom of leaving cookies and milk for Santa is most likely a modern continuation of leaving offerings for the Alvar and other nature folk. Although usually associated with Santa, many believe that the reindeer, northern animals, actually represent the stags that drew the chariot of Freya, the Sun Goddess of the North.
|For the Norse, it was a time of rejoicing for the labors of the old year were done, and the laborers were ready to rest before beginning the round afresh for the new year. The earth, too, takes Her rest at this season and lies asleep under her covering of snow...so that all the seeds may be matured in her bosom and burst into life when the spring is come. |
For many of us, this is also a time of cold and darkness. It is a time for balancing our spirit, our nature, our physical bodies as we, too, await the season of rebirth. Our meditations should focus on the hidden energies lying dormant within the earth and within ourselves. It is a time of returning hope. Yule reminds us to take care of the earth and all of her creatures in this magical season of hope and good will.