Midwinter Night’s Eve: Yule by Mike Nichols

To be it wouldn’t be a Sabbat without an article from Mike Nichols. He is absolutely, fabulous Pagan writer. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I do.

 

Midwinter Night’s Eve: Yule
by Mike Nichols

Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how enthusiastically we Pagans  celebrate the ‘Christmas’ season.  Even though we prefer to use the word ‘Yule’, and our  celebrations may peak a few days before the 25th, we nonetheless follow many of the  traditional customs of the season: decorated trees, carolling, presents, Yule logs, and  mistletoe.  We might even go so far as putting up a ‘Nativity set’, though for us the three  central characters are likely to be interpreted as Mother Nature, Father Time, and the Baby  Sun-God.  None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who knows the true history of the  holiday, of course.

In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always been more Pagan than  Christian, with it’s associations of Nordic divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman  Mithraism.  That is why both Martin Luther and John Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans  refused to acknowledge it, much less celebrate it (to them, no day of the year could be  more holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even made illegal in Boston!  The holiday  was  already too closely associated with the birth of older Pagan gods and heroes.  And many of  them (like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus, Apollo, Mithra, Horus and  even Arthur) possessed a narrative of birth, death, and resurrection that was uncomfortably  close to that of Jesus. And to make matters worse, many of them pre-dated the Christian  Savior.

Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle of the year.  It is the  Winter Solstice that is being celebrated, seed-time of the year, the longest night and  shortest day.  It is the birthday of the new Sun King, the Son of God — by whatever name  you choose to call him.  On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother  and once again gives birth.  And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of  the winter, ‘the dark night of our souls’, there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred  Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.

That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as Christians.  Perhaps even  more so, as the Christians were rather late in laying claim to it, and tried more than once  to reject it.  There had been a tradition in the West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the  twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month. Finally, in 320 C.E., the  Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make it December, in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic  celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.

There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose was historically  accurate.  Shepherds just don’t ‘tend their flocks by night’ in the high pastures in the  dead of winter!  But if one wishes to use the New Testament as historical evidence, this  reference may point to sometime in the spring as the time of Jesus’s birth.  This is  because the lambing season occurs in the spring and that is the only time when shepherds  are likely to ‘watch their flocks by night’ — to make sure the lambing goes well.  Knowing  this, the Eastern half of the Church continued to reject December 25, preferring a ‘movable  date’ fixed by their astrologers according to the moon.

Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one knew when Jesus was  supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally began to catch on.  By 529, it was a  civic holiday, and all work or public business (except that of cooks, bakers, or any that  contributed to the delight of the holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor Justinian.  In  563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four years later the  Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred,  festive season.  This last point is perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader,  who is lucky to get a single day off work.  Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a  single day, but rather a period of twelve days, from December 25 to January 6.  The Twelve  Days of  Christmas, in fact.  It is certainly lamentable that the modern world has abandoned this  approach, along with the popular Twelfth Night celebrations.

Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to many countries no faster than  Christianity itself, which means that ‘Christmas’ wasn’t celebrated in Ireland until the  late fifth century; in England, Switzerland, and Austria until the seventh; in Germany  until the eighth; and in the Slavic lands until the ninth and tenth. Not that these  countries lacked their own mid-winter celebrations of Yuletide.  Long before the world had  heard of Jesus, Pagans had been observing the season by bringing in the Yule log, wishing  on it, and lighting it from the remains of last year’s log.  Riddles were posed and  answered, magic and rituals were practiced, wild boars were sacrificed and consumed along  with large quantities of liquor, corn dollies were carried from house to house while  carolling, fertility rites were practiced (girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were  subject to a bit more than a kiss), and divinations were cast for the coming Spring.  Many  of these Pagan customs, in an appropriately watered-down form, have entered the mainstream  of Christian celebration, though most celebrants do not realize (or do not mention it, if  they do) their origins.

For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Yula’, meaning ‘wheel’ of the year) is  usually celebrated on the actual Winter Solstice, which may vary by a few days, though it  usually occurs on or around December 21st.  It is a Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the  modern Pagan calendar, one of the four quarter-days of the year, but a very important one.   This year (1988) it occurs on December 21st at 9:28 am CST.  Pagan customs are still  enthusiastically followed. Once, the Yule log had been the center of the celebration.  It  was lighted on the eve of the solstice (it should light on the first try) and must be kept  burning for twelve hours, for good luck.  It should be made of ash.  Later, the Yule log  was replaced by the Yule tree but, instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on  it.  In Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented the custom, and  Catholics might grant St. Boniface the honor, but the custom can demonstrably be traced  back through the Roman Saturnalia all the way to ancient Egypt.  Needless to say, such a  tree should be cut down rather than purchased, and should be disposed of by burning, the  proper way to dispatch any sacred object.

Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe were important plants  of the season, all symbolizing fertility and everlasting life.  Mistletoe was especially  venerated by the Celtic Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the  moon, and believed it to be an aphrodisiac.  (Magically — not medicinally!  It’s highly  toxic!)  But aphrodisiacs must have been the smallest part of the Yuletide menu in ancient  times, as contemporary reports indicate that the tables fairly creaked under the strain of  every type of good food.  And drink!  The most popular of which was the ‘wassail cup’  deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon term ‘waes hael’ (be whole or hale).

Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless: that animals will all kneel down as the Holy  Night arrives, that bees hum the ‘100th psalm’ on Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas  will bring good luck, that a person born on Christmas Day can see the Little People, that a  cricket on the hearth brings good luck, that if one opens all the doors of the house at  midnight all the evil spirits will depart, that you will have one lucky month for each  Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck  is sure to follow, that ‘if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we shall see’, that  ‘hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the month of May’, that one can use the  Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the weather for each of the twelve months of the coming  year, and so on.

Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based upon older Pagan customs,  it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim their lost traditions.  In doing so, we can  share many common customs with our Christian friends, albeit with a slightly different  interpretation.  And thus we all share in the beauty of this most magical of seasons, when  the Mother Goddess once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and sets the wheel in motion  again.  To conclude with a long-overdue paraphrase, ‘Goddess bless us, every one!’

OIMELC – February 2

OIMELC – February 2

Down with Rosemary and so
Down with baies and mistletoe;
Down with Holly, live and all
Wherewith ys drest the Yuletide Hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least Branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.
–Robert Herrick

Oimelc – Imbolc in the Saxon – marks the first stirring of life in the earth.
The Yule season originally ended at Oimelc. But with increasing organization and
industrialization, increasing demands for labor and production, the holiday kept
shrinking, first to the two weeks ending at Twelfth Night, then to a single week
ending at New Year’s, then to a single day.

Oimelc begins a season of purification similar to that preceding Yule. It ends
at Ostara. No marriages, initiations or puberty rites should be celebrated
between Oimelc and Ostara.

The candles and torches at Oimelc signify the divine life-force awakening
dormant life to new growth.

THEMES

Growth of roots begin again. Bare branches begin to swell with leaf buds, and
growth appears at the tips of evergreen branches. The tools of agriculture are
being make ready for Spring.

Xian feasts of St. Brigid, and Celtic feast of Brigit, the maiden aspect of the
triple goddess and mother of Dagda. Her symbol is the white swan. A Roman feast
of Bacchus and Ceres. The Lupercalia, a feast of Pan. The Nephelim or Titans,
those offspring of human-divine unions said to have ruled Atlantis.

Grannus, a mysterious Celtic god whom the Romans identified with Apollo.

PURPOSE OF THE RITES

To awaken life in the Earth. Fire tires to strengthen the young Sun, to bring
the fertilizing, purifying, protective and vitalizing influence of fire to the
fields, orchards, domestic animals, and people. To drive away winter. To charm
candles for household use throughout the year.

FOLK CUSTOMS

The three functions of Oimelc – end of Yule, feast of candles or torches, and
beginning of a purificatory season – are divided by the Xian calendar among
Twelfth Night, Candlemas and Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras, Carnival). The customs
of all three feasts are derived from Oimelc, with at most a thin Xian gloss.

Parades of giant figures (Titans?) in rural towns in France and at Mardi Gras
and Carnival celebrations. A figure representing the Spirit of Winter or Death,
sometime made of straw, sometimes resembling a snowman, is drowned, burnt or in
once case, stuffed with fireworks and exploded. They symbol of Montreal’s Winter
Carnival is the giant figure of Bonhomme di Neige (snowman).

Groundhog Day, Chinese New Year and St. Valentine’s Day customs.

The French provinces are so rich in Oimelc customs they cannot be listed here.
Refer to “The Golden Bough”.

Wassailing the trees: at midnight, carolers carry a bucket of ale, cider or
lamb’s wool in a torchlight procession through the orchards. The leader dips a
piece of toast in the drink and sedges it in the fork of each tree, with the
traditional cheer (variations exist) of: “Hats full, holes full, barrels full,
and the little heap under the stairs!”.

Who finds the bean in the Twelfth Night cake becomes king of the feast; who
finds the pea becomes queen – never mind the gender of the finders. Rag-bag
finery and gilt-paper crowns identify the king and queen. The rulers give
ridiculous orders to the guests, who must obey their every command. They are
waited on obsequiously, and everything they do is remarked and announced
admiringly and importantly: “The King drinks!”, “The Queen sneezes!” and
everyone politely imitates the ruler’s example.

SYMBOLIC DECORATIONS

Snowdrops are picked for vases, but otherwise no special decorative effects are
indicated. Go carnival, balloons and confetti.

SOCIAL ACTIVITIES

Parades, with showers of confetti, gala balls, masks, street dancing, mumming,
winter sports, ice and snow sculpture.

THE RITE

Dress in dark colors with much silver jewelry. Outdoors, after dark on the Even,
have the site arranged with a fire in the cauldron and the altar draped in
white, at the Northeast. The fire may be composed all or in part of Yule greens.

Go in a torchlight procession to the Circle. Include a stamping dance, possibly
beating the ground with sticks, before the Invocation. The invocation may end
with the calling of Hertha, a Teutonic goddess of the earth and the hearth. Call
her name three times and at each call beat on the ground three times with the
palms of both hands.

A figure representing Winter should be burned in the fire. Communion may consist
of Sabbat Cakes or a Twelfth Night cake (there are many traditional recipes) and
cider or wassail. A procession may leave the Circle for a time to wassail a
nearby orchard. Couples may leap the bonfire. Supplies of candles brought by the
coveners are blessed.

Boys puberty rites may be celebrated. These usually include mock plowing by the
boys.

Close the Circle and go indoors for the feast.