Celtic Traditions: Yule

Our Scottish ancestry is rich in Celtic traditions

The Celts follow an Earth based seasonal wheel. The Celtic year is divided into two halves, the dark beginning with Samhain and the light beginning with Beltane. In between these are Imbolc and Lughnasadh/Lammas. These key points of the Celtic year were recognized as doorways, when the veil between the worlds are thinnest.

These quarters are further divided by the solstices and equinoxes:  Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, and Autumn Equinox. These were referred to as the Albans.

We’re all familiar with the solstices as they are noted as the longest (summer) and shortest (winter) days of the year. The word is derived from the Latin sol meaning sun and sistere meaning to stand still.

Equinoxes also occur twice a year, when day and night are equal lengths. In fact, the word is derived from the Latin aequus meaning equal and nox meaning night.

yule-log-centerpiece_6539167667_dcfba60741_bToday is Yule 

Yule is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, falling on December 21st or 22nd. It is the rebirth of the Sun, the days getting longer from this point on. The Goddess once again becomes the Great Mother giving birth to the new Sun King.

Yule is a fire festival for the Celts. Like the summer solstice, it’s a fertility and continuation of life festival. However, unlike the summer solstice, Yule focuses are more private and domestic. Thus the Yule Log.

You may be familiar with the tradition of burning a Yule log at Christmas time. Once lit, it should burn until deliberately extinguished but never allowed to burn away completely. The ashes from the Yule log were often used to make protective, healing, or fertilizing charms.

Or the Yule candle, lit on Christmas Eve and rekindled each successive night until extinguished on the Twelfth Night.

Or to embrace the Scottish, Oidche Choinnle (Night of Candles in Scots Gaelic), we put a candle in our front window to light the way of “strangers” each Christmas Eve. (For more on the history behind Oidche Choinnle I refer you to an old post by Julie of Celtic Lady:  Night of Candles.)

Yule Wassail (wes-hal is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning be of good health or be whole) recipe:

3 red apples, 3 oz. brown sugar, 2 pints brown ale or apple cider, ½ pint dry sherry or dry white wine, ¼ tsp. cinnamon, and ¼ tsp ginger strips or lemon peel.

Core and heat apples with sugar and some of the ale in an oven for 30 minutes. Place in large pan and add rest of spices and lemon peel, simmer on stove for 5 minutes. Add most of the alcohol at the last minute so it heats up but does not evaporate. Burgundy and brandy can be substituted for the ale and sherry. White sugar and halved oranges may be added to taste. Makes 8 servings.

Some activities to embrace:

  • Make or purchase a Yule wreath and have family members gather around – consider the cycles of nature and share something you each appreciate about winter.
  • A Solstice feast, begin with a prayer of thanksgiving and end with a pie or cake with an image of the sun on it.
  • Yule Log:  an oak log and a fireplace/bonfire area are needed here. Tell the tale of the Oak King and the Holly King. Dim the lights, contemplate the past year, then light the Yule log. As it burns, each member of the family throws in dried holly springs and says farewell to the past year. Once the Yule log is blazing, each member of the family throws in an oak twig or acorn to represent the year ahead. Let the Yule log burn down to a few chunks of wood and ashes (save these remnants for the start of the Yule log next year) and extinguish the log.
  • Bell ringing, either as part of a circle ceremony in and of itself or incorporated into another celebration such as the Yule log.
  • Decorate a Yule tree, you probably already have one…you just call it a Christmas tree.
  • Communion with winter’s nature, feed the birds or other wild creatures (safely of course).
  • Share stories.
  • Exchange gifts.

May you have a Blessed Yule, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Sherri Siggy


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