Human beings have been aware of the Winter Solstice – the crux point of “the season” – for thousands of years, and making up light-filled ways to celebrate it. The farther away from the Equator they lived, the more unsettling they found the shortening hours of daylight as the Solstice drew nearer. What if the sun went away and never came back? Wise and experienced village elders undoubtedly reassured their younger counterparts that the days would lengthen again, that there would be more harvests. This might have been the very earliest human manifestation of the concept of “faith,” eventually to be dignified by Christianity as one of the three Cardinal Virtues.
But some people probably still worried enough about the cold and the dark and the dwindling larders to figure that a little sacrifice to the gods couldn’t hurt. Fire being an earthbound manifestation of solar energy, it was reasoned that building a really big outdoor fire – preferably in a high place where the sun would be sure to see it – might be flattering to the sun god, or a way of summoning him/her back from his/her southward wanderings. Among the Celts, the Winter Solstice thus became one of the annual Fire Festivals, with bonfires an essential part of the ritual.
Build a bonfire
Incidentally, the word bonfire literally means “bone fire”: When properly dried, animal bones burn well enough, but their charnel odor wasn’t deemed very appealing for indoor spaces, so they would be saved for use as fuel outdoors. Fire-festival rituals sometimes involved fertility or divination: Herders would drive their flocks between two fires in the belief that the smoke would enhance their ability to breed, and women wishing to conceive would leap over the fire. Oatcakes called bannocks would be baked at the edge of the fire, with tiny silver charms in a variety of shapes hidden in the batter. Whatever you bit into would forecast your fortunes in the year to come.
If you’re looking for ways to manifest your inner Pagan, a bonfire can be a festive way to go, if you have the right outdoor space. A firepit or stone fire ring is best, obviously, but any vegetation-free spot can be made to work if you have a burn permit and adequate means nearby to control the spread of your fire. I used to use a bare clay drainage swale, when I had a backyard, and accumulated scrap wood for the purpose for months in advance. Singing, chanting and dancing typically accompany the burning ritual.
Yule logs are oak or ash
The Yule log, burnt indoors in a fireplace, is another tradition that dates back many centuries in Germanic and Scandinavian countries. Long before Yule was taken to mean the same thing as Christmas, the word (possibly derived from a Saxon root meaning “wheel”) referred to the season hinging on the Winter Solstice, ranging in length from three days to two whole months. Haakon I, a tenth-century king of Norway, is said to have decreed that Yule must be celebrated until all the ale runs out, however long that took, with fines imposed on holdouts. Feasting on lots of meat was also a popular custom, with the practical benefit that less fodder would be required to keep livestock alive until the following spring. So the concept of overindulging in “holiday cheer” predates Christianity in Europe as well.
If you have a fireplace and want to start a family tradition of burning a Yule log, here are some basics: First, for luck, the log should be either harvested on one’s own land or received as a gift – never tainted by the exchange of money. (Put one on your wish list ASAP.) Second, the most appropriate types of wood to use are ash, associated with Yggdrasil the World Tree in Norse mythology, and oak, associated with the solar deity whose reign begins with the Winter Solstice, the Oak King.
The Oak King corresponds to Odin, of course, who in turn corresponds to Santa Claus. Druids of old would go into oak groves on the day of the Winter Solstice to cut sprigs of that magical parasite, mistletoe, with a golden sickle and catch it in a cloth so that it never touched the ground. In Norse mythology, mistletoe was the only substance that could kill the shining god Baldur – another solar deity – and the famed folklorist Sir James Frazer identified the plant as the Golden Bough that enabled Aeneas to visit Hades and return safely in the Aeneid.
Conveniently, both ash and oak make superior, long-burning firewood. The proper traditional way to burn a Yule log involves dousing all the lights and fires in your home, then lighting a candle – or better yet, a remnant from the previous Yule’s log – to kindle a “newfire” for the coming year. Decorated with red ribbons and holly leaves and dusted with flour for prosperity, the log is supposed to burn slowly and steadily for as long as possible, and not allowed to go out on its own or burn down to nothing. Someone should be on hand to extinguish it when only a small fragment remains. Kept within the house, that fragment was once believed to protect the structure from lightning strikes.
If you don’t have a fireplace, or a good source for a free oak or ash log, a candle-lighting ritual is an excellent substitute. Place one red taper for each family member in a circle on a table, with a larger red pillar candle in the center. Turn off all the lights; hold hands quietly, contemplating the internalized peace of darkness and longing for the sun’s exuberant return. Then, light the central candle, and let each family member take turns lighting one smaller candle from its flame to represent them. Set the lit candles back on the table and allow them to burn down.
Or you might want to make up your own family solstice ritual. Bear in mind that light should be an important element. There’s a reason why the ancient Britons precisely aligned megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge and Newgrange to frame the sun at dawn, noon or sunset on the Winter Solstice. Other cultures around the world did this as well, one New World example being the famous “Sun Dagger” superimposed on a spiral petroglyph in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon.
Hot tubs filled with yuzu fruits
Evergreen plants, especially those with red fruits such as holly and bayberry, make outstanding household decorations that span the cultural divide between the Christian and Pagan notions of Yuletide. Red, orange and gold all qualify as solar colors. In Japan, people take relaxing soaks on the Winter Solstice in tubs or hot springs with fragrant, bright-yellow, sun-shaped yuzu fruits floating in the water. Mithraic Persian traditions for the solstice holiday called Yalda involve feasting on round red pomegranates, along with lighting bonfires that burn all night long. Today, no animal sacrifice is necessary, but providing ample food and drink to fuel your family and guests through a long cold winter’s night is a perennially festive tradition.
So, never mind Christmas or New Year’s Eve; what will you be doing on the night of December 21?