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Yule and Winter Solstice
How do Wiccans and today's Pagans celebrate what other people call Christmas? In December 2005 Dr Leo Ruickbie was asked for his opinion.
Dr Leo Ruickbie was contacted by Catherine Boyle of The Irish News and interviewed on 12th/13th December, 2005. Below you will find a transcript of his original reply.
[Catherine Boyle, 12 December 2005 14:25]
I am writing an article for the Irish News about alternative ways of celebrating Christmas. I am really interested in including an account of celebrating Yule/Winter Solstice.
[Catherine Boyle, 12 December 2005 15:44]
I've put a list of questions below. It would also be really helpful if you could let me know if there are any Irish Witch/Wicca people I should talk to as well.
- Could you describe a typical Yule/Winter Solstice ceremony?
[Leo Ruickbie, 13 December 2005 12:33]
Yule celebrations in Wicca date back to the late 1950s. Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, did not include the solar celebrations of Solstice and Equinox in his original four-fold Sabbat structure of the late 1940s. However, since its introduction, along with Summer Solstice and the two Equinoxes, it has become an essential component of the eight Sabbats observed almost universally amongst modern Pagans.
Not everyone nowadays follows the procedure laid down by Gardner, but elements of it are commonly found in most Pagan celebrations. Most Yule rituals will involve the casting of a circle, a ritual symbolising the rebirth of the solar deity, dancing round the circle and the feasting ceremony of ‘cakes and wine’. Other Wiccan covens might base their ritual on the passing of power from the Holly King to the Oak King – a concept derived from British folklore.
- What links/similarities are there between modern Christmas traditions (tree, Santa Claus, eating enough to feed a Third World family for a week and so on) and Yule/Winter Solstice celebrations? And, just to clarify, do you prefer the festival to be called Yule or Winter Solstice?
[LR] The festival itself is entirely Pagan in origin. It might be more appropriate to ask what links are there between Christian Christmas traditions and our modern Christmas. But the answer would not detain us very long. The use of a ‘Christmas tree’ in the UK and Ireland is a recent addition, but might be seen as connected to older Yule log traditions and decorating the house with other evergreen plants like holly and ivy. Riga in Latvia claims to have been the site of the first recorded tree in the sixteenth century, but some have seen links with the Norse world-tree. Echoes of old Druidic fertility rites survive in ‘kissing under the mistletoe’. Santa Claus has been Christianized as Saint Nicholas, but the tradition of a gift-bearing man arriving at mid-winter can be traced back to Wotan (Odin) in Germanic folklore.
Feasting is a large part of all Pagan traditions and at Christmas this is still a principle element. The focus of the meal around a specific animal is certainly a residue of animal sacrifice, although the popularity for turkey is a modern development. We should not be squeamish about animal sacrifice, it simply meant butchering an animal for the benefit of the community with a small and usually inedible portion being ‘given’ to the gods. Modern sensibilities are usually too cosseted to even contemplate killing a chicken, so we should not condemn the past on our own rather feeble standards.
Of the two terms Yule and Winter Solstice, Yule is the older and indeed Pagan term for the astronomical event of the Winter Solstice, but both might be used, as might other terms like Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival. Within Northern Europe Yule is the more ‘archaicly correct’ term and the fact that it still survives in our language makes it a natural choice.
- Do many witches celebrate Christmas (in a secular present-giving way) as well?
[LR] I should think that almost all of them do. Calls to ban Christmas and not celebrate it have always come from within sections of the Christian community (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witnesses) who, quite rightly, see Christmas as a Pagan festival.
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