The feast of midwinter takes place on the Winter Solstice. It is not the middle of winter here, but really only a couple weeks in. Our winter lasts from pretty close to the end of November to April, though snow in October and April are quite common and frost can be expected in both September and May.
I have a lot to say about the Yuletide season and its various holidays. I celebrate Christmas with my family and a brief Yule Log Ritual on the day of the solstice. We have a Christmas tree and open presents on December 25th. I see no reason to argue about whose holiday it is because it’s ours. We are family. When Grandmas and cousins and siblings and nieces and nephews and uncles and aunties are all getting together to eat huge amounts of food and sing songs and exchange gifts. Who cares where it came from. It’s ours. Some of those people go to church before or after and we have to schedule around, but we don’t all. Some are Jewish, some are Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, atheist and me, the Polytheist. We’re cool. We don’t talk about politics and religion at family gatherings.
Midwinter is about appreciating the people in your life that make your life what it is.
We also take little ones to visit Santa to make their requests and get cute pictures. Because it’s fun.
The feast of Midwinter wears many names as it is nearly universal in cultures around the temperate world throughout human history. It marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day (and the longest night) of the year.
Many folks in the modern West celebrate Midwinter in the form of Christmas, a holiday intentionally synchronized by the Holy Roman Empire to blend Christian lore with Pagan lore. Christmas ostensibly celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, but even those who insist that “Christ is the reason for the season” know that December 25th is not likely to have been the actual day of his birth and that evergreen trees have nothing to do with their tradition though many stories have been put forth to explain the connection. (As a young Lutheran, I learned a story about Martin Luther seeing stars shining through evergreen boughs on winter’s night and being so struck by the beauty that he just had to share it, so he mimicked the effect for his congregation using candles on Christmas day.) In truth, many Gods associated with light (or goodness or enlightenment, if you like) and the Sun claim this birthday as it marks the day when the Sun is the weakest (as the Sun God would be on the day He is born), but in truth, the birth of a God is an excuse, it’s NOT the reason.
The reason Midwinter is a holiday of gathering, feasting and gift-giving is that, in all temperate climates, Midwinter marked the beginning of the “starvation season”, (and also the beer and wine that you set up to ferment at harvest time is about ready to taste). Many people died in the deep, darkness of winter; not just from starvation, but from hypothermia and, trying to keep warm, from asphyxiation and smoke inhalation and, since it’s not so easy to keep things clean when you can’t air them out in the sunshine, disease. Before electricity, automobiles and snowplows, freezing temperatures, deep snow and an early sunset meant that there would be few gatherings between Midwinter and the first spring thaw, so you weren’t likely to find out that your friends died until several weeks to months later. (Give the Spring Equinox death and rebirth theme a whole new twist, too, doesn’t it?) You gave them gifts; a sweater, a quilt, some jars of jam and pickles, to help them survive. You drank and ate and partied with them because this might be the last time you see them alive. And if you need a better reason than that, well, it can be God’s birthday. Which God? It doesn’t matter!
Many Pagans and witches choose to forego the Midwinter festivities either because it’s become so terribly commercial or because it has become so terribly Christian, but I don’t think we need to take it that far. We can make our own traditions that blend well with existing traditions and allow us to celebrate the season for its true meaning and purpose: Really appreciating the people in our lives. I say, celebrate with the ones you love as if it might be the last time.
Here are some common Midwinter, or Yuletide traditions that you may wish to incorporate into your celebration.
Deck the Halls with Evergreens
This is a Pagan tradition and it’s beautiful. In truth, this is an OK time to prune your evergreen trees and shrubs, so you may as well bring the boughs in to decorate your home with; remember many species of holly are evergreen too and many shrubs have attractive berries that persist on their branches through winter, to add a bit of color to you decor. You can make a centerpiece for your table, a wreath for your door or just hang them up all over to make things look bright and festive. If you don’t have evergreen trees to trim, all of this stuff is readily available at craft stores, or just about anywhere this time of year.
A decorated evergreen tree is the centerpiece of many Yuletide celebrations and you can embrace this and make it your own as well. Making ornaments together is a beautiful family activity. You can even make ornaments out of family pictures to remember everyone’s growth throughout the year or choose or make ornaments that represent major events that happened that year. Then, every year, when you decorate your tree, you can take a path down memory lane. I personally use a fake tree because I only had to buy it once, but many people prefer a real tree. It’s all up to you.
Many people choose to decorate a tree outdoors instead of an indoor tree. This is also a fun family activity and it doesn’t require the death of a tree or take up space in your living room. You may choose to decorate it with items created especially for the dining pleasure of your local wildlife by smearing pinecones with lard or suet and rolling them in birdseed to serve as ornametents and stringing fresh and dried fruit on strings to serve as garland.
Bringing evergreen boughs and bright, natural colors into the home brightens up the atmosphere by contrasting the dark of the outdoors. This is a bit of negation magick for your household.
The Yule Log
The Yule log is an ancient traditions kept alive by many modern Pagans. Those who have a fireplace may keep the Yule log burning all night long in their fireplace, while others create beautiful candle holders out of a piece of wood decorated with greenery and light the candles to symbolize the burning of the Yule log. These candle holders are simple enough to make. You choose a piece of wood that you like, drill holes in it to fit your candles, stick in the candles and decorate as suits you. Each family’s Yule log can be a unique creation and you can make a new one each year, or keep your Yule log year after year. The number of candles varies. Three is popular for several reasons. Many of our holidays are three-day festivals and Yule need be no different, and, of course, witches like the number three and that’s as good a reason as any. Twelve is also popular, allowing us to do a 12 days of Yuletide thing, lighting a new candle each day. Whatever works for you, works. The wood used also varies by tradition. Ash and birch and oak are most popular, Cherry is used too. These have correspondences that may be significant to you. Ash reminds us of the World Tree, Oak will burn best and is sacred to several Gods, Birch looks prettiest to my mind, Cherry smells nice. You probably don’t want to use an evergreen because those will burn too quickly.
But where did this tradition originate? With many things in Pagan history, the answer is not 100% clear. It’s pretty well settled that the Vikings started it and spread it around as they traveled and raided, along with quite a bit of their language and other bits of culture. Probably the Yule log originated as a sort of talisman against the dark forces of winter. As I already mentioned, winter and its associated darkness was full of things to fear, both material and paranormal. Spirits walked in darkness and death reaped his fullest harvest in the dark of winter, for many reasons. The night of the winter solstice was the longest period of darkness for the year, and thus, probably the most dangerous. How it was perceived probably varied quite a bit by location. In parts of Scandinavia you probably only saw a couple hours of sunlight, perhaps the sun didn’t even rise completely. The British isles got a few more hours, but not many. Some people probably didn’t perceive a great difference in the amount of sunlight in the days preceding and after the moment of the solstice, so they may have felt that this period lasted more than one night.
The Yule log, often a literal log, that is, a felled tree stripped of branches and decorated (or not) would be brought in and placed in the large central fire pit where the celebration was taking place, in some places in a communal hall where several families lived together, at least for the winter. In smaller homes, one end of the log would be pushed into the fireplace and with the rest protruding into the room and rest slowly pushed in as it burned. The fire would be kept burning bright all night, instead of banked as it would have otherwise have been, and, for safety, this required someone to stay up all night and keep an eye on it and perhaps several people would perform this duty, spending the night singing and carousing to pass the time and further chase away the darkness. (There are many cross-cultural traditions of using music, rhythms and just noise as a protective too. Originally, it probably scared away or at least discouraged predators.). This fire, burning all night (A night that maybe lasted about 20 hours or more) kept the darkness and the evils of winter at bay. In some cases, it was kept burning for more than one day, depending on the circumstances. The protective nature of the fire might then have been transferred ashes, giving rise to the tradition of scattering the ashes of the Yule log in the four corners of the house or around your property to protect it throughout the rest of the year, or the ashes may be added to your garden. Other traditions involving keeping a small un-burned or slightly charred piece of the Yule log somewhere in the house for the year to protect it from lightening are also observed.
In our modern Yule log traditions, I believe the most important part is to keep in mind that we are carrying on the traditions of our ancestors and that these traditions literally kept them alive through the winter. The Yule log can be one of the things that link us to our past. So in decorating and burning the log, or lighting the candles, we can use this time to tell stories of our ancestors and remind ourselves and our families and whoever else from the community is present, that the Yule log represented a circle of hope and safety for our ancestors in a world that held many more dangers than any of us face today and maybe take a moment to give thanks for the technologies that have decreased these dangers and also to remember those people around the world today who do not have the privelege of comparitive safety that we enjoy.
Giving gifts has become a tiresome commercial enterprise, but it had much more meaning for our ancestors and you may wish to look at it from a more primitive point of view, assuming you wish to engage the practice in your own tradition. I have already expounded in the introduction on the practice of giving gifts to people you cared about in order to not just show them you care, but also to help them survive the winter, there was another category of gift-giving that was equally important and that is the payment of reciprocal debt. You gave gifts for people who helped you survive the year, folks who helped with the harvest or in other ways during fatter times. Because you are just as like to die of cold, starvation, disease and etc. as anyone else and it’s no good dying with a debt on your conscience.
The idea of gifts as reciprocal payment for services rendered throughout the year is hearkened to with the idea of Santa Clause only bringing gifts to “good” boys and girls. But in the past, it wasn’t “goodness” but helpfulness that was rewarded and the punishment wasn’t a lump of coal, but death or torture. (Our ancestors were serious about being productive members of society.) The Icelandic tradition of the Yule Cat implied that those people hadn’t been helpful during harvesting season, and thus nobody owed them gifts, but they would get their just desserts through digestion by a monstrous cat. And then, of course there’s Krampus who will beat the naughty (I suspect originally the unhelpful) with birch boughs and/or toss them in a bag and take them to the underworld, possibly for dinner later.
In each category of gift-giving, the items presented would be useful. Not nick-nacks, but items created to be of use, or eaten, of course. In the case of a reciprocal gift, you might present something related to the service rendered. Someone who helped shear the sheep might get a sweater. Someone who helped plant or harvest crops might get a gift of food. As a Kitchen Witch, you may wish to provide a gift of food with blessings baked in.
For loved ones, including children, this is a good time to provide them with everything they need to thoroughly enjoy winter, socks, long johns, coat, snow pants, gloves, hats, boots. But these things might be a bit boring. I recommend wrapping it up with a book. For older folks, something to use in the kitchen or around the house might be nice. And remember, for children toys are useful things as play is how they learn, but we don’t want to overdo it. Someone once told me this little rhyme for buying Yuletide gifts for children: “Something to wear, something to read, something they want, and something they need.”
Santa Claus is the caricature of a Christian Saint. Many Pagans equate him to the Holly King and embrace him into their traditions, but many find him troublesome and would as soon do without him. I am one of those, mainly because I find the idea of him spying on us all year and sneaking into the house creepy (I mean, we invite the Switch Witch, Santa just shows up), and also because if I buy presents, I want credit for them. But because he’s so ubiquitous, I decided long ago it wasn’t worth fighting it. Santa brings one gift, only one, and little guy can go talk to him and ask him for it wherever we happen to run into him. What his purpose is, I let remain ambiguous. We don’t need a reason for everything. We’ve got a weird spirit-creature for all the other holidays, why not this one?
How you deal with Santa Claus is up to you.
Christmas lights, stars and general shiny things are negation magick against the dark and cold. Many folks choose to embrace this just to brighten up their atmosphere and keep it going well past New Year’s. You can decorate your house and yard using solar powered LEDs so you don’t have to run wires to the house.
Many ancient cultures believed that the dead walked during the long dark nights of winter and would leave candles in the window to guide their own dead home. Be safe and use artificial candles for this, unless you are able to keep close watch on your burning candles.
There is no other holiday that I can think of where cookies play such a prominent part. They are gifted, traded, used for decoration, left as offering for Santa and, of course, eaten. As a Kitchen Witch, I think cookies are perhaps the best foil for kitchen magick. Not only can we choose magical ingredients, but we can cut them into magical shapes and decorate them for 3x the magick. (There will be an article devoted solely to this topic soon. The experiments have begun.)
Cookies, bread and cakes make wonderful gifts and even without magick, they impart blessings on both giver and receiver. Creating them also offers the opportunity for family activity. Kids love baking, and they especially love decorating.
Singing and Carousing
Singing carols, wassailing and otherwise making merry are also part of the yuletide tradition. It goes right along with celebrating like it will be the last time as well as recalling the cross-cultural tendency to use loud noise and ruckus to scare off unfriendly spirits. Many modern Christmas carols are secular enough to pass at a Pagan gathering. Deck the Halls and Jingle Bells spring immediately to mind, but there are more Pagan carols out there, some quite old, some quite modern(some quite silly, some quite lovely). You can find some lists at the following sites:
Wassailing generally shows up in two variations. The one most people are familiar with involves visiting the neighbors, singing them some songs and offering them a drink from the Wassail bowl in exchange for some snacks or gifts. What’s in the Wassail bowl varies by location and time period, but it’s generally a hot, mulled punch. Mead, cider, or wine might be used, warmed and infused with spices like cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg and perhaps mixed with fruit juices. In Christian tradition, this is done on the 12th Night of Christmas. Here we Come A Wassailing is a traditional song for the occasion.
The more magical form, for those of us who grow our own foods, involves visiting your orchards (or gardens) and singing to the plants, presenting offerings, preferably created from their own fruits (pouring cider on the roots of apple trees, wine for grapes, for example) and generally doing magick to protect your perennials and trees through the winter and to ensure a good harvest next summer.
Of course there’s no reason the two traditions can’t be combined, passing through the orchard on the way to the neighbors or ending up in the orchard after a night of social wassailing.