Yule approaches. This Saturday, in the late afternoon, the sun will appear at its lowest apex in our daytime skies, signaling the shift from days of light waning into days of light waxing. This nadir is a tipping point, creating the longest night and shortest day each year, and this was a tremendously significant moment to many northern cultures (my own Highland and Norse ancestors included).
Historically (because what’s a BCC post without some history!) the solstice was celebrated by widely varied northern cultures, but there are common, remarkable themes to those celebrations. Of note, because it’s difficult to calculate the azimuth , many celebrations of the solstice were over a period of days. 
The moment when the sun reached its nadir and once again began its slow climb to dominance in the skies was a time to rejoice. This was all the more important to agrarian people who depended on metering their food supplies over the seasons, and for whom starvation was a very real threat (hi, ancestors!). It’s also probably not a coincidence that the drinks casked earlier in the year were likely done with their fermenting and ready to be enjoyed. So, on with the celebrations!
What we have when we consider Yule, the Solstice, and the celebration of the birth of Christ, are three different points fixing upon the same phenomena: the birth of Light. As a Christian, I celebrate the birth of the Savior on Christmas; despite awareness that it’s unlikely he was born in December. Given the deep symbolism and rich cultural history of Yule, and the beautiful, calculable science of the winter solstice, it’s all the more fitting and lovely that we celebrate the birth of Christ now.
It is truly not a coincidence that we celebrate the birth of our Savior at the darkest part of the year. The birth of Jesus is undated in the Gospels, and it wasn’t until around AD 273 that the church placed the Christmas celebration at midwinter. St Augustine, the Archbishop of Constantinople, frankly explained the Nativity had been so fixed in order that “while the heathen were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance”.
I suppose ‘profane’ or ‘holy’ depends on your viewpoint. In pre-Christian pagan Europe, at midwinter, the Goddess, giver of life, gives birth to the Sun King, who then grows and rises with the year. The Goddess had companions, but she belonged to no king. It’s easy to see the parallels between the ancient ideas of a sacred woman vessel bearing a king…
We see themes the birth of light in many traditions.
In Scandinavia, for St. Lucia Day, a young woman, dressed in white with a red sash, wears a crown of evergreen boughs with candles. Traditionally, only a young woman can perform this role, and is frequently the eldest daughter. Her job is to chase away winter and bring back the light.
In Slavic cultures, Koleda was a midwinter festival where a family made a fire in their hearth and invited others to share of their light, and children would visit neighboring houses, singing in exchange for treats.
The Saturnalia was a midwinter grand public festival and banquet for the Romans, where masters served slaves and the renewal of light for the coming year was celebrated. Candles and light were to represent the seeking of truth and knowledge.
The Druids would travel deep into the forest to harvest mistletoe, whose evergreen leaves and white berries were regarded as restorative and sacred. Bonfires were lit in the fields, and the flames were “wassailed” with toasts of cider. A Yule log was given as a gift, or harvested from ones own land, never bought.
Frankly, I love being aware of these traditions and knowing some of where the things I love about Christmas come from- it find it beautiful and comforting. I love that science (the solstice!), northern European cultural history (Yule!) and my own faith tradition (Hallelujah, Christ is born!) all share a similar mythos and visual symbolism. It enriches my understanding and makes the world just a little bit more beautiful.
So when you lift your cup of Mormon wassail this year, raise your voice in song, drink deeply, and know that you’re not just enjoying a lovely (non-fermented) holiday treat, you’re also drinking history. Clear out your holly (from the waning year) and bring in the ivy (the coming light). The Druids would approve.
1. But they did it anyway. The azimuth is the angle between the north vector and the perpendicular projection of the star down onto the horizon, thus:
2. The difficulty of that calculation makes prehistoric sites like Stonehenge, the Temple of Karnak, Glastonbury Tor, and Chichen Itza, who all have precise orientation at the solstice, all the more marvelous.
3. The etymology of the word Yule is not tidy- it’s often associated with the Norse iul, meaning wheel, and is tied to pre-Christian ideas of feasting, seasons and particularly, to Odin, a Norse god with a long white beard. Hmmmm… who’s got a beard that’s long and white..?