Happy Yule

A little history: Once upon a time, long ago, I was a practicing Pagan. Generally, it’s not what many people imagine- Pagans, despite the use of the inverted pentacle, don’t believe in Satan or ritually practice violence. There was nothing unseemly, and other than conducting some rituals skyclad (naked), it was an interesting and rich period of my life.

In Paganism, there are four major and four minor holidays. Like most Pagan ritual, these holidays are based on the rhythms and cycles of the year. The four major celebrations coincide with the Solstices of summer and winter, and the Equinox of spring and fall. The minor celebrations land at the mid-point between the four major days. Their calendar is intimately tied with the turning of the year and the changing of the seasons.

Traditionally, the 22nd of December is known as Yule. This is the longest night of the year, when waning daylight, or the sun, has culminated its journey, from Midsummer, into the darkness of the year. The sun is literally at the nadir of the heavens. Darkness reigns.

But at the moment of greatest darkness, the sun figuratively dies, and light is again reborn. On the winter solstice, the sun will triumph over darkness, and light will once again gain it’s foothold in the world.

It is 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”. (For more on this history)

One of the wonderful things I was able to take from my time exploring Paganism is an appreciation for the darkness. Special things happen in the darkness- we need the dark in order to recognize light. Babies are conceived and grow in the darkness of the womb, seeds are planted and sprout in the darkness of the earth. We were cast into the darkness so that we might find faith.

In the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, we tend to chase away the darkness with our bright Christmas lights, with gayety and parties and rushing and stress. But this time of year calls us, requires something more of us- perhaps acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of life. Perhaps trusting in the unseen hand of the Lord- perhaps just not being afraid of the dark- we each may find our own gift in the darkness, if only we have faith.

While the literal birth-date of Jesus Christ was not in the depth of winter darkness, it is a fitting celebration nonetheless. The symbols we use, Pagan roots or not, have been given deep Christian meaning. The peasant peoples who began those seasonal celebrations long ago might not have understood what it was they were tapping into- but they were indeed celebrating the coming of the Son and Savior of the world.


  1. Thanks for this post. I agree with you, and I’ve always liked the symbolism of having Christmas right after the 22nd of December.

    And I laughed when I read “other than conducting some rituals skyclad (naked), it was an interesting . . . period of my life.” Naked rituals are usually interesting, if not fascinating. :)

  2. Yeah, I’ve always felt that not celebrating Christmas at the time of year when (in the Northern Hemisphere, natch) the sun turns the corner from darkness to light would be a waste.

    The story behind Easter’s date is, of course, equally related to old pre-Christian European religious traditions. And yet the time of year is equally perfect — once again, for the Northern Hemisphere…

  3. Great stuff, Tracy.

    I am reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s profound meditations on what he calls “prophetic energy” and the “embrace of the inscrutable darkness.” The darkness of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is Yahweh’s peculiar way of bringing an end to his empire, an affirmation that God “works both sides of the street.” Knowledge that God’s will can prevail comes not from understanding but from submission to His mysterious power, “on the move” in the deep darkness. There is a new and unspeakable, energizing freedom in finding One who can be “trusted with the darkness” and whose power can be trusted to outflank the power of the one earthly king who ostensibly rules the light. God’s power is manifested and embodied not in the imperial court but in the child of peasants in a tiny village whose only source of light against the dark of night is celestial, unpredictable, fleeting, and otherworldly.

  4. Oooo, Brad, that is positively lovely.

  5. Nick Literski says:

    I enjoyed your post, Tracy, right up until the first comment posted. I don’t know what I would say on the topic that would get anyone upset, let alone get me banned. To be honest, it was a cheap shot, and a bit hurtful.

    Regardless of who or what one sees as the “light of the world,” this time of year is indeed a powerful time to reflect on new beginnings, and the “one eternal round” by which we come to appreciate that light.

  6. Oh wow, Nick. It was meant to be funny, tongue-in-cheek. Once again, the inability to convey tone in a blog comment strikes. I’ve taken the comment down. Apologies.

  7. Nick Literski says:

    Sorry if I misunderstood you, Tracy, and thanks for your response. Feel free to delete my first paragraph as well, if you like.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Happy Yule, all. I’m so glad that we Mormons are pragmatists; that we can frankly acknowledge the pagan origins of so much of our celebratory ritual, and yet make it our own and revel in it nonetheless.

    I first learned of the Yule Log from a Dennis the Menace “Pocket Full o’ Fun” when I was just a boy (I was big into Dennis back then; this was of course pre-Calvin, and I am showing my age.)

  9. I liked it too Tracy. I’d add that the winter solstice, then roughly Dec 25, was when the birthday of the pagan god Mithra was celebrated, and that Christians finally chose that day to celebrate the birth of their god in order to subject the pagan god, and to show that the Christian god was greater.
    Also, the comments on light reminded me of the negative reaction many of my students have in Europe when they enter a gothic-styled cathedral, always dark except for the light focused on the altar. Students prefer the style of church which they’ve grown up with, and that has dominated American churches since the 1940s: namely, one that is a larger version of their living room. Even light, carpet, etc. The gothic church was deliberately dark precisely to focus light on the altar, and remind believers where to find light. But the usual reaction until they learn this is, it’s so dark in there, it doesn’t feel right, etc. Thanks for this.

  10. Living in the Southwest where we have had many enjoyable family outings to visit the numerous Anasazi ruins I can really appreciate this post. There are numerous solstice sights around here and everytime I visit one of them I am struck by how critical these sites were to the ancient inhabitants. They lived and died by watching the shadow of the sun march across their petroglyphs. I can imagine their anticipation as they watched thier stone timepieces begin to indicate the change from shortening days to lengthening days. There must have been a great sense of relief as they realized they would soon be “rescued” from the dark. How better to symbolize our relationship and need for the Savior than to focus our attention on Him during this particular time of the year.

  11. Craig- the darkness is one of the things I love best about the old gothic cathedrals- everything points to the altar, and the pinacles of light landing there.

  12. Tracy, this is lovely.

    It is only when I allow myself to sit and see the darkness that I can begin to perceive the light that defines it.

    The same is true of silence.

  13. Tracy, nice post, and interesting imagery. We often talk about faith as taking a step out of the light into the darkness. All of this ties nicely into 2 NE 2, about opposition in all things. Certainly appropriate for the turn of the darkness of winter back towards spring.

  14. Yeah, all you down south can talk about how great the dark is. Here it was dark at 9:30 when I took the boys to the park, and dark again at 3:30 when they woke up from their nap. I don’t care why we have Christmas in December, but I really grateful we do or it would be really effing bleak.

    Actually, Tracy, you’ve hit on some of what I’ve come to feel about the cycle of the seasons and the contrast between the light imagery of yule/Christmas and the darkness. I have feelings about light and dark — emotional, physical and spiritual — that I didn’t have living in California. Thanks for putting this into words.

  15. Norbert- yeah, I suppose veiwpoint gives little comfort when you have such extreme examples of Finnish darkness and daylight!

  16. Well, Yule is cule, but Festivas is for the rest of us.

  17. Norbert, I feel your pain, bro. Here in Alaska I watch the sun rise out my window at work, a couple hours into my work day, and watch it set about 90 minutes before I get to go home. It is pretty fetchin’ bleak and even moreso when I must spend every minute of winter daylight indoors (of course yesterday it was -10 F, so indoors was definitely the place to be!).

    But, like Tracy, I like the darkness too. I walk to work in the darkness in the morning, and find a certain peaceful calm about the world in the early morning darkness. Unless I run into a moose along the way.

  18. Marjorie Conder says:

    I loved this post. For as far back as I can remember I have resonated with the changing of the seasons all the way around the year,and the manifestations of light and dark as the calendar turns. I have always felt just a little pagan. I have long believed that all peoples will bring their best gifts to Zion (and conversely WE still have plenty of things to jettison before ZION arrives.) But surely the pagans too have some marvelous gifts to bring.

    For many years now our Christmas Eve ceremony (with virtually everyone present) starts in a totally dark room and light a single candle is lighted as everyone present starts to sing O Come All Ye Faithful, then that candle lights two others carried by two of the children who then hand the candles to the next people on the table who light the candles in front of them and then the candles are handed back to the candle bearers who hand the candles to the next person and so forth all the while singing Jesus Christmas songs until we get to the end when we sing Joy to the World in a room ablaze with light.
    Everyone,including babies, who light their candles with help from their parents, to the oldest person participates. We then have the blessing and eat. It is magical and certainly keeps the evening focused on Christ. (Although I will have to admit that I have long felt, with just a hint of recognition that maybe we are being just a bit pagan too.) But year after year eyes are wide and hearts are touched as we celebrate Chrsit as the Light and Life of the World. It is a celebratory Holy Night!

    I do want to say (because I’m sure some of you are wondering) that we have made significant concessions to be able to have a room full of live fire (about 60 candles when we are through). We have no Christmas Tree (but we still look plenty festive!), there are no paper products on the table, there is a cup of baking soda by every plate (quicker to use than a fire extinguisher which is also nearby) and every child has at least one adult sitting by them.

  19. Marjorie, what a lovely tradition!

  20. namakemono says:

    re comment #2 Having grown up with a Christmas full of light (in the Southern Hemisphere, with daylight saving to boot, so it is light till around 9:30pm at this time of year), I find that even after nearly 20 years in the Northern Hemisphere, a “dark” Christmas still feels strange. However, this post has given me a new appreciation it – thank you.

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