To Walk a Pagan Path (Llewellyn Publications, 2013) by Alaric Albertsson offers practical tips for incorporating Pagan spirituality into every day life and customizing a sacred calendar customized to your beliefs, lifestyle, and environment. The following excerpt from “Yule,” details Pagan celebration of Yule season.
To find more books that pique our interest,
visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
Celebration of Yule
Yule is often confused with the winter solstice, but the former is a season while the latter is a precise moment in time.
Yule begins with the Arra Geola moon, which grows full in late November or the first few weeks of December, and the season then continues for two lunar months.
For Saxon Pagans (as well as Pagans from many other paths), the celebration of the Yuletide usually does not actually begin until Mothers’ Night (the solstice) and continues for a week or two after this. I celebrate for twelve days, from Mothers’ Night to New Year’s Day, but I have been invited to Yule feasts held as late as mid-January. For that matter, I have attended Yule feasts that took place ten days or more before the solstice. And this was entirely appropriate, for Yule is a season.
I love Yule, partly because it is the most important holy tide in the Saxon sacral calendar, but also for the same reason that many non-Germanic Pagans love it. Wiccans have no reason to be exceptionally excited about the winter solstice, as it is a “minor sabbat” secondary to the big holidays like Beltane and Samhain. I have never known a Hellenic Pagan to make a big deal out of the Haloa, the December festival sacred to both Demeter and Dionysus, at least not more so than any other Greek festival. And yet Yule seems to have a special place in the hearts of most Pagans, regardless of their spiritual path, simply because it is so prevalent in our culture due to the influence of Christianity. The majority of first-generation Pagans (those of us who were raised by non-Pagan families) grew up in Christian households where we were introduced to Santa Claus, cinnamon cookies, eggnog, and jingle bells as children, and the oldest of us have passed these things on to our own children, the second- and third-generation Pagans of this century.
Although Pagans do not actually celebrate Christmas (as in “the birth of Christ”), we have no desire to relinquish the pleasantries of Christmas. Some Pagans claim that these traditions are ours, but any claim we may have to ownership is indirect at best.
While Christmas traditions may not literally be ours, the secular trappings of Christmas also have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, and most of them suffer little or not at all when translated into a Pagan lifestyle. This is especially true for Pagans who follow Germanic paths, since so many of the Christmas customs we are familiar with originated in northern Europe. In my home we decorate a Yule tree each year. For us it represents the World Tree that connects all of the Seven Worlds. We enjoy munching on Yule cookies, and we have our favorite Yule songs. We do all of the secular things that our neighbors do, pretty much substituting the word Yule for the word Christmas.
Some people call this “stealing back,” but I do not see where any theft is involved at all. These are the traditions of my ancestors, and while I follow a different religious path, my ancestors also chose to follow a path that differed from that of their own forebears; and none of this changes the fact that these are family traditions having little to do directly with either Jesus or Woden.
This is why I see nothing wrong or strange when non-Germanic Pagans also choose to celebrate Yule with evergreen trees, tinsel, and ho-ho-ho. These things have meaning to Pagans of all paths, and rightly so, because they are the ways of our ancestors.
It is in our spiritual expression where the diversity of this season manifests. As a Saxon Pagan, the birth of a Jewish boy more than two millennia ago has no special meaning for me. Nor do I believe that the sun is being “reborn.” I do not celebrate the rites of Demeter and Dionysus. In short, I celebrate the season as a Saxon.
The winter solstice, for Saxons, is known as Modraniht, or Mothers’ Night. This is the longest night of the year, and it is the night on which my kinsmen gather to offer a husel to our female ancestors. It is believed that some mothers are very likely to care about their children, and their children’s children, even after death. As the central part of the rite, a drinking horn is filled with mead, and we take turns drinking to the memory of our grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers, back to the dawn of humankind. Many of us honor specific female ancestors by name. For us, it is the single most important night of the year, and it precedes a twelve-day celebration of the Yule.
Your Yuletide rituals should express your own spirituality. However much you may love “Christmas” traditions, it is important to remember that these are secular customs and not allow them to overshadow what the season means to you as a Pagan person.
Wassailing is one Yuletide tradition with a legitimate claim to a pre-Christian lineage (Simpson and Roud, p. 380). The word wassail comes from the Old English wes hal, meaning “be healthy” or “be whole,” and is still often used even today as a salutation by Saxon Pagans. There were two traditional wassailing customs. One wassailing custom was associated with women and the other with men. Both included a warm, alcoholic drink often just called wassail. The wassailing associated with women involved visiting neighbors’ homes. A group of young women would carry a bowl of wassail from house to house. At each house they would offer wassail to the residents and sing a song. This was believed to bring luck to the household. The connection between this custom and the Pagan belief in female ancestors blessing their people on Mothers’ Night is readily apparent. This tradition is difficult to re-create today, since most if not all of your neighbors no longer honor their ancestors or the old gods. But the underlying purpose of wassailing like this was to celebrate the community or tribe, and that is very easy to re-create. When your coven or kindred is preparing to gather for a solstice celebration, find a selection of appropriate songs and print off the lyrics so everyone can sing along. These songs might be Pagan songs, but they can just as easily be secular carols. Set out a bowl of wassail, encourage everyone to take a cup, and then turn off the television. Instead of watching one more rerun of a Very Special Sugar-Coated Holiday Special, get everyone singing together, melding their voices and spirits in Pagan celebration.
The wassailing that was associated with men, also called “apple howling,” was quite different. The men of the village would go to the local orchards and “wassail” the trees. This included singing to the trees and splashing the trunks with the wassail beverage. Specific practices varied from one village to the next. Toast soaked with wassail was sometimes placed in the tree branches. Here we have another tradition intended to bring luck, but this is luck for the orchards in the hope of a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
Apple howling is a great tradition to resurrect if you have planted even a single fruit- or nut-bearing tree in your yard. Pour some wassail around the roots of your tree (or trees), or put a slice of wassail-soaked toast in the branches. Sing to the tree. Here again the choice of song is entirely up to you. There might be a Pagan song you like; “The Trees of Annwfn” from Gwydion Pendderwen’s 1982 album The Faerie Shaman would certainly be appropriate. Otherwise, you might choose a secular carol. I do not think the tree spirits really care what you sing. It is the attention they enjoy.
The traditional wassail beverage was a spiced ale or cider, and by “cider” I mean hard (alcoholic) cider. It was often described as “lamb’s wool” because of the white froth on the surface of the drink. The following recipe is similar to what might have been used as wassail long ago. I say “similar” because the average Pagan in northern Europe obviously did not have access to sugar, ginger, or nutmeg.
Traditional Wassail Recipe
You will need:
6 small apples
1 1/2 quarts ale or hard cider
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Preheat your oven to 120 degrees F. Core the apples and then place them on a lightly greased baking tray. The apples will swell slightly as they bake, so space them a couple inches apart from each other. Bake the apples for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, put 1 cup of the ale (or cider) and all of the sugar in a tall pan. Warm this over low heat, stirring continuously to dissolve the sugar.
After the sugar has dissolved, add the grated nutmeg and ginger. Continue to simmer, stirring as you slowly add the remaining ale or cider. After the apples are done baking, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for 10 to 12 minutes. Then cut each apple in half and scoop out the baked “flesh” into a bowl. Discard the skins. (Ideally these apple skins should go into your compost!) Using a fork or potato masher, mash the apples until they are smooth.
Slowly add the smooth, mashed apples to the warm ale or cider, mixing them in vigorously with a whisk. Continue to warm the wassail over very low heat for about half an hour. Whisk again just before serving.
Thoroughly Modern Wassail Recipe
One concern with a traditional wassail is that it is alcoholic. Much of the alcohol will dissipate as the wassail is heated, but it may still be unsuitable for some people. This next recipe is for a non-alcoholic wassail that all of your kinsmen can enjoy. You will need:
2 quarts apple juice or soft apple cider
2 1/4 cups pineapple juice
2 cups orange juice
1 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole cloves
Put the cloves in a tea ball and mix all of these ingredients together in a pot. Warm the wassail over low heat. When it is heated through, remove the tea ball and serve the wassail in cups. *
The Yule tree is usually a focal point in any solstice celebration if for no other reason than its physical size. Bringing an evergreen tree into the home at the solstice is a relatively modern custom, but there is nothing explicitly Christian about it (Israel is not notable for its vast pine forests), and as a Germanic tradition, it fits in very well with my Saxon spirituality. For me, the Yule tree represents the Eormensyl, the great Axis Mundi that touches each of the Seven Worlds.
Norse Pagans see the tree in a similar way: as Yggdrasil, connecting each of the Norse Nine Worlds. The tree can become an expression of your spirituality even if you do not follow a northern path. The Hellenic (Greek) Pagan may want to decorate the tree with artificial grapes and either real or artificial vines in honor of the Haloa feast to Dionysus. The Roman Pagan with even marginal handicraft skills can incorporate the tree into a celebration of the Saturnalia. Make miniature scythes to hang from the tree branches (Saturnus is sometimes depicted holding a scythe), and include some solar ornaments in honor of Sol Invictus.
Assuming you already set up a Yule Tree every winter, or would like to do so in future, let us look at the essential nature of this practice. Those who purchase real trees can select from a variety of species, but all of the choices are evergreen trees. The other essential factor is that the tree, whether real or artificial, is always set up inside. You may also decide to put lights on evergreen trees outside the home, but the Yule tree itself is an indoor phenomenon.
Whether you set up a real tree (I hesitate to say “live tree” since technically it is dead as soon as it is cut) or an artificial tree is a matter of personal preference. Some people argue that it is better to buy an artificial tree than to kill a live tree, but, as with so many things, there are two sides to this issue. Very few trees brought into our homes at the solstice are wild trees pillaged from the forest. Almost all of them were planted, grown, and harvested for the express purpose of decorating our homes during the holidays. While they are growing, they do what all trees do, purifying and oxygenating the atmosphere. After the holidays, more than 90 percent of these trees are recycled through literally thousands of recycling programs. In contrast to this, artificial trees are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, and they contribute absolutely nothing toward renewing our atmosphere. I am not saying you are a bad person if you have decided to buy an artificial tree. What I am saying is that you are not a bad person if you have chosen a real tree.
The real tree has one other benefit: its needles. This may sound odd if you have ever cursed under your breath while picking dozens of stubborn evergreen needles out of a carpet, but those needles are wonderful as an aromatic ingredient for potpourri or incenses! After the holidays, before taking your tree out to be recycled, strip off the dry needles and store them in airtight containers away from light. Lay newspaper under the tree as you strip off the needles to catch everything that falls.
4 parts tree needles, broken up as small as possible 2 parts cedar shavings
1 part juniper berries, crushed
Blend these together for a delightful incense evoking the ambiance of deep woodlands. It is especially appropriate as incense for use in rituals honoring rural or forest deities. The scent will vary slightly depending on what species of tree you use, but the result is always pleasant.
To use this as a potpourri, add several drops of pine oil or juniper oil, and set the mixture out in an attractive bowl. The needles do not need to be broken up as finely. *
At some point while shopping for Yuletide greenery you will undoubtedly come across those cute little rosemary herb topiaries shaped to resemble holiday trees. They are as irresistible as kittens, but I recommend you resist the urge to purchase one anyway. Rosemary is not a houseplant. Rosemary craves fresh air! It can (and must) be brought indoors before the first hard frost, but under the best conditions it can be difficult to keep alive through the winter. The rosemary topiary that looks so appealing at the store is not enjoying anything remotely resembling “best conditions.” It has been stressed by trimming and has almost certainly received less than optimum care while waiting for someone to purchase it.
If a well-meaning friend gives you one of these herbs, the best you can do is hope to keep it alive until spring. Put the plant in a cool location that receives a lot of sunlight (yes, this is a contradiction; that is one reason why it is difficult to keep rosemary alive over the winter). Water the herb sparingly, keeping the soil fairly dry. Finally, mist the needles at least three or four times a week.
Then pray to whatever deity in your spiritual pantheon is sovereign over tender perennials. If your rosemary survives into the spring, get it outside as soon as the danger of a hard frost has passed.
If you live in a region that does not experience hard frosts, ignore everything I have just said. Enjoy your rosemary “tree” for a few days and then plant it outside where it can thrive. What should you do with a dead rosemary plant? Maybe you could not resist the urge and bought a rosemary topiary despite my warning. Maybe a friend gave you a plant and you were (not surprisingly) unable to keep it alive until spring. Do the same thing as with an evergreen tree after the holidays: strip off the needles and use them as an aromatic. Rosemary needles make a wonderful incense, either alone or blended with other herbs.
What do you do on December 25th? For many people, there is no question about this. If you live in the same house or within a few miles of Christian relatives, it is very likely that they will want you to be with them as they commemorate the birth of their deity, and there is nothing wrong with that. You may have a job that requires you to work on the 25th, and there is nothing wrong with that either. But some of you may be in the same position I found myself in many years ago as I sat in my apartment with absolutely nothing to do. My Christian relatives all lived quite a distance from me, so that was not an obligation. My place of employment was closed, so going to work was not even an option. Cable television did not yet exist, nor did personal computers (to any extent), and I quickly discovered that my options in electronic entertainment were limited to a football game on one television channel and the Pope doing something or other on another channel.
After that, and for every year since then, December 25th at my home has been known as Gifting Day.
My hiredmenn are always invited to Gifting Day, although there are no hard feelings if they have other obligations. In addition, other Pagan friends who do not have obligations to their careers or to blood kin are welcome to join us for a day of merriment and gift exchanging. There is an Anglo-Saxon style to our celebration. We always set out a large ham, for the boar was a sacred animal for our Saxon ancestors. The theme of the day is tribe and community; we already gave praise to our ancestors several days earlier, at the solstice. I could leave December 25th to be an ordinary day, like any other day of the year, but why pass up an opportunity to make the most of a day when almost everyone I know has the day off work, and many have nothing else requiring their attention? And so I celebrate December 25th as Gifting Day, a day to celebrate my folk. The day becomes part of my sacral calendar. For me, it is also a time to give thanks for all of my friends and my hiredmenn.
Earlier I mentioned that I celebrate the Yule for twelve days, but obviously Mothers’ Night and Gifting Day are only two of those days. New Year’s Eve is a third celebration. What about the other nine days?
For my inhired, this varies from one year to the next. To ask what we do to celebrate the Yule is like asking where we each went on vacation; it is never the same thing from one year to the next. I like this flexibility, because every year our extended family is a little different. Work schedules change. Somebody enrolls in college or graduates from college. I may gain a new hiredmann through marriage, or we may lose someone who moved away. One challenge for the twenty-first-century tribe is adapting to the demands of twenty-first-century life! We might gather for wassailing on one evening, or build a gingerbread house or hold a feast in honor of Sunne (the sovereign spirit of the sun), but what day we do any of this is different each year. On a day when most or all of us do not have to work, we will plan longer, more involved festivities.
Other Pagans, however, prefer a more structured schedule. Nick Egelhoff is a Norse Pagan who observes the twelve days of Yule with a series of devotionals. His household honors a different Norse deity or set of spirits each evening:
• December 20th: Mothers’ Night. Offerings are given to the female ancestors, just as I would do. The Norse and the Saxons are both Germanic cultures, so we share quite a bit in common, although there are also many differences. In Nick’s household, a libation of wine is also given to the Norse goddess Frigga on this solstice night.
• December 21st: Honoring Mani and the Wild Hunt. Mani, the Norse god of the moon, is praised and addressed as Brother of the Shining Sun. Offerings of beer, oatmeal, bread, and milk are given both to Mani and to Odinn (Woden), who leads the Wild Hunt at this time of year.
• December 22nd: Sunna’s Day. Offerings of incense and mead or wine are given to Sunna, the Norse goddess of the sun.
• December 23rd: Twins’ Day. Offerings of beer, bread, and milk are given to Freyr and Freya, two deities known to Saxon Pagans as Ing and Freo. This god and goddess are siblings associated with the prosperity or bounty of the earth.
• December 24th: Alfar’s Night. The Alfar are a class of male ancestors that guard or watch over the inherited land of their descendants. Nick tells me that the Alfar “became conflated and connected with other types of spirits” in Norse culture, so they are at the same time ancestral spirits and land spirits. In Nick’s household, the Alfar are given offerings of beer, bread, milk, or “anything that one’s male ancestors might have enjoyed.”
• December 25th: Children’s Day. Nick and his wife do not yet have any children, but they believe it is important to honor children nevertheless on this day. “We remember and celebrate the innocence and joy of children,” says Nick. Children’s Day in his household is also a time to honor the spirits of hearth and home. Offerings—usually milk and cookies—are left out for the hausvattir (house elves).
• December 26th: Dvergar’s Night. The dvergar are Norse dwarves. These spirits are believed to be excellent craftsmen. Nick honors them with offerings of jewelry, metals, and mead.
• December 27th: Forefathers’ Day. Specific classes of ancestors are honored on Mothers’ Night and Alfar’s Night, but this day is devoted to all ancestors in a more general sense. As Nick puts it, the day is a time to honor the “nameless thousands whose blood, deeds, and luck flow within us.” The offerings can be anything those ancestors might enjoy, but Nick often gives a libation of mead or some other fermented drink.
• December 28th: Hel’s Night. In Germanic traditions, Hel is both a place and the goddess who reigns over that place. It is not a particularly bad place, nor is the goddess Hel (or Hella) a particularly bad goddess. Nick gives her offerings of mead, bread, and meat.
• December 29th: Ygg’s Night. Ygg is another name for the god Odinn, and this night is dedicated to him. The votive offering is always mead or some similar fermented drink, and Ygg is praised as the god who won the runic Mysteries.
• December 30th: Thunderer’s Day. This day is dedicated to the god Thor, who is known to Saxon Pagans as Thunor. In Nick’s devotional liturgy, he is addressed as “You who defend the Midgard, who are Friend to All Men, whose laughter sounds like the roll of thunder.” Beer is the usual offering, but Nick tells me that he might also (or instead) give this god meat or bread.
• December 31st: Twelfth Night. On the last night of the year, Nick and his household honor the Norns, three powerful spirits who shape the fate of men. Fermented drink is the usual offering.
Obviously this is a much more structured approach to celebrating twelve days of Yule, and Nick admits it requires a willingness to adapt to worldly demands at times. This past year, he tells me, “We had to be flexible on one or two nights due to geography and timing. We traveled back to Columbus (Ohio) on Christmas Eve to be with my family, and thus we couldn’t really do the devotionals as originally planned. But we made it work.”
If you understand that plans may need to be changed, a structured twelve-day celebration may appeal more to you.
This could be a series of twelve rituals, as Nick has done, or your tribe may want to alternate rituals with wassailing, feasting, or other Yuletide activities. The right way to do this is whatever way is both true to your spiritual tradition and fulfilling to you and your folk. When celebrating the twelve days of Yule, the important thing is not what you do or when you do it, so long as you do something throughout this twelve day period of transition from one year to the next.
For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the Yuletide brings another year to an end. And then a new year begins, unfolding before us as we walk a Pagan path.