The Earth’s yearly promise that the sun will return to give life to winter’s frozen land was an important and vital concept to many ancient cultures. Early peoples acknowledged the return of warmer weather by feasting on the meat and crops that were collected during the waxing year; they came together to create visual reminders of the warmth of summer by lighting fires. After experiencing the yearly event marked by the shortest day and longest night, traditionally called the Winter Solstice, it is soothing to be reassured that only brighter days are ahead. For those of us who follow the pagan Wheel of the Year, the importance of that promise still rings true, but in a more modern sense. And we gather around the fire still.
Yule fires were used by pagan cultures to herald the return of the sun. The Celts and pre-Christian Scandinavians would chop yule logs to burn while gathering with friends and family to feast and would not stop until the flames burned out. Oak was preferred, with its attributes of wisdom and strength, but other regions would use aspen (spiritual understanding), pine (prosperity), or birch (new beginnings). A piece of unburnt wood would be salvaged to light the next years winter fire and kept as a charm to ward off misfortune in the coming year.
Sitting here now, typing on a laptop and drinking coffee that I certainly did not have a hand in growing, I look back at how the meaning of this solstice holiday changed from, “If we don’t burn this fire, the Sun God won’t come back,” to “let’s burn a bright fire while enjoying this year’s harvest and toast to even better crops next year.” Now that we are in the age where food is plentiful and the turning of the Earth in her solar system is more understood, how do we make this event into one that is still useful and important to us now?
Modern witchcraft allows us to take ancient symbolism, centuries-old customs- the olde ways- to form our craft into one that shapes our goals, our paths, and what we manifest. What are the crops that we grew this year? Did we tend to them with great care? How can we create a bigger bounty next year? What is the light we choose to carry from the summer days to the colder, darker nights?
The waning year gently nudges us to turn inward. We move more slowly, matching the stillness of nature, and gravitate toward the comforts and warmth of home. We carefully map out the seeds we want to plant in the promising new year. While waiting for the sun to shine its brightest again, as we know it will, we gravitate toward the people whose lights spark the flame within ourselves. Sharing our fires with them and gift-giving is a grand way to make the best out of Yule. While the cold winds to our noses red and going out seems like a chore, the fiery spirit of our friends is always a warmth that can be counted on.