Celebrating the sabbats gives a focus to the seasons for me, and I like to mark them all in some way because they add meaning to my life. They are always high points, coming at random mid-week and interrupting routines. Yule is the biggest and the only one with significant preparations well in advance of the day. However, this year even more than previously I have been asking myself what preparations do I want to do as a pagan? What will add meaning for me, rather than just going along with what everyone else does?
The Winter Solstice does of course celebrate the return of the light. This can be interpreted in many ways, including the birth of the sun god. Mithras, Sol Invictus, or Jesus, whichever sun god you prefer to celebrate. So I have been making a gold star for the top of our tree (not finished yet!), and hung many gold decorations. Dried orange slices, or clove oranges are also great decorations that I would love to do in a future year. The tree being evergreen represents everlasting life, and brings warmth and protection to the household through the darkest days. I will keep the decorated tree until the mornings finally start getting lighter around 5th January, long after the shortest afternoon.
We have had a “December candle” for the first time this year, burning for 45 minutes each dinner. This provoked an interesting discussion with a friend who is an Anthroposophist, who after some thought said she felt everything should be building up to the birth of Christ, not decreasing. She liked the Advent wreaths in which an increasing number of candles are lit each week. However I feel that our candle represents the diminishing sunlight, which then returns when we reach the big event on the Solstice. (Our celebrations involve getting up to see the sunrise, and then sharing gifts after that. Yes we open ours a few days before everyone else…) The candle is surrounded by an ivy ring, which fits with Yule meaning wheel. The year is at its turning point, and is a time of rebirth and transformation. The light returns, and all is renewed to grow again.
Feasting is a major part of Yule, because when it is dark and cold outside we need suitably warming and sustaining food, for our spirits as well as our physical bodies. We have lost the natural rhythms to our lives over the past century or so; before the electronic age most people would have spent Winter evenings around a fireside, entertaining each other by whatever means they felt suited to and generally resting instead of working outdoors until late at night. Storytelling and singing was popular, as well as other forms of communal entertainment. Today illness frequently forces us to rest. But the return of the sun gives an extra reason to celebrate and have a bigger or fancier meal than every day, with decorations and joyous feasts to welcome it back. The winter may be far from over, but the light is increasing again each day.
However there is one aspect which has puzzled me for a while now. There are various chambered cairns in the rocky parts of our islands, thought by some to have been used for shamanic practices such as initiations or retreats or communications with ancestors, since most contain very few actual remains. Some are carefully aligned to the Winter Solstice, so that the sun enters only on a few days each year in midwinter – bringing light to what is otherwise a perpetually dark space. A famous example is Newgrange in Ireland. But Maeshowe in Orkney, or Clava Cairns near Nairn are both aligned to the setting sun, rather than to the rebirth in the morning. So what exactly were our ancestors celebrating, and what form did these celebrations take?