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Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Yule

Introduction

The winter solstice – or Yule -- is celebrated on December 21.

Yule is seen as an important sabbat (religious celebration) in Wicca and Thelema. In some Neo-Pagan traditions such as the Scandinavian Asatru Folk Assembly, the holiday extends for twelve days in a period called Yuletide.  Yuletide starts on the winter solstice and ends on January 1.

Additionally, the winter solstice is celebrated in Zoroastrianism (or Parseeism) as Shab-e Yalda or (more simply) just Yalda.




Origins of Yule

The Wiccan and Neo-Pagan holidays of Yule and Yuletide should not be confused with the Christian use of these terms, as they have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. The traditions of Yule were practiced in Britain, Scandinavia and northern Germany long before the introduction of Christianity to these regions. Rather, during the conversion of these regions, the Roman Catholic Church simply co-opted the use of the terms Yule and Yuletide in these same northern European Christian traditions to make Christianity feel more familiar.

Like Yule, the Zoroastrian Yalda long predates Christianity. Yalda has been celebrated as the victory of light over dark for at least 1000 years before the birth of Christ. Zoroastrians themselves, however, place the date somewhere around 1600 BCE. There may be a connection to Christmas, though remotely so. Some scholars argue that the early Church set the date of Jesus’ birth to coincide with the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia (for more on this theory, please see my earlier post at


Saturnalia, in turn, arguably has its roots the mid-winter celebration of ancient Persian Empire.  The mid-winter celebration of ancient Persia, in turn, is Yalda, since the primary religion of the ancient Persian Empire was Zoroastrianism.

A Note on Neo-Paganism

The number of adherents to Neo-Pagan religions is notably difficult to estimate for several reasons. First, many nations (including the United States and France) do not conduct census data on religion. Second, because of prejudice and persecution, many adherents of Neo-Pagan religions do not openly identify as such while continuing to practice rituals. Finally, in Europe many Neo-Pagan rituals are practiced alongside Christian ones among those self-identifying as Christian. These are especially evident with Yuletide practices and the observation of the midwinter solstice, but are also present in the Midsummer Night’s bonfires of the summer solstice, Halloween practices, and Eastertime practices that take on a syncretistic overlay of Neo-Pagan Ostara practices.

That said, estimates for those self-identifying as Wiccan, Druid, Pagan, neo-Pagan, Goddess Worship, New Age or related faiths range from one to six million worldwide. The data vary greatly. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Office for National Statistics in 2001 found only 42,262 self-identified as such while Oxford historian Ronald Hutton in 1999 estimated 250,00 practitioners (which would place the number larger than Hinduism in the UK). Based on this, for the 2011 Census the UK’s Pagan Federation encouraged pagans to self-identify as such, with the result that the number came to over 80,000. This suggests either that neo-Paganism roughly doubled in size over the preceding decade (making it the fastest growing faith in the UK) or that (as Hutton suggested) official data are grossly underreported for neo-Pagan self-identification.

The recognition of neo-Pagan practices by various nations may provide some idea of the growing recognition of their importance. For example, Wicca has since 1990 been included in the Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains.  Since 2007, Wicca and “earth-based relgions” have been formally recognized by the US military as an official religion, including pentacles for gravestones and the 2011 inclusion of an “outdoor worship center” at the US Air Force Academy.  In Iceland, the Ásatrúarfélagið (Asatru Fellowship) has been recognized formally since 1973 and is the second largest faith in the country.

Yule Traditions

Yule Altar

As with all sabbats, an altar is set up in honor of Yule. The Yule altar is part of virtually all Yule celebrations whether Wiccan, Neo-Pagan or Neo-Druidic.  For Wicca in particular, the Yule altar is arguably the most important observance of the holiday.

Yule altar
The Yule altar is set up facing north, the direction associated with winter in all of these traditions. In Wicca, at the center of the altar is a bowl (or cauldron). Usually, a candle is placed in the bowl to symbolize light over darkness.

The colors of the Yule season are white, red and green. As a result, the altar usually is decorated with things of these colors. These often include tablecloths of these colors as well as red fruit, pine branches, holly leaves and holly berries.

Yule altars are usually decorated with symbols of the sun in some form.  This usually involves candles, often placed in the central bowl (in Wicca) or using gold-colored candleholders.  Other common sun decorations may include pictures of the sun drawn by children, sun ornaments or gold disks and coins.

Yule Food and Drink

Traditional Yuletide foods often include roast poultry and game (such as venison), squash, and root vegetables. Items that include the colors of the season (red, white and green) are common, such as candy canes and fruits of those colors.

Yule log dessert
Often desserts take the form of chocolate or nut bread rolls made to look like Yule logs. One recipe for a Wiccan Yule log can be found at


A collection of other Yule desserts can be found at


Wassail
Traditional drinks include cider, mulled wine and Wassail. Wassail is a mix of sherry and brandy with various juices (often citrus) and berries (sometimes left whole) blended with eggs and completed with spices such as cloves, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg.

A recipe for Yule wassail can be found at



Yule Traditions Shared with Christmas

Many Yule traditions are familiar within the Christmas traditions of northern Europe. These include the mistletoe, the use of evergreens (holly, ivy and pine trees), and the burning of the Yule log.

Mistletoe
Mistletoe

In Norse mythology, the god Baldur’s death and rebirth provided the explanation for winter and the apparent death of much of nature each year. As described in the Prose Edda Gylfaginning, Baldur was the god of all things fair and beautiful, and was associated with the sun. Baldur had a prophetic dream in which he predicted his own death. His mother Frigga (or Fraya) was so troubled by this that she went about asking all things on earth to vow that they would never harm Baldur. Frigga asked this vow from every object from which a weapon might be made.  She neglected, however, to ask the mistletoe, because she thought it was too insignificant to be made into a weapon.

Every god in Norse mythology was associated with a plant. The mistletoe was the plant associated with Loki, the god of mischief. Loki felt jealous of the attention given to Baldur and slighted that his plant was not considered significant enough for Frigga to ask in her quest to protect Baldur. As a result, he crafted an arrow (or dart) from the mistletoe’s wood and poisoned it with the mistletoe’s berries. 


Death of Baldur

To celebrate Baldur’s indestructibility, all of the gods assembled to throw weapons at Baldur. Because the material from which each weapon was made had vowed that they would not harm Baldur, every weapon either bounced off of Baldur or failed to hit him no matter how hard they were thrown. When it was Loki’s turn to throw his weapon, he shot his poisoned mistletoe arrow, killing Baldur. At once, the world was plunged into cold and snow, and all plant life died.

All of the gods were cast into mourning and so sent the messenger Hermod to carry a message from Frigga to plead with the death god Hel to allow Baldur to return.  Hel himself was distressed by Baldur’s death and agreed to allow Baldur to return on one condition. That one condition was that all objects and creatures weep for Baldur. All did with one exception: the giantess Thok (who, in turn, was presumed to be Loki in disguise). The result was that Baldur was allowed to return but only for part of the year, returning to the realms of Hel for the other part of each year, causing winter.

The Norse and Germanic pagans remembered this story by hanging mistletoe in the house at the midwinter solstice. By kissing under the mistletoe, they demonstrated that love and warmth (Baldur) was stronger than mischief (the mistletoe of Loki) or death – and that the rebirth of the world would come with Baldur’s return in Spring.

In neo-Pagan traditions in general and the Asaturu Folk Assembly custom in particular, this is still the reason for kissing beneath the mistletoe in the house at Yule. It should be noted that for Wicca, the mistletoe is not a associated with these traditions.

Evergreens

Linked to this same story, the plant associated with the sun god Baldur were evergreens in general and the pine tree in particular. It is from this association that the Yuletide custom of hanging evergreen wreaths amd decorating pine trees derives.

Yule wreath
In pre-Christian Viking and Germanic traditions, evergreens were used to symbolize the continued presence and eventual return of the sun since they retained their full life when all other plants were barren in the dead of winter.   The hanging of evergreen boughs on one’s doors protected those living inside.

In Druidic traditions in Britain and Ireland, the evergreens, though not associated with Baldur, were similarly hung on doors as a talisman to protect against evil spirits in wintertime.

In modern Wicca, the use of evergreens has no association with the Baldur story, regardless of its origins. This is true to of most other modern Yule traditions, although in some neo-Pagan traditions, these associations may still hold. In any case, in most Wiccan, neo-Pagan and neo-Druidic traditions for Yule, decorations of holly and ivy are still hung on doors and over hearths.
Yule trees in an English forest
For Wiccans and for most modern traditions, these decorations serve as symbols of everlasting life and the coming rebirth of the world with the growing length of days as Spring approaches. Similarly, a Yule tree is decorated for the same reason. Unlike the Christian tradition of cutting down a tree, though, many Wiccans and neo-Pagans decorate a live tree either still standing outside or set in a pot indoors which is then replanted once the ground thaws.

Yule Log

Yule log
The burning of the Yule Log is the central tradition of most Wiccan, neo-Pagan and neo-Druidic customs today. The Yule log is a short log of wood, decorated with evergreens or candles (or both).

The practice of burning a Yule Log indoors symbolizes the victory of light over dark and Spring over Winter. The Yule log is lit each year on the eve of the mid-winter solstice.

People traditionally keep a piece of charred wood from the previous year’s Yule Log throughout the year. Some do this as a talisman to protect the house and others simply as reminder of the happy celebration of Yule. Whatever the reason, it is customary to use the saved piece from the previous year’s Yule Log to start the fire for the present year’s Yule Log.

As with the mistletoe and evergreen, the burning of the Yule log has an ancient pedigree long pre-dating Christianity. The plants burned were often associated with Baldur (evergreen, pine, holly) but could also be the oak which was the tree associated with Wodin (or Odin) the god of wisdom. Those venerating other deities would use woods associated with these other gods.

It is important to emphasize here that in Wicca, there is no association of the Yule Log with the Norse gods at all but rather as a symbol of the Goddess.  Even in most modern neo-Pagan and neo-Druidic traditions (Asaturu Folk Assembly excepted), the Yule Log has less to do with worship of any particular deity than as a way to encourage the coming of longer days.

Conclusion

As with all posts, this overview is meant only to give a brief overview of some practices. Yule is celebrated in many traditions, and this is not meant to endorse or specify any one practice. If I have left out a practice from your own tradition, please share them with me.

Blessed Yule!




Want to Read Further?

Skye Alexander, “Winter Solstice or Yule,” Net Places: Wicca and Witchcraft,  http://www.netplaces.com/wicca-witchcraft/the-wheel-of-the-year/winter-solstice-or-yule.htm

Tor Age Brinsvaerd, "Norse Mythology," http://www.fornsidr.no/2011/01/norse-mythology/

H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Pelican Books.

Erin Frost, “Yule Traditions,” Examiner.com, http://www.examiner.com/article/yule-traditions

Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,  University Press, 1999. 

Andrea Kannapelli, “Celebrations: It’s Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa: Let There Be Light!” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/21/nyregion/celebrations-it-s-solstice-hanukkah-kwaanza-let-there-be-light.html

Gwydion Cinhil Kirontin, “Wiccan Study: Yule History and Rituals,” http://herbalmusings.com/yule.htm

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (2016) , "Polls estimating the number of U.S. adult Wiccans in the U.S.," http://www.religioustolerance.org/estimated-number-of-wiccans-in-the-united-states-5.htm

K. M. Midgley, Legends of the Northmen. http://midgleywebpages.com/northmen.html

“Pagan Christmas Traditions,” The Pythorium, http://pythorium.com/sabbats/yule/pagan_traditions

Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda "Death of Balder," http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/balder.html#death

Calvin Thomas, An Anthology of German Literature, D. C. Heath & Co.

Patti Wiggington, “All AboutYule,” About.com: Paganism, http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/yulethelongestnight/a/About_Yule.htm

Patti Wiggington, “History of Yule,” About.com: Paganism, http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/yulethelongestnight/p/Yule_History.htm

Patti Wiggington, “Setting Up Your Yule Altar - What to Put on a Yule Altar,” About.com: Paganism, http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/yulethelongestnight/p/YuleAltarDecs.htm

Mackenzie Wright, “How to Decorate a Wiccan Yule Altar,” Ehow.com, http://www.ehow.com/how_4578105_decorate-wiccan-yule-altar.html

Andrah Wyrdfire, “Celebrate the real reason for the season with Novices of the Old Ways,” Examiner.com, http://www.examiner.com/article/celebrate-the-real-reason-for-the-season-with-novices-of-the-old-ways

“Yule,” The Pagan and Wiccan Parenting Page, http://paganparent-ivil.tripod.com/yule.html

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