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December 8, 2011

Yule: Origins and Customs

by Lisbeth Cheever-Gessaman

Celebrations During the Winter Solstice, Yule Log and Mistletoe
Yule is the name for the pagan festival which celebrates the Winter Solstice and many present day customs originate from those traditions.
Yule Correspondences:
  • Incense: Pine, Cedar, Rosemary, Bayberry, Juniper, Frankincense, Sandalwood, Myrrh
  • Metal: Gold
  • Stones/Gems: Sapphire, Turquoise, Serpentine, Peridot, Jacinth
  • Colors: Red, Green, White, Silver, Gold
  • Foods: Nuts, Apples, Oranges, Mulled Wine, Turkey, Goose or Ham , Popcorn
  • Herbs and Flowers : Holly, Mistletoe, Rosemary, Oak, Spruce, Pine, Ivy, Fir, Poinsettia
  • Animals: reindeer, the stag, mouse, deer, horse, bear

Yule Customs and Origins

Nearly every ancient culture held a celebration to mark the shortest day of the year and the return of the Sun. Celebrated annually on the

Winter Solstice, generally falling on December 20th or December 21st, it is known as Yule, and serves as the origin for many Christmas traditions.

Celtic tradition holds life as a cycle rather than a linear state, and also teaches that what is exoteric is intrinsic, what is within is without . At the time of the Winter Solstice as the earth is undergoing the process of death to rebirth and renewal, so also must the human soul. Yule marks that spiral of time when the old sun surrenders its life in order that the new one might come. This corresponds to the belief that the Celtic Sun God, Bel was interrelated with the Celtic Death God, Bile. As with the celebration of Litha, the two Gods appear in form as the Oak King and the Holly King battling for supremacy. This is only one reason that the Druids were initially so accepting of Christianity with Christ as the human embodiment of the new Sun. It is also one of the reasons that Christmas is celebrated at this time, both from a pagan perspective and a spiritually metaphorical one.

The Yule Log

Although not recorded in the Coligny (the Celtic Calendar which dates back to the first century A.D) as one of the great fire festivals, the custom of lighting the Yule log is derived from the Celtic tradition of tending a continual hearth fire to keep spirits from entering the home. In order to keep the fire burning, a large tree was cut down and brought into the home, where the tree was placed trunk first in the hearth and the last remnants of it set aside to burn with the next year's fire.


Additional customs and traditions which we celebrate today include decorating with evergreens, another representation of the ongoing cycle of life, and the hanging of Mistletoe considered sacred to the Oak King by the Druids around whom the festival centered. The ritual of Mistletoe was thusly described by Pliny the Roman Historian:

“They prepare a ritual sacrifice and feast under the tree and lead up two white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time on the occasion. A Druid attired in a white vestment ascends the tree and with a golden pruning hook cuts the mistletoe which is caught in a white cloth.”

Mistletoe was thought to have been produced by lightning because it was a deciduous plant that bore no root and was found thriving high in the trees. Because of this, it was also considered protection from lightning and fire and hung in doorways year round .