Ask most Witches what their favorite Sabbat is and the most common answer is nearly always, “Samhain.” I love Samhain, too, but my favorite Sabbat is actually Yule, and for a variety of reasons. While Samhain tends to focus most exclusively on the harvest and the dead, there are all sorts of different ways to celebrate Yule. It might actually be our most diverse Sabbat, and its roots are genuinely ancient.
Our culture generally thinks of Samhain as the most “Pagan” of the Sabbats, but the truth is, we don’t know very much about how Samhain was celebrated by the ancient Irish-Celts. Its focus might not have even been on the dead, a fact that surprises a lot of people. Yule and related Midwinter celebrations, on the other hand, are reasonably well-documented, and they were celebrated in a lot of different places.
The Romans decorated with mistletoe, ivy, and evergreen branches while they celebrated Saturnalia; they also exchanged presents and drank heavily. If this sounds a lot like Christmas, that’s not an accident; all sorts of traditions associated with Saturnalia and the Roman Kalends (the celebration marking the start of January) were absorbed into Christmas and the celebrations around it. The Norse celebrated their Yule with presents and heavy drinking, too, and burned Yule logs and decorated with evergreen branches.
Yule is also home to all sorts of magickal beings whose origins might go back to ancient Paganisms. The fearsome Krampus might be some sort of ancient horned god. The Yule Goat of Finland is most likely linked to the goats that pulled Thor’s chariot, and the Swedish tomte are classic nature spirits or fairy folk.
In addition to its ancient roots, what I love most about Yule is that there are many ways to celebrate it. Most often my own Yule rituals are celebratory, with toasts to the good health of my coven mates. In many parts of the world, Yule has long been a joyous celebration, and not just because of the presents. Traditionally it was a time for subverting the social order, cross-dressing, and for putting power in the hands of the young and the less fortunate (at least for a day or two).
Yule can also be a somber sabbat, and traditionally was a time for ghost stories. (The most well-known Christmas story of all time, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is essentially a ghost story.) The colder weather and long nights create the perfect environment for tales of hauntings and the unexplained. The boundary between the living and the dead may not be as permeable at Yule as it is at Samhain, but strange and magickal things have a long history of showing up during the Winter Solstice.
For many of us, Yuletide is a celebration of the sun’s rebirth. Many Witches stay up all night on the Winter Solstice to welcome in the first rays of the reborn sun. Yule is a promise that even in the darkness of Winter there are sunnier and warmer days ahead, even if it might be several months before they show up.
One of the things I love most about Yule is that it’s one of the many holidays that gather under the banner of “Happy Holidays.” The similarities between Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and New Year’s Celebrations are strong enough that it feels like everyone around us is celebrating. As divided as our society tends to be these days, there’s something truly wonderful about most folks sharing a bit of Holiday Cheer every December.
Our thanks to Jason for his guest post! For more from Jason Mankey, read his articles and browse his books here.”