Ready to party? The pagan celebration of the winter solstice is known as Yule, and it’s one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. It simultaneously celebrates the shortest day of the year, midwinter, and the return of the Sun. It’s also a festival of rebirth. Yule marks the point at which the Sun begins to return to us—aka when the days begin to lengthen again. But the winter solstice is the darkest day of the year, so Yule is both a time of reflection and celebration.
What is Yule?
This festival has been on the calendar for centuries. Yule was first celebrated as far back as the fifth century (so, more than 1,500 years ago) by Germanic pagans as a midwinter festival to stave off the dark and cold and prepare for the long winter still to come.
Farmers and locals would assemble at the heathen temple, bringing food, ale, and livestock to be sacrificed. I don’t want to put you off, but they would splatter the blood of the sacrificial animals over their altars, the walls, and themselves. There was also a lot of toasting to various gods (notably Odin). Drinks + sacrifices = messy.
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Another ancient ritual: Celtic druids would give mistletoe, which commonly grows on oak trees, as a blessing to symbolize life during Yule. The Celts thought the Sun stood still for 12 days during the darkest time of the year, and they would light logs to keep away evil and welcome in good fortune—now called the Yule log.
When is Yule?
Yule always falls on the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21 or 22 every year. In 2023, it begins on December 21. Some Yule celebrations begin on the winter solstice and continue for multiple days or weeks.
What does Yule have to do with Christmas?
If you think all this sounds kind of familiar, that’s because when Christianity spread throughout Europe, many pagan winter solstice traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations. As pagan religions were phased out and replaced by Christianity across Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries, Christians recognized that people were reluctant to give up all their festivals and rituals. As such, Yule was reformulated to serve the new religion in town.
Who celebrates Yule today?
For centuries, Yule was the go-to winter festival for the Vikings, Germanic tribes, and peoples in pre-Christian Europe. Nowadays, it’s largely celebrated by Wiccans and other neo-pagan practitioners. That said, Yule’s traditions are so overlapping with Christmas traditions that many people probably celebrate elements of Yule without necessarily realizing it. Think wreaths, Yule logs, feasting, and celebrating. And why not? We can all share a good time.
As the outside world is at its darkest and the nights at their longest, Yule gives space for our inner realms to expand and come forth. It is a time to bring in new visions and ideas, make resolutions for the year ahead, and dream bold dreams.
What is a Yule log?
Traditionally, fires have always been a part of Yule celebrations—which makes sense when you think about it. It’s the longest, darkest night of the year, after all. The practice of burning a single, large Yule log is believed to stem from pre-Christian Germanic or Scandinavian pagan traditions. As Christianity became more widespread, Christians adopted certain pagan traditions into Christian celebrations of Christmas—including burning a Yule log. In the Christian version, it’s burned for the 12 days of Christmas.
There’s also a dessert called the Yule log—it’s a soft sponge cake, similar to a Swiss roll, that’s decorated to look like a Yule log with chocolate frosting. It was invented in 19th century France and in French, it’s called a Bûche de Noël.
Yule traditions you can celebrate today
Put up a Yule wreath
Make a wreath of evergreens (like yew, holly, pine, mistletoe, and ivy) to represent everlasting life, protection, and prosperity. Or go bigger and make a solstice bush or tree by pushing the stalks of these plants into a pot of damp soil. Why these plants? Besides being seasonal, the yew tree is traditionally associated with eternity and reincarnation, holly and ivy ward off negative energy, pine has healing magic, and mistletoe brings fertility and abundance.
Decorate your altar for Yule
If you have a home altar, you can adorn it with plants, stones, and items associated with Yule. You can make it personal to what you have at home, but here are some ideas:
- Evergreen plants like pine, mistletoe, fir, juniper, holly, and cedar. You can use branches, pinecones, and berries.
- Candles, particularly ones in Yule colors of red, green, or gold.
- Crystals in the same colors, such as emerald, ruby, and carnelian.
- Symbols of winter, such as snowflake decor or even a small bowl of melted snow.
- Symbols of the Sun, such as a Sun charm or the Sun tarot card.
- Bells—traditionally used to drive away evil spirits and to promote harmony
- Winter produce, such as chestnuts, apples, and oranges.
Light a Yule log
Decorate an oak log with pine cones, dried berries, cinnamon sticks, holly, and mistletoe, and place it in your fireplace, if you have one—or make a bonfire outside. Yule log burning is a symbolic ritual to release the past and banish old or negative energy that you don’t want to follow you into the new year. It’s also a way to welcome back the Sun and celebrate the fact that the days are going to get lighter from now on. Don’t have a fireplace or fire pit? Put on a video like Netflix’s Fireplace for Your Home instead!
Host a Yule celebration
Feasting has always been a winter solstice tradition, with people gathering together to celebrate life in the darkness, connect with others, and feel safe. Serve up a traditional feast or just make your favorite foods—bonus points if they incorporate some local winter produce. Turn it into a party by asking everyone to bring along possessions they no longer want, wrap them up, and leave a pile of surprises on the floor for everyone to choose something from.
Do a Yule ritual
Think about your resolutions and intentions for the coming year. Light a candle and speak your resolutions out loud, then sit with the candle and let it burn down as you visualize your ambitions coming true. Imagine the positive rewards, daydream about living this new lifestyle, and then write down actionable steps for making your daydream a reality.
Declutter your space
Yule is a release of the old to get ready for the new, so it’s the perfect time to do some yuletide cleaning. When you’ve completed the physical cleaning process, spiritually cleanse your home—I like smoke cleansing by burning plants like pine needles and mistletoe.
Have a little Yule treat
I mean, any excuse, right? Treat yourself with something that embraces the natural world around you. This could be a naturally scented candle, a new crystal, a houseplant, or even a cake or pastry. Think about shopping sustainably this season, and consciously try to switch to recycled or sustainably sourced goods and products. Show some gratitude to Mother Nature!
Senior Astrology Editor
Erika W. Smith (she/her) is the current Senior Astrology Editor at Cosmopolitan. In her 3+ years at Cosmo, she’s worked on everything from editing weekly horoscopes, to reporting on how astrology influences album release dates, to launching The Cosmo Tarot. Before joining Cosmopolitan in 2020, she was a writer and/or editor for Refinery29, HelloGiggles, and BUST magazine. Her book Astrosex: How to Have the Best Sex According to Your Star Sign was published in 2021. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn.