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Irene over at Me, Myself, and I asked if I’d share some of our Yule (a Celtic celebration of the Winter Solstice) traditions and I finally got some time to put something together. Before I get into the traditions we celebrate here at my home, I thought I’d toss out a few historical tidbits about the Winter Solstice, Yule, and Christmas since there are elements within each of these celebrations that are similar. There isn’t a lot of information available about some of the oldest traditions, but little bits here and there have been found … here’s my take on some of the information I’ve found:

Bringing evergreen trees into the home and decorating them has roots in a number of pagan cultures. Early Nordic and Celtic peoples would bring evergreen (pine, cedar, holly, and mistletoe) clippings inside to remind them of the spring to come after winter passed and the Druids (who were the spiritual leaders the Celtic people looked to) considered evergreens to be sacred and a symbol of the recurrence of plant life in the spring. Some families may have added small baubles to please the house spirits in their homes, but the decorated tree in its current form is believed to have begun in Germany in the 16th century.

Hanging mistletoe and exchanging kisses under it isn’t quite as straightforward. Mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant that feeds off the trees it attaches itself to … it’s found growing on the limbs of trees in a number of regions. There is evidence that mistletoe was thought to contain supernatural powers by the Celtic people and was used as a medicinal herb. In Scandinavia, if one encountered an enemy near a tree with mistletoe growing in it’s limbs, it was custom that both must lay their weapons down until the next day. It is supposedly this custom, combined with the mythology of Baldur (son of the Norse goddess Frigga) and his death that leads to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. I won’t recount the myth here, but some say that since Baldur was killed by a spear made from mistletoe there was an agreement made with Frigga that after his death only love was to be practiced under mistletoe.

Exchanging gifts and holiday parties can be traced back to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia honoring Saturnus, the god of agriculture. Saturnalia began on December 17th and went for an entire week (through the 24th) with wild parties, generous gift giving, and a reversal of the social classes … the slaves got to be the masters for a few days. On December 25th the partying continued with Mithras, the celebration of the birth of the sun god Mithra. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the Catholic Church claimed December 25th as the birth date of Jesus* and many historians believe this was an attempt to co-opt some of the traditions of Saturnalia to make the introduction of Christianity more palatable to the Roman people.

Yule in our house is very similar to the Christmas celebrations others in my family have. I was a bit late this year, but usually the tree and decorations go up during the Thanksgiving weekend. Since hubby talked me into an artificial tree early on in our marriage, I quickly discovered the positives … no dropped needles, no water for the critters to get into, no dried out tree to become a fire hazard … and a tree I can leave up for six weeks instead of two. Not sure if he’s sorry about that or not, but he’s stuck with it now! And of course my herd of Santas get put out on the mantle and entertainment center along with pine, poinsettias, stockings, and lots of lights.

Our traditional meal is a Honeybaked ham with au gratin potatoes, baked beans, veggies, and King’s Hawaiian rolls (Darling Daughter’s favorite) with pumpkin pie for desert. The ham is a family favorite and it gives me a break on the cooking after going all out for Thanksgiving. Depending on when Darling Daughter and Son-In-Law show up we open presents either before or after dinner and I’ve got to have Mannheim Steamroller going in the background. After dinner we chat a bit and usually watch a movie together.

Aside from the family festivities, I will do something by myself to mark the passing of the Winter Solstice … usually a simple meditation and a tarot card spread to see what I should be paying attention to in the near future. One of the older traditions that I’m thinking about taking up is that of the Yule Log. The stories I’ve been able to find on yule logs are sketchy and varied but I like the idea of burning a log for prosperity for the coming year. And each year the log is lit from a piece of the previous year’s log that has been saved. I think the only reason I haven’t done this before is that it just isn’t that cool here in December.

So … not all that much different from what most folks do I suspect, it’s just that we celebrate a few days earlier. I think one of the reasons I like Christmastime so much is because of the commonalities in the celebrations. It reinforces the similarities instead of the differences for a change. And of course, there’s Santa. To me Santa personifies the best in human nature and what we should all aspire to be. And he’s got magic too. And reindeer. And he gets to make the little ones happy. How could you not love the guy?

* The birth of Jesus if Nazareth is believed to have been in the spring which is supported by the mention of shepherds watching over their flocks … this was common in the spring when the ewes gave birth, but not practiced in the winter.

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