Of all the solar Sabbats, Yule is probably the one most clearly rooted in an ancient pagan holiday, as it takes its name from a festival held in Germanic and Scandinavian cultures around the time of the Solstice (though the original Yule likely lasted for several days).
Of course, many other peoples of the ancient world also observed the Winter Solstice, as we can see by the number of Neolithic monuments—like Newgrange in Ireland—built to align with the sunrise on this day. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia around this time, which involved feasting and exchanging gifts as well as ritual sacrifice. In Persia, this was when worshippers of the god Mithra celebrated his birth. And the Druids of the Celtic Isles are said to have gathered sacred mistletoe and sacrificed cattle on the solstice.
But while some forms of Wicca may base their Yule celebrations on some of these other regional traditions, in general the Norse and Anglo-Saxon customs that give the Sabbat its name are what the day is best known for.
In the lands of Northern Europe, the Solstice festivities were the last opportunity for most people to socialize before the deep winter snows kept them from being able to travel. Great gatherings were held by the Germanic tribes where feasting, drinking, and ritual sacrifice of livestock took place. Bonfires were lit and toasts were drunk to the Norse gods such as Odin and Thor.
These activities helped ensure a prosperous growing season in the coming new year, which was dawning now with the Sun’s reemergence from the dark shadows. Some of the traditions observed during these ancient festivals—such as the Yule log, decorating with evergreen boughs and branches, warm alcoholic beverages known as wassail, and group singing—continued on through the centuries and are still part of many Christmas celebrations today.
The Yule log in particular was widespread in Europe, with many different regional customs attached to it. Traditionally made from a large log of oak, it was decorated with pine boughs, holly, or other evergreen branches and doused with cider or ale before being lit at the start of the festivities. In many places, this fire was lit with a piece of wood saved from the previous year’s Yule log.
The log was supposed to be harvested from the land of the household, or else given as a gift—to purchase it was deemed unlucky. The Yule fire was tended so that it didn’t burn out on its own, in part so that a piece of the log could be saved to start the following year’s fire. The length of time for the fire to burn varied but was usually between 12 hours and 12 days.
The Yule festivities—caroling, games, the exchanging of gifts—took place around the warmth of the fire. In some places, the ashes from the Yule fire were used to make magical charms, sprinkled over the fields to encourage the crops, or tossed into wells to purify the water. As with so many other pagan festivals, we can see that the magical power of fire was alive and well at Yule!
The most obviously pagan remnant surviving in today’s holiday traditions is probably the use of mistletoe. This parasitic plant (called so because it grows attached to a host plant, usually oak or apple trees) was significant to both the Norse and Celtic cultures, as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s not clear why “kissing under the mistletoe” became a tradition, but it’s thought to come from an ancient Norse myth involving the goddess Frigga and the death and restoration of her son Baldur.
The significance of mistletoe at the Winter Solstice likely comes from the Druids, who viewed the plant’s ability to stay green while the oak it grew on was without leaves as a sign of its sacred powers. The mistletoe was ritually harvested at this time with a golden sickle and fed to the animals to ensure fertility. It was also valued for its protective properties, particularly against fire and lightning, and was used in medieval times for healing.
Interestingly, once the Christian Church had coopted Yule and other Solstice festivals in its quest for domination, mistletoe was prohibited as a decoration, most likely due to its association with magic.