Yule and the Winter Solstice

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the eight points of the wheel of the year. It is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. This piece was originally published on Tony’s own website, The Enchanted Silence.

In his book ‘Metamorphoses’, the classical greek writer Ovid retold the old story of Ceyx, the king of Thessaly, and his dearly loved wife Alcyone. Ceyx was lost at sea on a voyage to Delphi and on hearing the news, Alcyone went to the sea shore, heart-broken, to drown herself and join her lover. Because of the strength of their love, the olympian gods took pity, restored them both to life but then transformed the pair into halcyon birds, a kind of kingfisher. Each year following, at the time of the winter solstice, Alcyone would make her nest and lay her eggs on the sea shore and during this season, her father Aeolus, God of the Winds, would stop up the winter storms in a cave to allow the nestlings to be nurtured. For this reason, said Ovid, even to this day the Mediterranean is blessed at mid-winter with days of still, calm weather – the so-called ‘halcyon days’ named for doomed Alcyone. 

This image of midwinter stillness fits perfectly with the second station of the Wheel of the Year, the festival of the winter solstice known as ‘Yule’. Here the pendulum of the year hangs in space at the end of its swing, a moment of drawn and suspended breath when the rising solstice sun crosses the horizon at the same point on three consecutive days before starting its northward journey into the coming year. This is reflected in language. The word ‘solstice’ itself means ‘sun standing still’ from the latin words sol and sistere, whilst in Ireland, the solstice is an grianstad, meaning the ‘sun-stop’. This still point, the turning point when the world waits to see if a new year of light and warmth will be kindled, suggests a kind of holy pause at this pole of the year, something we can sense only if we step away from the fullness and busy-ness of our western celebration of Christmas.

The name assigned to the station of the winter solstice in the Wheel of the Year, ‘Yule’, like the summer solstice and spring equinox comes from Germanic roots rather than Celtic ones. This reflects a historical truth that in very general terms, the Germanic peoples placed greater emphasis on the winter and summer solstices as times of gathering and celebration, whilst in Celtic cultures the rhythm of the year was marked more prominently by the cross-quarter days, and in particular Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf, Beltain and Samhain by the gaelic names.

The name ‘Yule’ in medieval and in earlier times applied to both the midwinter period of feasting and also to the midwinter month of December. Many of the original celebrations of this feast invoked Odin, the solar-eyed deity of the Norse pantheon. Amongst his many other titles Odin is named “Yule Father” and “Yule One” (‘Iolne’ or ‘Jolne’ in the older texts) whilst the gods and goddesses of Asgard are collectively referred to as ‘Jolnar’ or the Yule Ones.

The 12th century History of the Kings of Norway describes the three main toasts of the Yule feast; the first to Odin “for victory and power to the king”, the second for peace and bountiful harvests, and the third to the king. In the British Isles the Venerable Bede referred to a pagan Anglo-Saxon festival held at the winter solstice, on the same date as Christmas Eve (in Bede, the “eighth calends of January”). Although the rites of this date are no longer known, the night was intriguingly called Modranicht (Mother’s or Mothers’ Night). 

Although the New Testament gospels make no mention of a winter setting and give no solid clue to the timing of Jesus’ birth, the celebration of this event gravitated to the time of the winter solstice during the early history of the church. At the turn of the third century, Clement of Alexandria listed a range of calendar dates throughout the year that had been proposed as the day of Jesus’ birth but there is a relatively brief gap from there to the first recorded celebration of Christmas on the specific date of December 25th, in AD 336.

At the end of the fourth century Augustine of Hippo then wrote that Christmas had been aligned to the winter solstice as “the shortest [day] in our earthly reckoning… the one whence light begins to increase”. The move of Christmas to December 25th, the reckoned date of the winter solstice in the roman calendar, is often seen as a strategic move by the church of the time, attempting to re-appropriate the day from the novel imperial cult of Sol Invictus, the deified sun, whose feast had been established on that date by Aurelian in AD 274. It is impossible to say, however, for how long before AD 336, and for how long before Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313, the church had been celebrating the nativity at midwinter before that first recorded occasion.

The celebration of Christmas at midwinter however aligns the night-clad mystery of Christmas Eve with the stillness and held breath of the longest night of the year. The midwinter darkness of Christmas eve is not just the tomb of the dying year but also a fecund womb in which new life is kindled.  In the birth of the Christ child, a divine spark appears in the holy space of this longest night. To misuse Thomas Merton, “a little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty that is the pure glory of God” is placed within the mortal world. In Christian theology,  from this new singularity an entire new creation unfolds, the morning star heralding the full light of a new day. In the same way, the newborn sun child will grow from this longest night to warm and illuminate the year ahead.

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