Welcoming back the sun: Yule, the celebration of the shortest day of the year

  • The spiral in the park in Wilton is available for people to walk at any time of the day or night around the winter solstice, in reflection and contemplation. Courtesy photo—

  • The spiral in the park in Wilton is available for people to walk at any time of the day or night around the winter solstice, in reflection and contemplation. Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/17/2019 12:03:47 PM

Yule, the festival celebrating the winter solstice, is an annual tradition for Wilton residents Raven and Lyrion ApTower. It’s a festival all about light and life, Raven said, one of the eight sabbats, or holidays, of the Pagan calendar.

“Before people had electricity and candles, people were more tied to the seasons,” Raven said.

Especially in Northern Europe, where the specific traditions of Yule are rooted, the shadows and cold associated with the shortest day of the year “brought in evil, and fear, and so on,” said Lyrion.

“They needed light, they wanted to remind the sun to come back and warm the land,” Raven said.

The word “Yule” itself comes from an Old Norse word meaning “wheel,” they said, referring to the turning of the seasons.

The ApTowers noted the marking of winter solstice and feting the return of light as a global phenomenon, common to many pre-Christian traditions.

“We are neo-Pagans,” Raven said, describing Paganism as a term used in reference to pre-Christian religions around the world. “It basically means the country bumpkins who celebrated the seasons,” he said.

Raven said their winter solstice celebration involves making a lot of noise and singing carols. One year, he said, “we went out and stamped on the ground to wake up the Earth,” he said, and played the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky.

“Some people will burn Yule logs,” Raven said, a tradition with symbolism related to the Tree of Life, and fertility in the resulting ashes.

“People would burn either a tree or a large log,” Lyrion said, “to keep warm … and to bring the house ablaze, dispel the darkness.”

“A lot of it is just plain fun,” Lyrion said. “Scientifically, we know the sun is going to come back, we know that. But there’s this participation in the cycles of nature in a very magical and mystical way that just works for some.”

“We have our friends over and exchange gifts,” she said. “We will be having a tree … There’s cheer, and warmth, and drinking, and a very joyous celebration.”

Celebrating Yule can look a lot like celebrating Christmas, the ApTowers said, because many of the traditions associated with Yule were readily adopted by Christians.

“Every Pagan I know has a Yule tree,” Lyrion said. “We might not hang crosses on it,” she said, or put an angel on top.

She said that the celebration of Yule is less commercial than Christmas, and less focused on the “decorate and buy” aspects of the holiday season. She said they themselves opt for homemade gifts.

“Modern pagans,” she said, would prefer “to take a walk in the quiet woods, and feel the darkness, and connect that way.”

Lyrion said that most Pagans spend Christmas Day going to a Chinese restaurant and the movies, but noted the conspicuous overlap in the celebrations of Yule, Christmas and Hannukah.

“The ‘return of the Son’ to Mary is also the return of the ‘sun,’” she said. “It’s the longest night, shortest day, and the sun begins to come back.”

She noted that Hannukah also celebrates the return of light.

The ApTowers said this will be the third or fourth year they’ll be constructing a meditation spiral out of branches and lights in Wilton’s Main Street Park in honor of winter solstice.

“You walk a spiral,” Lyrion said. “You walk it in contemplation, and you think about the past: what have you done, what have you accomplished, regrets, what you want to get rid of.”

She said that as a person walks inwards, in a counterclockwise, they may shed and remove sorrows, anger, resentment, and things that no longer work for them. At to the center, “you pause for a moment… [and] take stock,” she said. A walker then exits the spiral in a clockwise direction, “hopefully with new understanding and hope” about the world.

The ApTowers described the spiral as a seasonal, non-sectarian installation, although Raven said there is “some related symbolism,” to the Pagan tradition.

“Counterclockwise was a direction of banishing in Europe,” he said.

Clockwise, alternately, is the direction the sun takes across the sky. “It’s a physical representation of shamanic inward-going and outward-going,” he said.

Going into the spiral, a walker focuses internally.

Exiting the spiral, Raven said, “you’re sunwise, ready to take on the world.”

The ApTowers will begin tolay out the spiral at 3 p.m. on Thursday, and it will be available to for walking, day or night, for public observance of the winter solstice.

“Anybody can walk at 3 in the morning, the lights will be on. I’ve gotten a couple of letters from people who really appreciate the opportunity to do that in a non-church or religious environment,” Raven said. “We invite everybody and anybody to join us.”


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