Jul celebrants prepare as winter solstice nears

The winter solstice is a grand time of year for anyone of pagan denominations. With Saturnalia on the 17th-23rd and Jul (Yule) on the 21st-1st, this time of year that is usually associated with Christmas is a time of celebration for witches everywhere, and today we will be learning about how to celebrate and why we celebrate the holiday known as Jul. 

To start off let’s discuss some of the famous symbols of Jul. 

Eight tiny reindeer are first named in the Clement Clarke Moore poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” but the number of steeds leading the sleigh comes from the number of legs on Sleipnir, Odin’s steed/nephew. And speaking of Odin, the traditional Santa is actually based on the Aesir god. A god of war, death and wisdom, Odin would lead the wild hunt during Jul, and this symbol of a large, bearded, old man in a warm cloak riding on an eight-legged steed delivering feast and mead would later turn into Santa Claus.

Christmas elves, now jolly little helpers of Santa Claus, elves in this sense originate from the mythical creatures álfar or huldufólk (hidden folk). These fae were like many spirits who had two sides: light elves and dark gnomes. Either helping and leaving gifts or hindering and stealing from people, depending on the elves alignment, it was always a toss up, so, generally, pagans would keep their distance just to be safe. 

The Christmas tree originated from Jul/Yule celebrations, where pagans would gather for feasts in fir tree groves and drink, eat and generally be merry around a grand bonfire. The fir trees were believed to fight off winter depression as they were forever green and seemingly invincible to the death winter brought, hence the nickname evergreen trees. The most important rule, however, was that the tree couldn’t be cut down. Jul trees were a ward spell against winter depression, and once the tree is killed, the spell is cut short. 

Ornaments are a lovely addition to any tree, but originally the decorations had real meaning. They were offerings to the gods from witches begging for the warmth of spring. Originally carved coins of wood hung from the branches, and as the celebration evolved, the baubles later were made out of more precious materials like glass, clay, stone and metal. 

Mistletoe, sweet kisses are delivered under this poisonous plant and the reason is quite sweet. After a branch of mistletoe was fashioned into an arrow and used to kill the unkillable Baldur, his mother Frigg in mourning claimed it as a symbol of love for her dead son and vowed to kiss anyone under it.

Krampus actually has no counterpart with any deity, but he is still very familiar with Jul. As the son of Hel, a norse underworld deity, Krampus is much like his grandfather Loki. Sometimes even being mistaken for him. His name Krampus comes from Krampen which means “Claw,” and he often follows around Odin beating or kidnapping the naughty children who deserve more than a lump of coal or a stick of birch in their shoe. 

Next, stockings. Stockings had a strange origin. First they were shoes set by the hearth to keep them warm, and then when they were filled with treats by Odin, certain shoes would be left by the fire, and as time went on, we moved on to stockings as leather and other cobbling materials became more expensive. 

Finally caroling, what goes better with drinking than singing, and religious singing according to the norse. During Jul, which by the way is 12 days long, plenty of feast and mead was passed around the fire, yet the carolers very rarely stayed by the party and would stumble about bringing holiday cheer to all who would stay home during the celebrations.

Now that you know about the symbols pagans use and why, let’s move on to some rituals of Jul. The winter solstice is very important to most witches as it is a huge change of emotional, natural and spiritual energy. Most celebrate this cold holiday season from the 21st the actual start of the scientific equinox and 12 days on to Jan. 1, and Jul is the most famous of the holidays. The celebration usually consisted of a large party in the woods next to a great hall, with a large bonfire made of a Jul log, which is a full tree divided up into 24” sections. 

A round wreath of pine, holly or laurels would be lit on fire and rolled down a hill representing the sun returning, and a goat would be woven from wicker and then burned as an offering to Skaði, a goddess of winter, as a way to ask for winter’s end. The Jul trees were decorated with offerings of ornaments and dried orange slices to represent the sun. The bonfire was lit, and prayers were spoken every night of Jul by the local gothi. 

Like all holidays, Jul celebrations rely heavily on the food. Some traditional ones are elk, deer and other large roasts, preserved fruits and vegetables from the recent harvest, seasonal winter vegetables mostly in stews, hearty alcohol like honey mead and baked goods like caraway cake.

All dishes were homemade and served in the great hall potluck style as many pagan holidays were more community based celebrations opposed to family gatherings. Of course, nowadays due to Christianity becoming the main religion of many places, this is no longer true, so if you are a baby witch looking to get into Norse paganism this Jul, you will more than likely have to do it on top of your family Christmas celebration. 

Oh yeah, and as a warning, Jul is a festival of 12 days with lots of fire, so do not do this if, 1. You have any arsonistic tendencies, or 2. If you don’t have a fire extinguisher in your home. Other than that, have a blessed Jul and be safe.

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