Today is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere! Winter solstice on this side of the Earth means the longest night and the shortest day. It means every day from now until the summer solstice will be slightly longer than the one before it. It means the start of the waxing year.
But for some, winter solstice is more than an astronomical event. It’s a holiday that some practitioners of nature faiths consider spiritual or religious. For many folks of Pagan persuasions, today is THE big winter holiday. And many Christmas holiday traditions have their roots in our Yuletide celebrations.
Yule logs, decorated trees, and caroling (as well as many of the carols themselves!) come from ancient practices celebrating new life brought into a frozen world. Many polytheistic and Pagan beliefs of old feature a god who was reborn on the winter solstice, and his mother the goddess (symbolic of Earth) would celebrate his arrival. Gifts were exchanged, candles lit, bells rung, carols sung. And some modern Pagans celebrate in similar ways today.
Some modern Pagans celebrate with group or solitary rituals. The purpose of the rituals is to greet the newborn king—sound familiar?—and honor the cycle of nature. Most Pagan folks believe in some form of reincarnation, and that is reflected in the cyclical deity who is born in winter, is married as a king in summer, and dies/is “harvested” in the fall. Because of the mother goddess’s major role in most Pagan spirituality, this holiday honors the female deity as much as the male, and so some rituals will incorporate some sort of tribute to a general or specific goddess, such as lighting three candles to symbolize her three aspects (Maiden, Mother, Crone: white, red, and black candles). Some like to read spiritually significant poetry, make wishes for a new year, or make a toast. And some group rituals will involve bonfires, dancing, singing, drumming, and group invocations. Decorations and celebrations vary widely, but the symbols and practices tend to contain certain common threads.
Many Pagan people like to have a Yule tree and/or a decorated Yule log, and happily this is one of the three holidays of the year for which mainstream stores carry decorations we can use (the others being Easter/spring equinox and Halloween/Samhain). Traditional Yule logs are decorated with ribbons and sometimes burned, though some folks prefer to put candles on it and “burn” the log symbolically.
Yule trees will be more or less indistinguishable from Christmas trees, but many Pagan people prefer to decorate theirs with nature-related symbols or—if they have them—specific symbols of whatever tradition they follow. Mine has a lot of tiny brooms and stars!
Many well-known holiday carols that are appropriate for Christmas can work well for Pagans; since we also have a child of light being born on a winter’s day, traditional songs like “The First Noel,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and “Silent Night” might have special meaning to us too. Plus quite a few carols traditionally sung at Christmas are more about traditions we share than religious beliefs we do not, such as “Deck the Halls,” “The Wassail Song,” and “The Boar’s Head.”
However, a few specifically Pagan solstice songs exist—great for Yuletide celebrants and for anyone who would like to make their holiday music more multi-faith inclusive:
- “Solstice Carole” by Wyrd Sisters [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEGo6pgFPNE]
- “Bring Back the Light” by Gypsy [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtOgecmZEIM]
- “The Holly King” by Lady Isadora
And one thing just about every holiday celebration has in common is that somewhere in there, you’re going to have a feast!
Homemade Wassail Recipe:
- 1 gallon cider (hard or non-alcoholic)
- 6 cinnamon sticks
- 2 teaspoons allspice, whole
- 1 teaspoon each clove and ground nutmeg
- Tart apples (I use about 3)
Put the clove and allspice in a mesh bag or tea ball. Place all ingredients in a large pot and heat until the apples burst. Serve hot with extra cinnamon sticks. (Be sure to strain before serving if cinnamon sticks have broken up during boiling.)
Homemade Caraway Dinner Rolls:
- 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
- 2 cups low-fat cottage cheese
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3 egg whites
- 2 2/3 cup white flour
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
Dissolve the yeast in warm water (indicated on the package, usually between 110º and 115ºF). Add the caraway seeds to the yeast mix after it’s dissolved and foamy. Heat the cottage cheese until lukewarm. Mix in the sugar, salt, baking soda, and egg whites, then add that mixture to the yeast mix. Add the two flours slowly, and mix with your hands once it gets thick enough until the dough is all off the sides of the bowl in one lump. Cover and let rise for about an hour. Stir it down and separate it out into 24 oiled muffin tins. Cover them and let them rise again for about 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350º F. Bake for about 25 minutes. Remove them from the pans while they’re still warm.
And for dessert: YULE LOG CAKE!
- Generous 3/4 cup flour
- Scant 3/4 cup superfine sugar
- 4 eggs, separated
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, broken into squares
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons rum
- Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 375º F. Line (with foil or baking parchment) a 16 x 11 jelly roll pan. Grease and flour the lining. If you don’t have a jelly roll pan use a large cookie sheet, but it won’t come out right if it’s not approximately those measurements.
Set aside 2 tablespoons of the allotted sugar, then whisk the remainder in with the egg yolks until thick and pale. Stir in the extract. Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Whisk the rest of the sugar into the egg whites until it is stiff. Sift 1/2 of the allotted flour over the yolk mix, then add 1/4 of the egg white mix and mix together. Put in the rest of the flour and start folding it in with your hands or a plastic spatula. Then finally put in the rest of the whites and mix it in. Spread this mix out evenly on the jelly roll pan and bake for about 15 minutes.
Sprinkle some sugar onto a sheet of wax paper and flip the cake over onto it. Roll it up (so that it is shorter and thicker rather than longer and skinnier) with the wax paper in it, and let it cool. In the mean time you can make the filling.
Boil the cream and pour over the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl to let it melt. Beat this mixture with a mixer until it’s thick. Take a third of the mix out and set it aside, then stir the rum into the larger portion. If it is really runny and too liquid, you might consider chilling it an hour or so until it’s spreadable. When ready, unroll the cooled cake and spread the chocolate rum mix onto it evenly. Re-roll it–no wax paper in between layers this time–and now you’re ready for ornamentation.
If you desire–though this isn’t necessary–slice off a little piece of the end at a slant and then stick it to the side like an off-growing branch. Whether or not you do this, the next step is to frost using the set-aside cream-chocolate mix. Spread it all over the top and sides so that it is completely covered except for the ends that look like the inside of a cut-down tree. Drag a fork across the surface carefully so that it ends up resembling tree bark. When it’s set, sprinkle some powdered sugar on top like snow. Put on a plate and if you like garnish it with cookies, candy coins, or seasonal decorations.
HAPPY SOLSTICE, GOOD YULETIDE, AND BRIGHTEST BLESSINGS TO ALL THIS HOLIDAY SEASON!
Julie Sondra Decker is a SF/Fantasy author who loves books about anything weird. She’s a passionate activist for asexuality awareness, and her book on the topic will be published in fall 2014. Julie loves baking, babies, singing, and doodling, and she despises onions, typos, and cold temperatures—good thing she lives in Florida! She is pursuing publication for her fantasy/fairy tale trilogy.