Druids at Stonehenge
Yule is the celebration of the re-birth of the Sun god and the return of Light to the land. As the days begin to lengthen once more, the darkness of the winter spirits flee.
The winter solstice is believed to be a mysterious and powerful time, for it is at this point, that the sun begins to make the return journey across our skies. After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the beginning of the return of the warmer season is welcomed - the concept of rebirth became strongly associated with the Winter Solstice.
Three days after Yule many people exchange gifts and celebrate Christmas - the 'birth' of Jesus, as our ancestors celebrated the return of light and the sun growing in strength.
The well-known figure of Father Christmas may have derived from the Pagan god, Herne the Hunter - Cernunnos in Celtic tradition - who was the guardian of the beasts and primal forests and who also appeared as a fertility god.
Yule is celebrated with bonfires that encourage the ascent of the sun, and brightly lit houses are decorated with evergreens to simulate summer.
It is a time to look on the past year's achievements, as the days begin to grow longer up to the mid summer solstice.
In Alton Barnes in Wiltshire the winter solstice is still celebrated by the lighting up of the white horse that is carved in the chalky hillside there. Tea lights are placed in jars, so that the horse glows with candlelight
During medieval times, the Yule Log was decorated and ceremoniously carried into the home on Christmas Eve and placed in the fireplace. Traditionally the Yule log was lit with the saved stump of last year's log, and then it was burnt over the twelve days of the winter celebration, and its ashes and stump were kept until the following year to sprinkle on the new log, so that the fortune would be passed on from year to year.
Even without an open fire, you can still enjoy a Yule log
In France and Germany ashes from the Yule log were mixed with the cattle feed to ensure their health and in other regions the ash was sprinkled around fruit trees to increase their yield of fruit.
Yule wreaths were traditionally made of evergreens and holly and ivy. Holly represents the male and ivy the female and the wreath's circle symbolizes the wheel of the year. Both holly and ivy were used as protection in the home against unwanted spirits.
In the eleventh-century, the Danish rule over England brought the Scandinavian term for Christmas - Yule. Yuletide was the time to bring out the wassail bowl or cup.
The leader of the celebrations would call 'Wassail', from the old Anglo Saxon 'Was Hal' meaning be of good health, which was Old English for 'your health', and the answer was 'Drinkhail', at which the bowl was passed round so everyone took a drink and handed it on with a kiss.In the middle ages, the celebration was transfered from the drinker to the tree. It usually takes place on Old Christmas Eve - January 5th, Twelfth night - January 6th or Old Twelfth night - January 17th.
Wassailing took place, and was originally held around the oldest tree in the apple orchard. The first cider crop was poured on the roots of the apple tree to thank the tree spirits for the crop and to ensure a good harvest next year.
Drumming and banging of pots and pans and sticks would re-awaken the tree spirits and beat away any demons, wassailing was performed to protect the trees from evil spirits until their apples appeared the following year. Then the wassail cup would be passed around. Toast dipped in cider would then be hung on the oldest tree, as an offering to the tree spirits. Christians moulded this other pagan practise, into the singing of Christmas hymns and the Singing of Carols was developed to replace it.
Oh apple tree, we'll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord does know where we may go
To be merry another year
To grow well and to bear well
And so merrily let us be
Let every man drink up his glass
And a health to the old apple tree
Brave boys, and a health to the old apple tree"
'A Merry Yule and Wassail to you all...........'