Since we’re still “recovering” from Samhain I thought this was the perfect opportunity and time of year to talk about the “spirit” of Yule; that is how up until pretty recently, historically speaking, Yule was the time for focusing on the spirits of the dead and ghost stories — NOT Samhain! We do still have one pretty outstanding holdover of this ancient truth and tradition that is a major part of our holiday pop culture: Charles’ Dickens, A Christmas Story. Somehow, though, no one is asking WHY one of the most well-known Christmas stories is actually a ghost story anymore! But this week my theme is “The Holiday Spirit”, so let’s talk about this fading holiday trope and why I think we should bring it back to our modern-day Yule traditions!
We’ll talk about it a lot more later this season, but you probably already know that Yule has a rowdy history of being thoroughly pagan and full of debauchery. Yule in name and in a lot of practice is Norse-Germanic in origin. It was originally fill with lots of drinking, merry-making, mischief, and — well — ghost stories! In later years, when the Victorians in America realized they could never completely squash the winter holiday traditions, they started a lot of the traditions that we celebrate and cherish today. Modern Christmas is actually very much that — MODERN! (Although the Victorians really wanted us to think otherwise and here we are.)
The Christmas ghost stories are one of the many remnants of this more pagan era of Christmas. But, the question I want to address in this blog is WHY is Christmas/Yule/Winter Solstice associated with ghost stories? (Especially when we JUST had Samhain — isn’t that enough ghost stories for one year?) So, let’s start with a chat about the spooky history of winter solstice:
Some account say that these spirits would “steal” food and drink, although I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that historians probably didn’t realize that much of the food “stolen” were actually libations made to attempt to circumvent the mischief that COULD have been rendered if the spirits were not paid their due. The Yule season (which traditionally lasted for twelve days leading up to the solstice itself) was said to be when the gods and all other creatures and beings were closest to our realm (Midgard) and the most easily able to travel from world to world.
The Amalgam of Modern Paganism
Modern paganism is a combination of so many different cultural and traditions, mostly European in origin. So we find that the Irish/Celtic tradition and folklore of Samhain as having a thin veil here meeting the folklore of Nordic and Germanic countries suggesting winter solstice as having the thinnest veil. Over the course of recent history, we’ve slowly shifted the worship of ancestors to Halloween/Samhain but I submit here that both of these traditions are based on the very clear and obvious fact that it is during this “void” of the year where the days are shortest and the nights the longest it was easy to assume that spiritual activity would be as its highest.
It was, traditionally, Yule where ancestor were usually given more attention. Over time, with the themes of death and transformation it must have just seemed “natural” to shift all of it to Samhain and focus on the light aspects of Yule only. Maybe it’s because since the Christianization of modern society we’ve developed a serious fear of death that as a society we chose to limit our focus on death to be only once yearly to avoid the unpleasantry of thinking about our own demises. However, what time of year do you find yourself thinking more about family? Samhain? Or Yule?
One commonality among most people who have ever loved and lost is the acknowledgement of how difficult the holidays are without our loved ones among us. It shifts our experience so significantly. What better time of year is there to focus on them.
So, this year when you are celebrating — and undoubtedly many of us will be celebrating in much smaller groups than years past. Many will not be able to travel as usual and many will have numerous family members suddenly missing from their tables due to the craziness in the world today. I believe Yule is the perfect time for “ghost” stories; to reminisce on the joy of family of holidays past. It is the perfect time to make a plate at dinner for your lost loved ones as an offering. Invite in the spirits you want in your holiday gatherings, and ward off those who would make trouble like your ancestors before you!
And, while you’re at it — maybe watch one of the many adaptations of Charles Dicken’s a Christmas Carol. I can’t recommend the Disney Mickey Mouse version from the 90’s or the Muppet version enough if you are watching with wee witchlings! Remind yourselves of the joy of the season through storytelling like your ancestors before you — all the better if they be stories of holidays gone by.
Do you honor your ancestors at Christmas/Yule/Winter Solstice usually? Tell me about your own Yule traditions in the comments below!