The ancient people of northern Europe were hunter gatherers, many of whom worshipped the sun. In Norse mythology the sun is a wheel that changes the seasons and it was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule comes from. At the mid-winter solstice they would light bonfires, tell stories and drink ale, in addition to making sacrifices to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming crops.
This winter solstice was immensely important to them because they were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Food shortages were common during the first months of the winter, so this festival was the last celebration before deep winter began. Most cattle would be slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
CELTIC AND DRUIDIC PRIESTS
In Scotland, before the arrival of Christianity, on the solstice, Celtic priests would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.
It was also the Druidic priests who maintained the tradition of the yule log. The ancient Celtic people believed that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit, using the remains of the previous year’s fire. It was believed it would conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
The celebration of the winter solstice has its roots in many cultures worldwide, particularly the Celtic tradition, where druids – wise women and men – would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and offer it as a blessing each year.
NEAR SHORE RADIO SHOW ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE 3-MIN CLIP:
According to an old Celtic myth, on the solstices of each year the Oak King, representing the light, and the Holly King, representing the dark, would fight, with the Oak King emerging victorious at the winter solstice, enabling the return of the light.
The winter solstice tradition dates back to before the Celts, however, as evidenced by the underground cairn in Newgrange, Co Meath, constructed in 3300BC, which is illuminated by the sun at dawn on December 21st.