By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service
BOSTON — December brings Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. It’s a month filled with good tidings. The stores are decked out in red, green, silver and gold, and Santa Claus is everywhere you look. It’s the season of giving, and everyone is wishing one another “Happy Holidays.”
However, there is one one winter holiday often gets overlooked – a midwinter festival known as Yule.
Yule is the Pagan and Wiccan celebration of the winter solstice that is celebrated every December. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, and it heralds the daylight hours growing longer again.
It is also a day in which Pagans see the “light and the darkness being in perfect balance,” according to Shelley Holloway of Somerville, Massachusetts.
“Today’s Pagan practitioners have returned to the practical and symbolic meaning of this time of year,” Holloway said. “There isn’t a New Englander out there who isn’t happy to see the growing daylight after what feels like the endless darkness of winter, but for Pagans, this growing daylight also holds spiritual significance.”
Holloway is what she refers to as the “main Witch in charge” of a group called The Cornucopia Collective. The group is what she called a “pluralistic, post-modern Pagan organization intended to facilitate events and education for Pagans, Witches, Wiccans and other magically-oriented folks in urban Boston.”
To celebrate the turning of the season, the Cornucopia Collective will be gathering together for candlelight, song and fellowship. They will be hosting a potluck feast and exchanging “gently used” gifts amongst themselves.
“This ritual is lighthearted and a nice reprieve from the fallow time of late autumn and early winter,” Holloway said. “It’s a true community favorite!”
Joan Ruland Donnelly, a Blue Star Wiccan, will be celebrating Yule with the Starlight Coven in North Andover. According to Donnelly, the coven will gather before sunset on the night of Yule and begin their festivities then. They have a special yellow candle that will be lit at sunset to “catch the last rays of the sun in.” This candle will then be the coven’s source of fire for all activities throughout the night.
“Since, on the winter solstice, sunset is around 4:15, we gather early, and it will be a long night,” Donnelly said. The Starlight Cover will also celebrate with the old Wiccan tradition of “lighting the sacred fire of the nine woods.” This is a ritual fire that, in their belief system, is lit for certain occasions.
They will burn nine different types of wood, including Holly and Ash, and recite a rhyme. The types of wood can vary depending on the sect of Wiccanism or Paganism that you subscribe to, though many believe that you should never burn Elder wood because it’s “the Lady’s tree,” and burning it will curse you.
After the fire is lit, they will put up garlands and “kissing balls,” made from mistletoe. They will also cook and feast, tell stories and exchange gifts, all while making sure that their fire stays lit until sunset.
Similarly, Charleen Johnson-Craft will also be celebrating the solstice with her own community of Wiccans. Originally taught by a woman from Salem, Johnson-Craft now lives in Rochester, New York and teaches metaphysical anthropology classes at The Gypsy’s Raven, a shop that she owns.
Johnson-Craft and her students gather at dusk the night before the solstice to light their Yule Log, a log with engraved symbols that is usually from pines, which are evergreen throughout the winter. They will then write out their aspirations for the coming year, place them on their Yule tree or wreath and burn them with the flames of the Yule Log when the sun comes up the following morning.
Finally, they’ll join together to say a prayer to the goddess, Gaia, the Mother Earth.
Like the Cornucopia Collective and Starlight Coven, they will also sing, exchange gifts throughout the night and eat a whole lot of food. They will make and share a traditional drink called Wassel, a hot apple cider with spices like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon that they often mix with bourbon or rum, and they will chow down on ham and Yule Log cakes.
According to Johnson-Craft and Donnelly, many covens and pagan groups have different interpretations of the same activities. Yule is a time filled with rich traditions for Wiccans and Pagans, just like for Jewish and Christian communities, where they can gather with loved ones, celebrate life and look forward to the coming year.
Music, food, family, friends and presents. Not too much different from what you’d expect at a Christmas party, right?