THE MAIN SEASON CELEBRATIONS
Yule is the celebration of the return of the sun. December 21st, also called Midwinter or Winter Solstice, is the shortest day of the year, flanked by its longest and darkest nights. The sun has completed its circle in the heavens, and is now turning towards us again. From now on the days will gradually become longer. Yule is a whole period, lasting 12 days from December 20th to the 31st, and this is a time of hope and new beginnings. The Yuletide is an important time for the family. The care and commitment we show towards our loved ones during this period has always been a custom of the Germanic peoples. It is a reminder of how much we need and appreciate our family
and friends during the long cold winter months.
As mentioned above, the Christ-mass as celebrated today still retains many Pagan customs. Obvious Nordic symbols, like the old man in red clothing, a sledge pulled by reindeer, the pine decorated with glass globes – all to celebrate a man from the sunny Middle East? Hardly. Christ was allegedly born around the Winter-Solstice, the night when the sun is reborn to the nations of the Northern lands. Indeed, Christmas is still called Yule in Scandinavia. The Germans call the celebration Weihnachten, meaning "the night made sacred".
It is often claimed that modern Christmas traditions were created sometime during the 18th century. If Santa Claus really is a modern figure, why did figures and symbols that were known to our Pagan ancestors suddenly become popular again after so long a time? To me, Santa Claus and the traditions surrounding him proves that the ways of our ancestors are still within us. The people that resurrected traditions that were known to the Pagans must have remembered them from within. Santa is just a modern version of a figure from the ancient North. Likewise, the Christmas tree has always been a symbol of illumination to our ancestors, the reborn light and eternal life. Dancing around the lighted tree to hail the returning light is a very Pagan custom indeed. The traditional Christmas cake or bread with raisins or the British Christmas pudding represents Jord, Mother Earth.
You may want to decorate your own Yule tree with sun-wheels and the sun-rune, and perhaps suns and moons.
A Blot would be appropriate on Winter-Solstice night, and a sun-wheel should be burned. A red candle should be lit at sunset for each of the 12 Yule days. On the night of the 24th of December, a Yule log should be lit in the fireplace as a symbol of the returning warmth of the sun. The log can be decorated with greenery, cones or fruits before it is burned, but take care: The log should not burn out entirely. A piece of it should be kept in your house, and should be burnt with next year's Yule log.
Yule is also a time to give special treatment to both pets and farm-animals, as well as your stranger companions. According to Norwegian folklore, the "Nisse" (the Norwegian word for Santa) is a kobold creature who lives in the stable. It is an old Yule custom to leave a bowl of porridge there for him. The Nisse would be very insulted if he was ignored, and he would no longer do his job of protecting the animals. He might even begin to tease the people of the household if he was cheated of his Yuletide treat.
There are many more customs practiced, especially ones that deal with food, games and rites. These traditions often vary a little from region to region. However, the most important aspect of them all is to hail the returning sun and appreciate the company of your family in the darkest nights.
Disting or Imbolc (around February 14th) is a celebration of the new light that begins to manifest. A candle should be lit.
Easter or Spring Equinox (March 21st) is the celebration of the manifestation of the sun and the new life that spring brings. Night and day are now equally long, and the hens begin to lay eggs. Thus the egg is a symbol of fertility and the beginning of new life. Ancient farmers used the first egg of the year as a sacrificial offering. Painted eggs can be offered as a sacrifice at the Easter ceremony. The eggs may be painted in red, with fertility runes or circles to represent the circle of life. An egg can be hung on the inside of the window to protect the house. Alternatively, you can hang it in the bedroom, decorated with fertility symbols. Collect a few branches and bring them into the house, and hang some colourfully painted eggs on them to give your home the feeling of spring.
This is a time both for spring cleaning around the house and cleansing on a more spiritual level. An awakening from the winter period gives vital energy, so a cleansing bath on the vernal equinox is appropriate. The name Easter comes from the Goddess Eastre or Ostara, the Goddess of spring. The Church took over that name and the traditions to go with it, yet, as they claimed that the time coincided with the resurrection of Jesus, Easter became another major Christian festival. As with Yule, people don't seem to wonder about the somewhat strange connection between coloured eggs, the Easter bunny (an old symbol of fertility) and Jesus.
In Germany, it is still common to have great Easter fires, on which the Yule trees from the previous winter are burnt. It is obvious that this too is a Pagan custom, symbolising that the dark period is finally over.
May Day is a bright and joyful celebration. Trees and bushes become greener and greener. Flowers start to blossom, the days become warmer and there is a sweet smell in the mild air. Both humans and animals are overcome by the giddiness of spring. On May Day, the people of the community gather to drink, sing and dance in merriment. Traditionally, May-poles are erected and children dance around them. In England, you can still watch Morris-dancers perform fertility dances on this day. May is welcomed on the night before May 1st, and it is still a custom in Germany to "dance into the May". This night is called Walpurgisnacht, and is also the traditional night of the witches, who would dance around a bonfire on the Blocksberg (this hill does indeed exist in Germany). The first of May is a day to remember the bright side of life.
Summer Solstice or Midsummer (June 21st) is the celebration of the final victory of the sun, and the full manifestation of the vital forces that were born when the sun turned at Yule. The sun is at its highest point, making Midsummer the longest day of the year. The flowers stand in full blossom and it is believed that the plants are magically charged at Midsummer night, so this is the best time to gather herbs.
Midsummer is a time to heal and a time for lovers. Love potions should be made and love-spells should be cast. Girls put flowers and herbs under their pillow, hoping to catch a glimpse of their future partner in their dreams. In the old days, a sunwheel or a great ball of hay was torched and rolled down a hill to represent the great ball of fire, the sun. People gather around a bonfire that would burn through the entire night. The Church changed this day to St. John's day. The Church allowed the bonfires to be lit, as long as they were not in honour of the sun. But collecting herbs for potions was frowned upon.
Althing (around August) is a time of great regional gatherings and fairs. Social, legal and business matters are discussed and a Blot is performed. This is the time to reap what one has sown.
Harvest or Autumnal Equinox happens on September 23rd. Day and night are of equal length now. The next day will be shorter, and we are reminded that the dark period draws nearer.
Winternight (around October 15th) is a time for turning your attention towards inner concerns. The ground is covered in leaves, and nature will soon die its annual death. This is the period of the year where many people drift towards a more depressive frame of mind, and surely it is easy to feel as withered as the landscape outside. Winter is near, a long period of lifeless darkness lies ahead – but, as always, the circle of life continues. A Blot in honour of the shadowy aspects of the Gods could be performed.
It would be fair to say that the days of celebration from Yule to Winternight not only highlight events in nature's cycle, but also the events in an individual's life – with its ups and downs.
The ancient Celtic festival Samhain is still celebrated in English speaking countries, though under the Christian name of Halloween or All Hallow's Eve, on the 31st of October. Samhain is a time to remember the dead and a time of divination. It is the night when the doors between our world and the underworld are wide open. The dead have the chance to return to our world and communicate with us. On this day, Pagan people would wear masks or paint their faces, so that no difference could be seen between the living and the dead. The Germanic people had a similar celebration in November called Einheriar's day, where the warriors of the tribe would wear masks and painted faces to imitate the Einheriar, the fallen warriors who had joined Odin in Valhalla.
Samhain and Walpurgisnacht, the night of the witches (which may well have been originally dedicated to Freya) are nights when the mysterious sides of life manifest themselves. The period between these two occasions is exactly six months. Both nights are ideal nights for shamanic practice.