This time of year has a long history of celebrations for about as long as humans have been around — in fact, probably before that, too. I’m sure any creature would find itself grateful for the return of the light. After weeks of the days getting shorter and the nights longer, passing the winter solstice brings a return of hope — hope that winter will not last forever that spring will return again.
That sense of promise that comes with the passing of the darkest day is something folks in the northern climates feel a little more keenly. The sun’s absence isn’t just a source of melancholy but a reflection of the harshness of winter. While festivals of light from Hanukkah to Diwali embody the hope that light brings, the bright crackle of the yule log gives heat as well as light and makes it possible to live through one more long dark night.
The other traditional emblems of yule like holly and mistletoe also show their northern home. What’s still colorful in the midst of dark winter, when most branches are bare and their leaves no more than a memory? The glossy green of the holly leaves and the blood red of their berries offer a natural decoration that’s pleasing to the eye. The bare branches also reveal the mistletoe wrapped around their bones, too. The ball of green leaves and white berries looks like an ornament left behind (never mind that it’s a parasite, leeching nutrition away from the tree).
But we’re starved for color in the midst of winter: brightly-hued birds also prove popular. Feasting — well, it’s a natural part of any gathering. If you’ve ever trudged through snow to the top of a hill for a yule fire (believe me, I have many times) you know how welcome the hot food will be when you get back down the hill, shaking the snow off your boots and rubbing your hands together for warmth.
You can watch the light of the winter solstice light up Maeshowe in Orkney. Millennia have passed and still the ritual remains intact. It’s inspiring.
Have a cool Yule. If you want a little more on the older traditions, here’s a piece I wrote some time ago on medieval traditions around this time of year. If you want a holiday read, try my Man City: Martin, an M/M/M ménage.
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