I often get asked by pagans who are new to their path, or who are not in a coven, what they should do to celebrate at Yule - a pagan name for festivities in late December, at around the time of Christmas.
Pretty much everyone, of every faith and culture, seems to have something to celebrate around midwinter - December 21. It is one of the oldest known festivals and our ancient ancestors constructed huge monuments, such as Stonehenge, to mark the dawning of the sun after the longest night of the year.
We don't know exactly what people did as far back as the time Stonehenge was built, but many modern pagans still like to watch the sun's renewal on the midwinter solstice. If you have a stone circle or megalith nearby, you will almost certainly find you are not alone if you go there on December 21. Other popular places to watch the dawn are hilltops and east-facing cliffs and beaches.
But, lets face it, the weather is pretty grim at this time of year and you have to be quite hardy and determined to climb up some icy hill in the dark, with a bitter wind blowing and maybe even a blizzard, just to watch the sunrise.
Many of our pagan ancestors would much rather spend midwinter huddled around the fire, enjoying a drink and playing games to keep themselves cheerful until the days were obviously getting a little lighter. Doesn't sound that dissimilar to what most of us do today, does it?
Marion Green, in her book A Witch Alone: Thirteen Moons to Master Natural Magic, describes how communities would burn a huge Yule log and keep it burning throughout midwinter night. They would deck their homes with evergreens, red holly berries and white mistletoe. These are considered sacred by druids, but also kept the halls smelling sweet and looking festive.
Bringing greenery into the home is something we do today, even though the Christmas tree itself is quite a modern tradition in England. As a pagan, you might want to say a few words to the spirits of the plants as you bring them into your home and ask for their blessing. Both holly and mistletoe are protective plants and guard the home against mischief or accidents, while pine promotes fertility and long life, according to Cunningham's Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs .
Kate West in The Real Witches' Handbook suggests several other ways pagans can celebrate Yule that fit in well with a modern Christmas. Light a yellow or orange candle, the colour of the sun, before sunrise on the solstice. While it burns, think about the reasons you are celebrating this season and also consider what you want to be renewed in the year ahead. You can either watch until it burns down, or light it for a short time each day over the festive period. Remember not to leave any candle unattended. Yule might be a fire festival, but you don't want to burn your own house down.
Food is a vital part of yuletide celebrations. Kate West also suggests making your own chocolate yule log. Put a cake candle on it for everyone present. As people light their candle, they should make a wish. Then they can enjoy eating the cake and share the blessings of the season.
If you want to do a more elaborate ritual but aren't in a coven or pagan group, then the website pagan-magic.co.uk has a lovely Solitary Yule ritual that you can download for free. Other books that contain good Yule spells and rituals to perform alone include Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (Llewellyn's Practical Magick) and Llewellyn's 2009 Witches' Spell-a-day Almanac.
A Witch Alone: Thirteen Moons to Master Natural Magic
The Real Witches' Handbook
Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs (Llewellyn's Sourcebook Series)
Llewellyn's 2009 Witches' Spell-a-day Almanac
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (Llewellyn's Practical Magick)