Chances are you have heard of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights that has become such an integral part of the American December holiday season alongside Christmas.
But make room for another, perhaps less well-known, December holiday that is growing in prominence.
Groups of people who follow contemporary Pagan religious traditions will be gathering to celebrate the old/new holiday of Yule: the Festival of Light in contemporary Pagan nature religion.
Because of the origin of this holiday in Northern Europe, Yule is of special interest to those who participate in the Norse-inspired spirituality known as Asatru [AH-sa-true] or Heathenry. In Pagan spirituality, December is the transition to the new year and is thought of as a time of upheaval as well as new beginnings.
This moment of change was symbolized by the Wild Hunt in the old legends. In December, the fey creatures joined the Wild Hunt and rode the night skies in the winter storms led by the Norse deities Odin and Perchta, while the ancestors sought warmth at the hearths of their kin.
Yule is sometimes referred to as the merry month, with its festivities lasting throughout December. For many contemporary Pagans, the Yuletide often begins with Krampuslauf on Dec. 6 and draws to a close with New Year's Day, or Twelfth night, on Dec. 31-Jan. 1. Krampus is a wild-horned trickster who roams from house to house bringing gifts or punishments based on children's behavior. He is representative of the unpredictable spirit of nature whose vagaries bring both good and bad to human communities. Many of the traditions associated with Christmas are reminiscent of the Yule holiday.
Depictions of reindeer evoke images of Northern life, as do those of Santa Claus in his furry winter suit and sleigh, winter's snow, and evergreen trees and garlands. And like both Christmas and Hanukkah, Yule is a family holiday celebrated in homes, around the table with food and good cheer. But there are Yule services, too.
Yule services have been a long tradition at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington. This year the service will be led by interim minister The Rev. Dr. Gretchen Woods and will focus on relinquishing the accomplishments of the past year and committing to new undertakings in the coming year.
The service will encourage participants to actively address their "ability to make their life what they will it, to use their personal power to change themselves and the things they feel need to be improved in the world," Woods said, adding that a potluck fellowship and Yule carols will follow the service.
As a holiday of light, Yule focuses on the winter solstice. The rising of the sun on the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, has been a central aspect of pre-Christian European spirituality for thousands of years, marked by Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge and Newgrange.
For contemporary Pagans, the solstice sunrise is still an important and sacred time in which the darkest part of the year is broken by the light of the sun. It marks a new year, a new beginning as the calendar shifts, turning away from darkness and toward a season of light and new life. Many contemporary Pagans and Heathens will keep vigil during the solstice night in order to greet the rising sun.
Asatru, like other contemporary Pagan traditions, includes aspects of nature religion. Pagan and Heathen nature religion locates spiritual meaning and significance in the natural world and its cycles.
The calendar expresses the cycle of natural fertility, but also signifies the processes and changes of the human soul. By attuning themselves to nature, Pagans and Heathens accomplish a kind of soul-care, maintaining balance and adjusting their minds and actions to new spiritual realities.
Another tradition of this holiday of light is the Yule log. In earlier times, the Yule log was lit with the remains of last year's log, symbolizing both a new start as well as the continuity of one year following another. As the year's end gives rise to a new year, so one life gives birth to another, and the past lives on in the present, a very Heathen sense of immortality.
In this age of gas and electric heat, the Yule log has been replaced in many homes by a candle or by a delicious dessert roll served as part of the Yule feast. Perhaps the most well-known of Yule traditions, the Yule feast is a time to gather with friends and family in celebration of the New Year.
The Yuletide drink known as wassail draws its name from the Anglo-Saxon toast of "To your health!" in which the company wished each other a prosperous year. Here's a recipe if you'd like to try some.
½ gallon apple juice
½ gallon cranberry juice
1 quart pineapple juice
2 cups orange juice
2 tsp. whole cloves
2 tsp. whole allspice
¼ tsp. whole nutmeg
3 cinnamon sticks
Pour into a large percolator. Place spices in percolator basket. Perk through a complete cycle. Serve hot. If a percolator is not available, simmer in a Crockpot or pan 30/40 minutes.
For many Pagans and Heathens, the gathering of family includes those who have departed, as the ancestors are believed to return to visit with their loved ones. Food and drink are often set out during the Yule feast for these visitors from the other world. The feast often features a main dish of pork, which is associated with the Norse deity Frey and represents prosperity for the coming year. This tradition is derived from the ancient Norse practice of sacrificing a boar during Yule and is preserved in the 16th century English Boar's Head Carol: "The boar's head in hand bear I, Bedecked with bays and rosemary, I pray you, my masters, be merry, howsoever many are at the feast, I bring the boar's head rendering praises to the Lord."
While Yule is an ancient holiday, it is being revived today as a way for contemporary people to reconnect to each other and to the cycles of the natural world. For many contemporary Pagans and Heathens, it is the highlight of the year, harkening back to a by-gone day when people were closer to nature and human communities more tightly knit. Yule is a time to be introspective, paying attention to one's own spiritual condition. Yet it is also a time of happiness and sociability, as families and friends gather together to celebrate the old and welcome in the new with the rising of the New Year's first sunrise.
Yule, another Festival of Light.
if you go
Yule: The Winter Solstice, a Celtic earth-based service
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 21
Where: Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, 3564 Clays Mill Rd., Lexington
Dr. Jefferson Calico is an instructor in Comparative Religion at Somerset Community College.