What is Yule and Ways to Celebrate It

Yule is a Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year (and the longest night). This year, Yule falls on December 21st.

In her short story, “The Company of Wolves” (a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”), author Angela Carter tells the story of Yule as “one freezing night, the night of the solstice … [as] the hinge of the year[,] … the longest night.” Yule is a time to gather inside by the fire, tell stories, exchange gifts, and support the Great Mother as she labors to bring forth the son/sun once more.

The story of Yule is similar to the Christian story of Mary birthing Jesus on Christmas, only this Mother cross-culturally manifests as goddesses known by many names.

Below are ways that I’ve celebrated Yule with my family and my coven — from handmade gifts and wrapping paper to a traditional Yule log and Yule ritual. Choose what works for you to have a happy Yule this holiday season!

1. Make Homemade Gifts with (and for) Your Loved Ones

As a witch, the winter solstice has provided such relief for me over the years —especially when my girls were little.

Yule served as a much-needed antidote to the panic-inducing rush of Christmas — a holiday too easily tainted by modern consumerism. We were on food stamps back then, living below the poverty line in one of the richest cities in the country. The pressure to buy gifts for our children was a true challenge, as we didn’t want them to feel inferior to their friends.

On top of that, I hesitated to participate in traditional Christmas celebrations. We weren’t Christian, and the commercial aspects of Christmas have always concerned me — especially in a world tainted by inequity, where landfills overflow with cheaply made goods designed to become obsolete as soon as we acquire them.

That’s why the traditional idea that all Yule gifts must be handmade seriously appealed to me.

Back when my kids were still kids, we had an active child-friendly coven that gathered every sabbat. As the high priestess, I hosted these celebrations. To prepare for the solstice, my daughters and I would dream up homemade gift ideas, and would spend precious time together making them in the weeks prior to the Yule celebration.

My oldest daughter, Kaya, is 9 years older than my youngest daughter, Story, so the present projects were designed around their ages as much as was possible (given the almost decade-long gap that stretched between them).

Sometimes we made cookies or bath salts packaged in small jars we gathered from recycling bins. One year we splurged on spray bottles, and crafted seasonal spritzers for our loved ones using essential oils like peppermint or cedar.

2. Get Creative with Gift Wrapping

Making homemade wrapping paper was always a big hit. We’d purchase big rolls of white or brown butcher paper and decorate it by hand, turning ourselves into an assembly line of worker elves.

One of us would operate the rubber stamp of the evergreen tree using the emerald-colored ink pad, while another would draw tiny black stars everywhere we could with a Sharpie. The third would apply glue and silver glitter to the boughs of the trees to replicate frost diamonds.

One year we carved crescent moons into a potato to make our own stamp, while another year we cut a crow into a linoleum block and burnished the black bird to the festive paper.

We would then make smaller rolls held together with a red bow. The people we gave these to could then use the homemade paper to wrap Christmas gifts for the next Yule celebration to come.

3. Decorate the House

As a family, we had fun cleaning and decorating the house in preparation of Yule. We strung popcorn to hang on our Douglas fir (our Tree of Life), and paper snowflakes and stars to hang from garlands that we fashioned from evergreen boughs we cut ourselves.

Not to mention cooking all the dishes we contributed to the customary sabbat potluck (still some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten!).

4. Make a Yule Log

Yule log from my personal altar in 2020

Below is how we make our Yule logs at my house, but please adjust according to your needs, dreams, desires, and/or customs.

Just as you can choose which candles to use and what wood to make your Yule log from, you can choose the color of the candle (or even make your own!)

Steps for Making a Yule Log

        1. Measure and Cut Your Log

      • I measure with a pencil and a ruler or just eyeball the log before cutting it to the desired length (which should be based on how many candle holes you want).  
      • I’ve also let nature do the carpentry for me by scavenging for logs that have already been “cut” the right length by the weight of a first snow or a fatal blow from a gust of wind.

             2. Choose 13 Candles for the Log 

          • I generally use “ritual candles” (found at most witchcraft shops) which are small, cheap, and burn for the ideal duration needed for the Yule ritual soon to be described.
          • I’ve also used menorah candles before, as well as leftover beeswax birthday cake candles and tea candles. Tea candles have the benefit of their tin holders, which significantly help with fire safety.  
          • You can also use fireproof plugs, especially if they have a lip to prevent the log from catching fire.  
          • Once my family actually had a fireplace, we simply let the log ignite in the hearth and burn itself out. But I never leave a Yule log unattended once it’s burning!   
          • Whichever you chose, make sure they’re small and don’t burn for too long, as it’s important to be able to close the Yule circle in the same night that you start it — which requires the candles to burn out in one go.

          My 2020 Yule altar with multi-colored candles. Not pictured in these photos is the bowl with a Jericho rose in it (also known as the resurrection plant, which is easily purchased from your local witchcraft shop and is ideal for a Yule altar).

          One year I used a rainbow of different colored candles, while last year I only used red, as the vibrancy anchored me to my flesh and blood as I mourned my oldest daughter’s death.

                3. Drill the Candle Holes 

              • You’ll want to see how the log sits once placed on a flat surface to find its balance (and to know where to drill the holes for the candles). 
              • To drill the holes, measure the circumference according to the size of the candles you plan to use.

                     4. Decorate Your Yule Log 

                  • You can also decorate your log, but be warn this heightens the fire hazards. 
                  • People often spiral the wood with red and green ribbon and/or greenery and berries such as holly.  
                  • The red symbolizes blood — the life force pumping through our bodies — while green represents the rebirth to come as the days begin to lengthen and winter surrenders to spring.

                         5. Create a Yule Altar 

                      • You can create and decorate a Yule altar where you’ll place the log (or by the hearth). The Yule altar can be an equivalent to a nativity.  
                      • I often use my grandmother’s crocheted tablecloth because it’s a family heirloom, and because the white reminds me of snow. The intricate pattern it boasts resembles snowflakes, or the stars that pinprick the night sky of solstice.  
                      • When the girls were young, they loved to use a doll we have that looks like Snow White to act as the goddess giving birth (they even make her a bed). 
                      • We also use the winter woodland as a muse — hence the brass reindeer seen in the pictures, which we thrifted — and string and clothespins to display holiday cards we’ve received.  
                      • I use some of the girls’ old toys to represent the Snow Queen with her sleigh.

                      My Yule log & altar from 2020 — you can see the Snow Queen in her sleigh referenced in the blog & the brass thrift store reindeer.

                      Performing the Yule Log Ritual

                      Once our homemade gifts are finished, the house is decorated, and the Yule log is ready to be lit, we performed a Yule Ritual to light all the candles. Below are the steps for the Yule log ritual, which you can do with your family, friends, coven, or as a solitary witch.

                        1. Call on All Directions 

                          Start by calling on the directions. Moving Deosil, I begin with east as the point of resurrection since Yule is a rebirth.

                            2. Sit Inside the Circle

                              Sit inside the circle you casted. Start by sitting in the dark — as dark as you can get the space so you can meditate on it being the longest night of the year. Sit in silence with these mysteries as your shadow self prepares to birth your new self.

                                3. Light the first 12 Yule Candles

                                  Have matches ready to light the first candle. While a lighter works, I prefer the theatrics of wooden strike anywhere over plastic and fuel.

                                  When you’re ready (just listen to your gut), light the first candle. This candle represents January of this year. As you bear witness to the slow return of light, everyone in the circle takes turns recalling something significant from January. While it’s encouraged to verbally share, it’s fine to inwardly reflect, too.

                                  Repeat this reflection with each candle. Move through the months by telling stories and considering what you lost and what you gained. Do this until you reach the final candle — the 13th candle.

                                    4. Light the 13th Candle 

                                      It’s finally time to light the 13th candle. This time, imagine the year to come.

                                      Set intentions for yourselves and each other as you revel in the golden light of all the candles burning. Make sure someone is in charge of keeping watch and playing firefighter as needed!

                                      This lux is the returning sun/son the goddess births again. If you’d like, you can light more candles (outside of the log) or turn on a lamp. Bathe in the warm glow as you exchange the homemade gifts and relish in the joy this brings — to give and receive heartfelt labors of love.

                                        5. Close the Circle

                                          To close the Yule circle, make sure the Yule log candles have all burned out first. This is a good reason to stick with the smaller candles, as it’s important to let them burn all the way down and to be present for this part of the spell-casting.

                                          Once the circle is closed you can enjoy a feast, or tell stories inside with cider, or build a bonfire outside where you can sing songs and nurse mugs of hot buttered rum (or cocoa for the kiddos).

                                          Or it might be time to say goodnight — to retire to bed to dream the longest dream during the longest night of the year, and to visualize the year ahead and awake anew.

                                          Celebrating Yule Together or Alone

                                          Remember, all the Yule celebrations above can be done with friends and family or as a solitary witch — and they’re just as sacred.

                                          When I’m alone, I make edible ornaments for the birds as my “gifts,” and adorn the trees around my home or while taking a winter solstice stroll. I read, make myself a delicious meal, and top it off with a comforting warm drink!

                                          Free End of Year Community Gathering with Writual

                                          2022 is just around the corner. As a thank you for purchasing your 2022 Writual Planner, we invite you to attend our FREE Writual Planner Communal Gathering on December 31 at 11am MTST!

                                          Led by our resident astrologist and Writual teacher Dayna Schmidt-Johnson. During this 90-minute event, we will:

                                          • Create collective space and ground into the energies around us 
                                          • Pull our 2022 Year Ahead Tarot Spread (planner page 16)
                                          • Discuss the energies we see collectively for 2022
                                          • Pull cards for January 2022 (planner pages 20 & 21)
                                          • Q&A in an intimate space 
                                          All levels of tarot readers are welcome to this event. Even if you don't have a physical deck, you can still participate! We'll discuss ways to find interpretations of your own spread, and you can use the collective to discern themes. 

                                          If you're unable to attend the live event, the replay will be sent to everyone who RSVPs.

                                          RSVP for the free Writual community gathering now >

                                          About the Author:

                                          Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

                                          Sarah Elizabeth Schantz (she/her/hers) grew up in a bookstore and discovered the Occult when she was 9-years-old. She’s been a practicing witch ever since. Her novel Fig was selected as A Best Read of the Year by NPR and won a Colorado Book Award in 2016. Her next novel, Roadside Altars, has chapters based on the major arcana. Schantz employs the Tarot and other divinatory techniques to inform her writing process, and has been collaging her own Tarot deck since 2006. She is faculty at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and teaches her own writing series, (W)rites of Passage, and Tarot Tuesdays, a generative writing series that uses the Tarot. Her apothecary, The Witch Next Door, offers Tarot readings, customized rituals, and handcrafted spells.

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