Winter Solstice: Other Mid-Winter Traditions
Author: Christina Aubin
Yule/Winter Solstice (between December 21st and 23rd) also known as: Nollaig; Yuletide, Alban Arthan; Juul; Jul; Jiuleis; Joulupukki; Children’s Day; Dies Natalis Invicti Solis; Saturnalia; Mid-Winter; Brumalia; Sacaea; Festival of Kronos (Cronos); Dazh Boh; Chaomos; Inti Raymi; Dong Zhi; Soyal; Sada; Touji; Zagmuk; Sacaea
Other Mid-Winter Traditions
Yule log also known as the Yule clog, and Yule block, is the foundation log for the Yule eve’s hearth fire. When this tradition began is hard to say, it was mentioned in the 1600’s by John Aubrey, however as traditions are they may have well existed far longer than written word.
The Yule Log was the largest log that could fit in the hearth that had to be found and not cut; it was kindled with a section of the prior year’s Yule log. There is much ceremony and lore surrounding the Yule log. The log itself was treated much like a special guest on Yule eve, libations were poured on it, and songs sung to it, it was paraded in with much merriment and festivity. It was considered ill fortune if the log were to go out on Yule day.
“Ever at Yuletide, when the great log flamed in chimney corner, laugh and jest went round.” Aldrich: Wyndham Towers, stanza 5
There is folklore surrounding the use of the ashes of the Yule log — from the missing them with animal feed, ashes stepped in water assisting animals to bear young and for overall animal good health, placing ashes in the nest’s of poultry to increase their yield and ashes used to help in fertilizing the fruit trees in orchards. The ashes of the Yule log were revered as a potent magical entity.
Yule candles were traditionally large, around a foot and half, candles, which were lighted on Yule Eve. Once lit the candle should not be moved. A small piece of the candle is kept for the following year to light the next Yule candle.
Candles have long been associated with the winter holidays; they cast a soft warm light, whilst reminding us of the central theme of the Winter Solstice holiday. We have always made wax talismans from the wax drippings, infusing them with the greenery we decorated with.
The Mari Lwyd, the gray mare, is a Mid-Winter tradition from the area of Glamorgan and Gwent in Wales, it involves a horse, long since parted, enigmatically returning to life. Today one can see the horse and his companions travel house-to-house, and pub-to-pub through the streets of Llangynwyd on New Year’s Day, due to a revival of the tradition in the 1980’s. Upon the arrival of the Mari and his party the singsongs of introduction, followed by pwnco, a battle of wits. Folks inside the home or pub exchange challenges, mocking one another in verse, which carries on for as long as creatively allows.
Mumming plays typically reenact the struggle of Mid-Winter between the energies of life and the energies death and the resurrection of life from death. The Seven Champions also know as the Guisers, the Tipteerers, the Johnny Jacks, the Soulers, the Soulcakers, the Pace Eggers, the White Boys, the Paper Boys, the play actors, still enact mummer’s plays during mid-winter celebrations to this day throughout most areas of the British Isles and has spread into other areas of world with English emigrants and the increasing popularity of Morris Dance groups.
The majority of Mumming Plays feature a battle between a champion and an opponent, reminiscent of the clash between the Oak King and Holly King that is traditional at Mid-winter. One typically witnesses the champion being killed by his opponent, perhaps many times, only to then see the champion brought to life each time by a physician. The other two kinds of the Mumming Plays are the Sword Dance Play and the Wooing or Plough play.
The plays, are difficult to summarize due to their numerous and diverse displays through time and place. From where and when mumming plays became a part of English seasonal celebrations is still a question that puzzles both folklorists and historians. The first certain references to the mumming plays sprung up in the late 18th century, how long they had been around is still a mystery.
“Wassaile the trees, that they might beare; Many a plum and many a peare: For more or lesse fruits they will bring, As you do give them wassailing” Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648)
Wassailing can be traced back through written history back into unwritten history, when traditions, legends and song were remembered and told, when life itself was magical by just being. Although thought of as of Celtic origins, variations of Wassailing can be found in Ancient Rome and even in the present day Romanian custom of turta.
Wassailing began, according to a fifth-century Saxon legend, by a lovely lasso, the beautiful Rowena. It is she who toasted with the words “Wes-hal”(Good health!) to the English King Vortigern. Rowena toasted to the king with a wine that was a form of the ancient Roman drink hypocras, also know as hyppocras. Hypocras is a type of mulled wine of which spans back through time, it is claimed that this wine is named after the Greek Hippocrates.
Wassailing traditions have taken varied forms, most dependent on the geographic area. All, however, seemed centered firmly around song, drink, merriment, health, fruitfulness, the banishing of spirits bend on ill and the welcoming of those who bring fruitfulness and bounty. The word Wassail is derived from the Old English ‘Wes Hal’, meaning “Good Health” or “Be Whole”
Since times origination apples have been thought to be the “food of the Gods”. Apples have a long and celebrated place in history. Ensuring a good harvest was imperative to the success and survival of families and groups. Some time in the dim past people during winter began toasting and singing to the health of the trees in the orchard.
In some areas, cake and toasts were soaked in cider then brought to the orchard and either laid on the ground around or hung in the braches of the oldest and best trees. This ritual of offering is then followed by a merry ruckus created by those who are wassailing to scare off any bad sprits intent on harming the future apple crop. Singing a traditional, or perhaps not so traditional Wassailing song follows the ruckus. The singing is said to bring the beneficial spirits, who enable a bountiful crop to bless the orchard.
In another tradition, it is the village men who go into the orchards bearing the all important wassail bowl. They share drink, food, song and dance with the apple trees, a merry event indeed. In some places the tree is even threatened with an ax if it not to bear ample fruit, in others the spirits of ill are chased with said ax in hand. As it is with folk customs, the actual components of the custom can vary, sometimes greatly from area to area each adding its own special flare.
Wassail is served in a special Wassail bowl, sometimes known as the Loving cup. Through time the materials used for the Wassailing bowl varied and changed sometimes from silver or pewter, later from wood. The bowl decorated festively – and the Wassail is drunk directly from the bowl. References to Wassailing and the Wassail bowl can be found in the writings of Charles Dickens; by Dickens’ time Wassailing has become entwined with begging door to door.
Traditional Wassailing songs – also called wassails, were sung much like holiday carols.
1. “Here’s to thee, old apple tree, that blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An’ all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!”
2. “Here’s to thee, old apple tree; Whence thou may’st bud and whence thou may’st blow, And whence thou may’st bear apples enow Hats full, Caps full, Bushel, Bushel sacks full And my pockets full too! Huzza!”
3. “Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee, And hoping thou will bear For the Lord doth know where we shall be Till apples come another year; For us to bear well and bloom well, So merry let us be, Let everyman take off his hat And shout to the old Apple-tree; Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee, And hoping thou will bear Hats-full, caps-full Three Bushel bag-fulls, And a heap under the stair.”
4. “Apple tree prosper, bud, bloom and bear, that we may have plenty of cider next year. And where there’s a barrel, we hope there are ten, that we may have cider when we come again.
5. With our wassail, wassail, wassail! And joy come to our jolly wassail! A-wassail, a-wassail!
6. The Moon, she shines down; the apples are ripe and the nuts they are brown. Whence thou mayest bud, dear old apple tree, and whence thou mayest bear, we sing unto thee. With our wassail, wassail, wassail! And joy come to our jolly wassail! A-wassail, a-wassail!”
7. “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green, Here we come a-wandering, so fair to be seen. We are not beggars’ children that go from door to door, But we are neighbors children that you have seen before. Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too, And God bless you and send you a happy New Year, And God send you a happy New Year!” Our wassail cup is made of rosemary-tree, So is your beer of the best barley. -English North and Midlands traditional song
Yuletide Greenery It is a long tradition for greenery to be brought indoors during the Winter Solstice as a remembrance that even when it seems the world is dead and lifeless, life does indeed persist. Customary greens include holly with its berries, hawthorn, mistletoe, and other evergreens, which are made into garlands, ropes and wreaths and other decorations
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown:
O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
– Christmas Carol
Evergreens have long since reminded people of the continuation of life through death, of life in winter, and harkens the eventual return of the Sun. The bringing indoors the evergreens at mid-winter, throughout many cultures, have been documented for as long as there is written records, and as is the way of traditions the practice pre-dates those very records. Evergreens are thought to offer protection and to bring good fortune to the household. Traditional winter evergreens include: Bay, Box, Holly Ivy, Mistletoe, Rosemary, and Yew.
Mistletoe, is an important symbol at Mid-Winter. It is a parasitic plant which has a root system embedded in its host plant. It tends to grow on oak, maple, juniper, cypress and other deciduous trees. It is speculated that kissing under the mistletoe is a remnant of an old fertility ritual this is due to the physical properties of the mistletoe. To the Romans mistletoe was a plant of peace, under which the parties of a dispute would find solution.
In times long past, after the new moon, following the winter solstice, Druids would harvest the mistletoe off the oak trees in a specific Druidic ritual. In England and Wales the farmers would give a bunch of mistletoe to the first cow given birth to after Winter Solstice in later days Christmas, bringing luck to the whole herd. It is believed to ward of fires, lightening, water brought fertility and was an antidote to poison. Its ancient uses can be traced back to the writings of Pliny in his Natural History (77 CE).
Hawthorn, more specifically the Holy Thorn, is an important Winter Solstice as it blooms twice a year — mid-winter and again in May. It is customary to burn the household hawthorn that had been bent and woven into a sphere that had hung in the house as protection and create a new one for the coming new year. Every Christmas branches of the Hawthorn bush at St. John’s are sent to the Queen and Queen Mother, reminiscent this practice during Stuart times.
Holly finds itself one of the most recognizable winter decorations. It is a potent symbol as it bears fruit, its berries, in the deep of winter, reminding that life is always burgeoning forth even when it seems impossible. It is said that Holly can only be brought in the home during mid-winter – to bring it in during other times was unlucky. Holly is a plant generally thought of to be highly protective, thus the tradition of planting it near both homes and churches. It was also used in divination regarding matters of the heart. The size of the berry yield traditionally indicates the severity of the coming winter.
Halcyon Days The Rapper Sword Dance
The “Halcyon Days” are the fourteen windless, days seven days before and seven days after the Winter Solstice, so named for the Greek Halcyon or Kingfisher and their nesting period. The Halcyon Days are calm, peaceful, happy, and prosperous days. The Kingfisher is a symbol of peace and prosperity.
The explanation for the Halcyon Days can be found in the myth of one of the sisters of the Pleiades, Alcyone sometimes known as Halcyone. The myth goes as such:
Alcyone, was the daughter of ®olus, who is the (guardian of the winds and ®giale,. Alcyone married Ceyx of Trachis. Ceyx drowned in a storm at sea. Alcyone, who was heartbroken by the loss of her love, threw herself into the sea upon receiving the news of her husband’s demise. The Gods who pitied poor Alcyone her anguish so they transformed her into a halcyon, the kingfisher of Greece.
The halcyon hen lays her eggs around Winter Solstice at the edge of the sea. In order to ensure the safety of his daughter’s eggs, ®olus stops his winds so the water is calm for 14 days centered on the winter solstice to allow incubation.