Happy Yule to all of my Wiccan/Pagan readers, Winter Solstice to all of my Northern Hemisphere readers and Summer Solstice to my Southern Hemisphere readers! Since I reside in the Northern Hemisphere, I am going to write about the significance of Yule and the Winter Solstice.
December 21st is the shortest day of the year and starting tomorrow, the days will get longer by a minute each day until the Summer Solstice on June 21st where it's the longest day and the days will get shorter by the minute. I like how Andrew described it best:
Shortest day of the year...not that anyone would have noticed, given how early it becomes dark here at the moment on any day.
On the bright side, after today the days become longer again. As someone I used to know once said, that means tomorrow* marks the start of summer. Time to break out the bikinis, swimming trunks and water balloons!
(Tomorrow* = in about six months.)
But why does this happen? According to Washington Post, "The winter solstice marks the shortest daylight period, but it’s not the day of the latest sunrise or earliest sunset. In the mid-latitudes the earliest sunset occurs in early December, while the latest sunrise is not until early January. This misalignment occurs because of a discrepancy between “clock time” (which is based on 24 hours), and “solar time” (the time it takes for the sun to appear in the same position in the sky from one day to the next).
The Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees, and our orbit around the sun is elliptical (non-circular). In December, these two factors combine in such a way that our days are actually a few seconds longer than 24 hours – as seen by the amount of time it takes the sun to cross our local meridian (longitude) from one day to the next. In effect, this pushes the time of solar noon several minutes later during December, advancing both sunrise and sunset times even as the days continue to shorten until December 21." (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2014/12/21/winter-begins-today-five-questions-and-answers-about-the-solstice/)
Pagans also celebrate the Winter Solstice in the form of Yule. I know all of y'all have heard of Yule Logs, but what exactly are the traditions? The Winter Solstice or Yule is the time of the rebirth of the sun. For the same reason we are excited for this time of year, Yule was celebrated to welcome the light lasting longer instead of dark nights. According to the White Goddess website, Yule is deeply rooted in the cycle of the year, it is the seed time of year, the longest night and the shortest day, where the Goddess once again becomes the Great Mother and gives birth to the new Sun King. In a poetic sense it is on this the longest night of the winter, 'the dark night of our souls', that there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth. Yule is another fire festival, should come as no surprise, however unlike the more public outdoor festival of the summer solstice, Yule lends itself to a more private and domestic celebration. Yet like its midsummer counterpart, is strongly associated with fertility and the continuation of life. Here the Goddess is in her dark aspect, as 'She Who Cuts The Thread' or 'Our Lady in Darkness', calling back the Sun God. Yet, at the same time, she is in the process of giving birth to Son-Lover who will re-fertilise her and the earth, bringing back light and warmth to the world.
On the White Goddess website you can also see what mistletoe and Yule Logs symbolize. They're very interesting. Even the tradition of the Christmas tree came from the old Yule celebrations.