Rituals of Winter Solstice and How to Decorate Your Altar or Make a Yule Log
by Nikki Eisinger
November 17, 2020
If you're curious about the rituals of Winter Solstice, or how to decorate your altar with for Winter Solstice, here are some ideas for foraging or gathering traditional and symbolic items for your home altar, and a bit of history on the symbolism of Christmas.
Traditions of Yule
Yule, or ancient Winter Solstice traditions are many and generous, and were shared not only with Christianity, but with many pre-Christian Pagan traditions. It is sometimes difficult to identify the origins, but they are all very familiar in our Western culture even if we no longer teach our children to recognize the symbology behind them.
1. Winter Solstice is a ceremony symbolic of bringing in the light. (Read more about winter solstice ceremonies and rituals here.) So light candles, set out any gold decorations or yellow objects - any bright and shiny decoration can represent the Sun. You can take a plain pillar candle and carve solar symbols on it and assign it as your Sun candle.
2. Celebrate with the colors of the season: Red, white, green and gold derive their holiday identity from ancient roots and traditions and should be represented on your altar. Green, in the form of evergreen boughs has been used for thousands of years to brighten and freshen homes during the dark of winter to remind people that spring will come. The bright red we associate with the holidays is the color of apples which symbolize man’s fall into darkness. Red is also the color of poinsettias and holly berries, a symbol of fiery passion and sensuality. Gold depicts sunshine and light and is also a symbol of prosperity or abundance. Red and gold together are the colors of the fire which warms. White is the symbol of purity and peace.
3. Collect and forage traditional symbols of winter spirit from wherever you live, like pine or evergreen sprigs, holly, pinecones or make a yule log (more on making a yule log below!) A few suggestions:
Gather winter foliage such as:
- Mistletoe: seen as the seed of the Divine, a symbol of life in the dark winter months. Mistletoe symbolizes abundance and fertility and is associated with the winter holidays all around the world.
- Evergreen: represents the eternal aspect of the Divine, as they do not die. Pine, fir, juniper and cedar are all part of the evergreen family, and they’re typically associated with themes of protection and prosperity, as well as that of a continuation of life and renewal. This tradition lives on with today’s humble Christmas tree. Cut some evergreen sprigs to make into wreaths.
- Holly: believed to bring luck so keep a sprig of Holly near your door to invite good fortune into your life in the coming year.
- Bowls of winter nuts: hazelnuts, walnuts or pecans to symbolize the sleeping seeds of Mother Earth.
- Fresh fruit: oranges and apples to represent the sun.
- Snowflakes, a bowl of snow or icicles – to represent the element of water in her winter form.
- Bells – were included in ancient ceremony as a way of driving away evil spirits. Bells can also be used as a way of bringing harmony to a sacred space.
You can also make a Yule log to burn in a solstice ceremony:
The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the Solstice festival. In accordance with tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder's land, or given as a gift... it must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze by a piece of last years log, (held onto for just this purpose). The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out.
Ash, oak, birch or cedar make great Yule logs, and different magical and spiritual qualities are linked with each type of wood. Choose Birch for fertility, Aspen for spiritual understanding, a Pine for a year of prosperity, and mighty Oak for strength and wisdom. As you are looking for wood for a Yule log, search for natural decorations to adorn it. Traditional adornments are, pine cones, leaves, holly sprigs, mistletoe sprigs, rosebuds, winter flowers, wheat stalks, and corn husks. If you must cut anything from a living plant, remember to ask and thank the plant for its gift.
Here is a great short video on how to assemble and bind your Yule Log:
Once you have a dry Yule log, you can create a Yule celebration. Sit around the fire, place the log in the fireplace, and set your intentions free. According to Yule traditions, anyone present should remain present until the wood is burnt all the way down. You can sing carols around it, hold hands and dance clockwise. Do whatever feel right for you and your group - this ritual or ceremony is about the natural energy and intention, as much as it is about tradition. All Yule traditions are all about the community coming together during times of darkness.
A different type of Yule log, is a simple log that is used as a base to hold three candles. Find a smaller branch of oak or pine and chop it to have a flat side. Drill holes in the top side to hold candles - red, green, gold and white to mark the season.
Or, to make a seasonal smudge stick, bundle herbs together, tie them with string, and allow them to dry out, ready to be burn later. Plants such as evergreen juniper, pine, fir, balsam, and cedar can be mix with other scents you find appealing. One of the best combinations is rosemary, pine, fir, and juniper. We have different smudge sticks and ritual kits available in our shop.