Creating Nourishing Traditions for Yuletide
Creating Nourishing Traditions for Yuletide
Recently I was speaking to my neighbor from across the fence about our respective holiday plans. She shared her anticipated frustration with gathering with family, the work load, and an overall penetrating, bone-deep dread.
“At least everyone is bringing a dish,” she sighed.
As if that were the only light she could carry. She asked what our plans were and if we were having a big gathering.
“Just us, I replied and smiled, “I do make a feast though.”
She smile and said something about how lovely that must be and then said, “But you enjoy each other.”
I smiled at her and wished her well. She has always been a wonderful neighbor. We don’t see her as much since her 95 year old mother moved into a retirement home. This interaction stayed with me for days. I kept thinking how sad I felt that the concept of a family liking each other and enjoying a holiday season in a way that feels nourishing seemed out of reach to her and must to so many others.
The truth is, I have intentionally created this Yuletide bubble over many years. I do it for me. My family also happens to love the traditions we’ve created, but truly it is all an act of self-love and sacred self-care.
So many people have come to me this year saying they want to know how to celebrate Yule and are hungry for winter holiday celebrations and traditions that feel more culturally expansive, perhaps connecting them with their pre-Christian ancestors.
There is a tremendous amount of cultural heritage that is ours by birthright, speaking specifically of those of European descent. Ancient people have held this time of year as sacred for longer than we know, evident by the standing stones, megaliths, stone circles, and cairns aligned with the astronomical movements of the Sun at winter solstice.
In the United States, we don’t have cultural history on this land, and in the process of creating our societies here, have become more cut off than we realize. At least, this is how it feels to me at this time.
I also understand how this may feel overwhelming. Perhaps there are already set expectations and standard traditions in your family and the thought of ADDING MORE or learning a bunch of ancient history just isn’t going to feel nourishing.
With that in mind, may I offer these ideas in the spirit of expanding our understanding of the sacredness of this time of year, adding more magic, meaning, and enjoyment to Yuletide this year and in the years to come.
The Household Spirit tradition. This is one of the most widespread and possibly more ancient vestiges of our ancestors and is already a part of the contemporary Christmas season. What you may call garden gnomes, Christmas elves, Santa’s helpers, even Santa himself are modern remnants of the Household Spirit traditions. These are specifically Swedish, Finnish, and Nordic in origin. The Nisse, Tomte, Tontu all are names for an adorable little deity who is dedicated to the care, protection, and prosperity of the household. Chances are, somewhere you have a figurine of a gnome somewhere in your house already!
The practice of leaving cookies for Santa (basically a large elf) derives from the tradition of leaving a bowl of rice porridge, with butter and sometimes honey, out overnight for the Household Spirit on Christmas Eve, Yule Eve, or Winter Solstice night.
This is such an easy tradition to introduce children too because gnomes are cute, familiar, and their imagery and stories are plentiful and easy to find.
It doesn’t even matter if you believe literally in the Household Spirits or not. The act of doing something specifically out of gratitude for our homes and the shelter and safety they provide for our families, is in alignment with belief systems that help return us to connection and relationship with the world around us. This connection and relationship is what we, as modern people, have been separated from.
I recently held a little workshop in my private community about the Household Spirits. A replay is available with membership.
Honoring Ancestors and leaving offerings – Something our pre-Christian ancestors did a LOT is leaving plates of food for our ancestors to enjoy in the feasting. Sometimes the food would just be left out overnight so the supernatural visitors in form of ancestral spirits, household spirits, or traveling spirits and deities could partake. Sometimes offerings were cast into the fire instead.
While it may not be practical to leave all the supper mess out til morning… make it work for you! Leaving a plate out after cleaning everything else up is a good compromise. At times I have even left the plate outside. Historian Tacitus wrote that the Germanic people would leave their offerings outside and if the dogs or an animals came and ate it, it was seen as the offering being accepted and was celebrated.
The Year Walk – This time of year was traditionally a time of divination for the family mystic, witch, or wisdom keeper. On Yule Eve, Christmas Eve, or even New Year’s Eve or Day, the practice of the Year Walk would offer prophesy for the 12 months ahead.
One way this was done was to ritually prepare (whatever that means for you) and take a walk (traditionally to the nearest churchyard or cemetery) in silence with a high quality of attention to what you see and hear. It is the presence of our attention that creates the invitation for prophesy, and augers and omens from nature. Those who prophesied in this way were said to know whose crops would thrive or fail, who would die, who would get married, etc. It is also said that those who are committed to the Year Walk practice, after the 7th or 9th year, would be bestowed with special gifts.
Petrus Gaslander, an 18th century author wrote about this practice “…one must walk into a forest before first light on Christmas Eve, without looking at a fire and without food or drink, and walking so far that the crowing of a cock cannot be heard. Having done so, the "year walker" will now be able to see the events of the future, and by looking at fields and the roads approaching churches can learn of the harvests and funerals of the coming year.”
This practice could also be done while walking around your home. Author Johannes Bjorn Gardback says, “It is done by walking around the home or premises near to the home and take tydor (take meanings) from anything that occurs on the way. Odd visions are said to be common, such as seeing headless shadows of those who are about to die or hearing various spiritual sounds and answers to specific questions.”
The Omen Days - Some people, myself included, begin Yuletide on December 20th. Some begin on the 21st, 24th or even the 25th. There is no wrong way… it truly is a season. Our ancestors did not celebrate “12 days of Yule” or “12 Days of Christmas.” Their celebrations could be as short as 3 days (or as long as the mead flowed) and as long as 2 months.
This 12 Days concept is quite special though, and at the very least it offers a stretched out way rather than an acute, intense way of being as we celebrate the return of the Sun.
If you like the 12 days concept, you may find it interesting to know that it both represents the year to come… each day represents a month in the New Year.
AND these 12 days represent a kind of “time out of time” as the leftover days from the lunar calendar of our ancestors and the fixed solar calendar we use today… because they cannot reconcile. In this interval between the ordinary count of days that gods, goddesses, and deities are born or conceived in many different mythologies.
These are days filled to the brim with magic and supernatural visitations traditionally, and the quality of these days is said to reflect the quality of the year to come.
Caitlin Matthews, author and former chosen chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, says “Within these twelve days lies a wonderful secret, for each of the twelve days is assigned to a month of the coming year, with the first day of Christmas the 26th December as symbolic of January, the second day or 27th December representing February and so on, right through to 6th January which represents the December yet to come. It was the custom of many to go out on each day of the Christmas festival to observe the signs in nature and divine from them the state of the year to come. The omens experienced on each of the Omen Days indicate the nature of each month in the coming year.
The divining of oracles from nature has a long tradition in Celtic lore. The Scots Gaelic tradition of the frith or the augury from the signs of nature is well established. The listening to bird’s calling was a critical part of druidic lore, as was the movement and behaviour of other animals… The real skill is to read the signs in accordance with your understanding at the time.”
We can participate in the Omen Days tradition by taking a daily walk with that same quality of attention I mentioned being crucial with the Year Walk. We can use tarot cards, oracle cards, runes, scrying, ogham, or any method of divination you work with, including simply observing nature.
The key is to RECORD what you divine each of the 12 days so you can return to your prophesies at the beginning and end of each month to come. This practice is incredibly powerful in learning our own individual prophetic and divinatory language and how to interpret what we see, feel, and sense.
Pick one Thing – All this divination and night walking may not be your cup of mead, or perhaps is TOO MUCH to add and feels overwhelming. A simple way to be more present this time of year is simply to pay attention to what we are already doing and the WHY behind it. Does it feel nourishing? Taking back this time of year requires this self-honesty. We don’t have to keep doing something simply because it’s always been done.
In this spirit of paying attention, perhaps there is ONE thing, one tradition you already do and absolutely love. Perhaps there is a cultural history behind this thing? Perhaps you can create cultural meaning where it wasn’t before?
Diving into the history of Santa Clause, the 9 horned stag the returns the Sun, the Yule Goat, or infusing the food you cook or eat with magical purpose or intention, or simply following a thread of interest that derives from your ancestry or the land you live on, can change our auto-pilot, over-stressed, and sometimes depressing experience of this holiday season.
There are no sacred texts to fight over.
There are no governing bodies controlling how we do things.
May we all reclaim this sacred season according to the nourishment we need most. May the return of the Sun carry us forth with renewed hope and endurance. Much love. xx