Christmas and Hanukkah may be overshadowing everything else during December, but pagans have been celebrating Yule for much longer, to mark the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the rebirth of the sun.
Winter Solistice 2014 will begin on 21 December at 6.03 pm (EST) or 4.33 am (IST). The astronomical phenomenon that results in the shortest day and the longest night of the year occurs when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun and marks the first day of winter.
The winter solstice has been marked and celebrated by people around the world for many centuries now. In ancient Rome, the Celts held weeklong feast of Saturnalia for honouring sun god Saturn. The Talmud recognizes the winter solstice as "Tekufat Tevet", while in China, it is celebrated as Dongzhi Festival by families who get together and eat special festive food.
Until the 16th century, winter was the time of famine in northern Europe, the period of cattle slaughter, so that they do not have to be fed. Hence, most winter solstice celebrations in Europe involved feasting and sharing meat. During the Iron Age too, the Celts and other ancient Europeans commemorated the winter solstice by feasting, merrymaking and sacrificing animals.
In pre-Christian Scandinavia, the feast of Juul and burning a Yule log was part of Pagan Yule traditions that celebrated the rebirth of the sun god.
Today, modern pagans celebrate the shortest day of the year by lighting candles, throwing bonfires, hosting feasts and decorating their homes.
For Wiccans and Druids, Yule is one of the eight solar holidays celebrated each year. Much like Thanksgiving and Christmas for Christians, Wiccans see Yule as a time to spend with friends and family, exchange gifts, except they also see it as a festival to honour the sun. Reminiscent of Druidic traditions, the homes of Wiccans would be celebrated with red, green and white colours.
Pagan Yule rituals range from meditating in the dark with lit candles, singing pagan carols and lighting Yule logs.
Druids typically celebrate winter solstice at Stonehenge in England. For the 2013 solstice of the northern hemisphere, around 3,500 came together to watch how sunrise cast a line that directly connects the altar stone, the slaughter stone and heel stone.
Similar celebrations take place at other ancient sites as well, like Newgrange in Ireland and the Cerro del Gentil pyramid in Peru.