Yule, solstice: Welcome winter with wassail, a feast and a log on the fire

Fireplace lit with fire, logs all around

Photo courtesy of Pexels

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 21: Wherever you live—and as long as men and women have walked the earth—the solstices have been marked as auspicious turning points in the calendar. For our Northern readers, this is the winter solstice!

Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts, giving thanks for the “rebirth of the sun” and the reversal from increasing darkness to increasing light. Ancient Germanic peoples observed Yule; ancient Romans held Saturnalia, Brumalia and other festivals for the sun with food, gift-giving, gambling and often ludicrous behavior. Today, Pagans and Wiccans gather for Yule festivities: feasting and the lighting of the celebrated Yule log, which traditionally smolders for 12 days.

Want recipes? Bake a tasty version of a Yule log with recipes from Taste of Home and Martha Stewart.

Cake in shape of log in tray with evergreen clippings

A Yule log cake (Buche de Noel). Photo by Eric Sonstroem, courtesy of Flickr

Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule.” Enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule, and so merry was the atmosphere in these activities that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods.



Solstice traditions have many names around the world: Inti Raymi in the Incan Empire in honor of the sun god Inti, and Soyalangwul for the Zuni and the Hopi. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.


Looking for some Yule inspiration? Recharge with some all-natural ideas from the Huffington Post, such as enjoying the beauty of firelight or relaxing to some Classical music. In years past, pagans “wassailed” their fields with cider drinks—but a tasty wassail is great for sipping! (Find a recipe here. For an alcoholic version, check out the New York Times.)

Get in touch with nature by decorating your home with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; for a warm scent, make a pomander by decorating oranges with cloves (get instructions from Martha Stewart), noting the orange’s resemblance to the sun.

Litha, Solstice and Midsummer: Celebrate the peak of summer

Group gathering outside in summer, blue skies, raising pole cross Swedish

Erecting a maypole at a Midsummer celebration in Sweden, 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21 through SATURDAY, JUNE 24: Seaside picnics, Midsummer parties and bonfires abound at the summer solstice—and, across the Northern Hemisphere, June 21 is the “longest day of the year,” this year. Astronomically, the summer solstice occurs when the tilt of Earth’s semi-axis in the northern hemisphere is most inclined toward the sun; thus, inhabitants of the north experience more hours and minutes of daylight today than on any other day of the year. In many Scandinavian countries, this time of year is celebrated as Midsummer—which includes Midsummer’s Eve and then Midsummer—and it is celebrated with an entire day’s worth of outdoor activities for citizens young and old. Wiccans and Pagans may observe Litha, a holiday of gratitude for light and life.


In Scandinavian countries, the longest day of the year is one of the most cherished holidays of the year. Affectionately termed Midsummer, many spend the day outdoors with an extravagant smorgasbord lunch, games for the entire community, time at the beach, dancing and bonfires. (In a recent article on the festival, AFAR calls Sweden’s Midsummer “straight out of a fairytale.”) Whether the long, dark Scandinavian winters are the reason for Midsummer exhilaration or it’s something else altogether, this holiday is unrivaled in many countries of the world.

Bowl of fresh strawberries amid green plants, outdoors

Strawberries are a staple on many Midsummer tables. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Flower crowns are uber popular beyond Europe, and this ancient accessory for Midsummer fetes is as easy as gathering a few favorite flowers and basic craft materials. (Some stores sell simple flower circlets, too.) For a tutorial on how to create a unique, chic one, check out Lauren Conrad.com. Got real flowers? Check out this YouTube video on how to make a crown using fresh components.

The Midsummer menu is as dear to Scandinavians as the Christmas goose or ham is to celebrants of the winter holiday, and fresh strawberries take center stage in Midsummer cakes and shortcakes. (Find more info at the official website of Sweden.) Other traditional foods include the season’s first potatoes, made with dill and butter; a roast; herring or other types of fish and seafood; hard-boiled eggs and summer cabbage. For recipes and ideas on how to spend the longest day of the year, check out Bon Appetit or the UK’s The Independent.

Did you know? Though harvest is not in full swing yet, many wild herbs are mature for picking and, thus, Midsummer is known as “Gathering Day” in Wales and in other various regions. Herbs, gathered most often for medicinal qualities, are gathered and dried for later use.


Adherents of Wicca and Paganism look to the Sun God on the summer solstice, noting the full abundance of nature at the point of mid-summer. (Note: Some adherents celebrate on June 25, the fixed calendar date that is known as “Old Litha.”)

Traditionally, fresh fruits and vegetables are the main course at shared meals, and bonfires are lit to pay homage to the full strength of the sun. At Stonehenge, the heelstone marks the midsummer sunrise as viewed from the center of the stone circle.

Yule: Throw a log on the fire and enjoy the longest night of the year

Fire lit in fireplace, darkened room, rock at base and lighted greens draped on mantle

The burning of a Yule log is an ancient custom near the winter solstice. Photo by Justin Kern, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22: Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere brings the longest night of the year—so pull up a chair, pour a glass of wassail or hot cider and celebrate Yule! (Note: Date may vary by location.) Yuletide was originally observed by Germanic peoples, as a welcoming of winter and the return of lengthening days; today, the Yule log and Yule singing are still seen in several regions of the world. Whether a Yule log is placed on the fire or eaten as a buche de noel, the longest night of the year is the perfect time to get warm by the fireplace and revel in the joy of the season.

Did you know? One of the largest Yuletide celebrations in the United States is actually an interfaith ceremony at William & Mary. The Yule Log ceremony has taken place at William & Mary since 1934, and encompasses throwing holly sprigs, singing carols and sharing the holidays of different faiths.

The custom of bringing in a Yule log still held immense popularity in the 19th century, and centuries before, bonfires were lit in fields as the center of Yule activities. Tradition has it that the Yule log is chopped from the base of a Yule tree, and then allowed to burn through the entire night of the solstice. The log smolders for the next 12 days. Ancient Druids gathered what they regarded as the most sacred of Yuletide plants—holly and ivy—and decorated their homes with the live greens.

Today, Wiccans and Pagans may greet the Sun King on Yule and smolder a Yule log; Christians observe the time as Christmastide.


Though Germanic peoples are credited with Yule, festivals for solstice are embedded in almost every culture. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia and Brumalia were festivals for the sun god, with food, gift giving and more. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.

Slice of swirled cake on plate with white frosting and red and green sprinkles

A slice of buche de noel, or a Yule log cake. Photo by Arkomas, courtesy of Flickr


In Beulah, Colo., the annual community-wide Yule Log Hunt has been tradition for more than 60 years. Read the news story about this year’s hunt, which drew hundreds for the small mountain town’s annual search.

At Indiana University, the second annual Yule Ball brought purple lighting, hanging candles and orchestral music to hundreds of attendees, in what organizers say has become an immensely popular event. The ball was inspired by the Yule dance of the “Harry Potter” series.