The winter solstice, also known as midwinter or Yule, occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the sun, and the sun sits the lowest on the horizon. It happens twice a year, once in each hemisphere, and marks the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. In the Southern Hemisphere this falls between the 20th and the 23rd of June or in the Northern Hemisphere between the 20th and 23rd of December. Traditionally this sabbat was considered to be the middle of winter but today in some areas it is now seen as being closer to the beginning of winter.
Both Stonehenge in England, and Newgrange in Ireland have been laid out to correlate with the movements of the sun at midwinter, highlighting the importance of this event. Winter was incredibly harsh and dangerous with food stores gathered throughout the year being relied upon to survive. Animals were slaughtered so they would not need to be fed during these dark months, and the wine and beer would be fermented and ready for drinking so midwinter would be marked with a final feast and joyous celebration.
Many of the Yule traditions are still found within the Christian Christmas celebrations from decorating a tree to singing carols. Evergreen trees were cut and brought indoors as symbols of life and rebirth. As their green foliage didn't fade they stood against winter, together with holly whose sharp leaves were thought to protect the home from evil spirits and mistletoe which represented fertility. A Yule Log was burned in a continual hearth fire, some traditions would place the remainder of the log in the home for luck, or store it light the following year's fire. If you don't have a fireplace, a great alternative is hollow out a log, decorate it with Yule foliage and place candles in it to burn instead.
Wassailing is the practice of bringing good health to homes. People would go door to door singing and offering drinks of wassail (a warm mead or cider) in exchange for gifts. They would also visit the orchards in cider-producing areas and sing to the trees to promote a good harvest in the coming year., and scare away evil spirits with shouts and banging drums and pots. In medieval times peasants would wassail their lords in return for food and drink.
As this is the period where the days begin to lengthen and the sun returns, some cultures celebrate this as the New Year (as opposed to Samhain) for new beginnings and the start of a new cycle of life for crops, animal and people. Wherever this celebration falls on your Wheel, it is a great time for setting intentions and resolutions.
The Wild Hunt also occurs around this time, in which Odin (or other legendary figure) escorts ghostly or supernatural hunters in wild pursuit. Comprised of souls of the dead, dogs of hell, faeries, Valkyries or elves, witnessing the hunt foreshadowed catastrophe or death. Witnesses also risked being whisked away to the Otherworld or forced to join the hunt.
Celebrate midwinter with a feast with friends and family, exchange gifts and drink to good health! Another great way to honour this season is to donate food and clothing to shelters for the less fortunate who will struggle in these harsh months to come.