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From a yule log to an evergreen wreath, honor the change of seasons on December 21 with these ancient rituals that just might resemble the holiday traditions of today

Nena Farrell  – December 13, 2019 | Updated December 16, 2019

The shortest day of the year, December 21, is around the corner, marking the end of fall and the official start of winter. The winter solstice is an ancient pagan holiday known for rituals and traditions that celebrate nature and setting one’s intentions for the coming season. Curious how to celebrate? Here are some customary ways to celebrate the solstice—you might notice that some resemble beloved Christmas traditions. 

Build a Yule Altar

Courtesy of Food52

An iconic part of the winter solstice is the yule altar. According to Bodhi Tree, the purpose of the altar is to honor the return of the sun, so one of the most important items is a candle that symbolizes the sun—ideally a golden-, silver-, or yellow-hued candle. Fill the altar with symbols of winter like pinecones, evergreen boughs of fir and cedar, and wreaths, and you can even add a yule log as a finishing touch. Make sure to cleanse the altar with sage or sweetgrass.

Make an Evergreen Yule Wreath

Seth Smoot

Whether it’s for your yule altar or just for your doorway, building a wreath using winter evergreens like pine, fir, juniper, and cedar is a classic way to honor the season. In ancient pagan cultures, evergreens were associated with protection and prosperity, making them popular choices for celebrating the end of the year and the beginning of winter. Make your very own wreath of foraged greens with this DIY.

Burn a Yule Log

Thomas J. Story

Historically, the burning of the Yule Log was a Nordic tradition, where a whole tree (not just a log!) was brought into the home to burn for the entire 12 days of Christmas. Keep it safe in the modern era with a mini log for your hearth. No fireplace? Queue up Netflix’s “Fireplace For Your Home” video instead to recreate the experience.

Decorate a Yule Tree

Seth Smoot

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If you have one, you’ve likely already decorated your Christmas tree by December 21, but in the old pagan traditions, Yule trees were actually living outdoor trees that were decorated with hanging candles. The candles and any added ornaments were meant to symbolize the sun, moon, and stars, as well as remembrances of loved ones that were lost. 

Exchange Nature-Based Gifts

Jeffery Cross

The practice of holiday gifting in fact has its roots in a winter solstice tradition of exchanging gifts. Don’t worry about going shopping for yet another perfectly stylish gift; the traditional items to give on the solstice come from nature. Give a small handmade wreath, beautiful crystals, a plant-based candle, or even seeds.

Give Back to Nature

Thomas J. Story

The winter solstice is a time to celebrate the natural world. Take some time during the day to scatter seeds for local birds and wildlife to give back to your home’s original community.

Celebrate in Candlelight

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Being the shortest day means the solstice is also the longest night of the year, and one of the original traditions was rooted in candlelight—both for the needed light, and to celebrate the return of the sun in the coming months. Using a tabletop (or your altar!), cover it in unlit candles, either in a circle or a varied pattern, depending on your preference. Then, place a candle that symbolizes the sun (ideally in yellow or gold) in the center and positioned above the rest of the candles. Light the sun candle first, and then the rest of your candles, and you can recite a ritual while doing it, too.

Set Up a Meditation Space

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Take time on the longest night to reflect within on what the new season and new year will bring you. Winter is a quieter time of year with colder weather and the end of the holidays, making it a great time for inner growth and peace. Need ideas? Check out our guide for creating a zen meditation space of your own.