Yule is a time of spiritual beginnings. Jul, or Yule, is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "wheel." The winter solstice is the turning point in the natural cycle of the year; this darkest night in all the year is followed by a day that will dawn just a little bit earlier.
Lisa Hutchins, Winter Solstice, 1997.
In ones and twos the Circle sisters arrived at the house on the evening of Winter Solstice. They swept through the door, bringing gusts of cold air with them, and amid laughter and greetings, divested themselves of coats and cloaks.
“Yule greetings, Gladwyn!”
“Merry meet, Gladwyn, thank you for being our hostess tonight!”
Gladwyn’s short silver curls gleamed in the candle-lit hallway as she welcomed her guests. “Come into the living room and get warm before we begin.”
“The logs burning in your fireplace smell wonderful, Gladwyn,” Rhiannon said. “What are they?”
“Apple logs. We had to cut down the old apple tree in the backyard—it was at the end of its life,” Gladywn said. “So sad. It was like an old friend.”
“Oh, look at the Yule tree!” Arielle exclaimed. In one corner of the room stood a freshly cut Fraser fir, hung with oranges stuck with cloves, small red apples, and pinecones painted gold and silver.
“Isn’t it exciting? Winter begins tonight!” Gladwyn looked around, beaming, at the Circle sisters assembled in the room.
“I hate winter,” complained Coventina, the youngest. Her bright brown eyes peered from beneath her short auburn hair as she surveyed the others. “Darkness makes me feel depressed. I’m never quite myself until the Wheel turns and it’s Ostara again.”
“But my dear young Witch, winter is the time when Gaia rests,” Rowan said. “When the snow covers Mother Earth like a quilt, She sleeps underneath, keeping everything safe and quiet until spring. It’s a time for us to stay indoors, to think and dream by the fire, to plan what we’ll do when the weather warms.”
“And winter brings spectacular sunsets!” Green Dragon said. She shook out her crinkly brown hair and looked round the circle. ‘It’s like having your own winter scene painting every evening. I love the sight of leafless trees silhouetted against the clear evening sky.”
“And you can see the squirrels’ nests,” Arielle added, “which you can’t in other seasons, with the greenery hiding everything.”
“Think of lilacs,” TigerLily said. “They need their long, cold winter sleep so they can burst out in April and May.” She shivered and hugged herself as if she were one of the lilacs bedding down for the long, cold winter.
“Never thought of it that way before,” Coventina said, apparently cheered by these remarks.
“You know,” Rhiannon chimed in, “what I love about this time of year is the family get-togethers. A few years ago I was just about to drive home to North Carolina for Yule when my cell phone rang and it was my mother. She said, ‘I wish you were here right now. I’ve got a fire in the fireplace and a ham in the oven and I just baked an apple pie.’ I can’t describe how loved that made me feel.”
“Wow, you’re lucky,” TigerLily said. “At my house, it’s more likely to be octopus tentacles in the freezer and an entire salmon resting on dry ice on the back porch. Life with a sushi chef is all kinds of weird.”
“Let’s invoke Mithras tonight,” Gladwyn said. “Winter Solstice is His birthday. I thought it would be nice to pay Him the compliment of dedicating our ritual to Him.”
Jaguar Priestess’ black eyebrows shot up. “But we’re a Dianic circle,” she objected. “We don’t invoke male deities.”
“Well, do you mind if we do it just this once? I mean, seeing I’ve already sacrificed a bull in His honor--”
“You-did-NOT!” screeched Ceres Vegetina, who’d abandoned veganism and now subsisted entirely on fruit and nuts.
“Relax, Witch Sis,” Gladwyn said reassuringly. “I found a picture of a bull and burned it in the flame of a candle I lit in front of Mithras’ statue.”
“What did he do?” Coventina asked. “I mean, what exactly was his thing?”
“He was the God of Roman army officers, known to them as the Light of the World,” Gladwyn explained. “He emphasized the virtues of courage, truth, and chastity.”
“Dear Goddess,” muttered Passionata, to whom chastity was an entirely foreign concept.
Hastily changing the subject, Gladwyn said, “All right, let’s turn on the music and sit in a circle on the floor. I’ve got the washtub ready. What did you bring for the magickal potpourri, Witch sisters?”
As the soothing harmony of “Oaken Logs” issued from the CD player, everyone sat down on the floor—Arielle, Rhiannon, and Gladwyn with creaks and groans—around the sheet spread beneath the rubber washtub.
“I brought balsam,” TigerLily said, dropping the feathery branches into the washtub.
“And I brought pine,” said Rowan. “It smells nice and woodsy.”
“Yew and juniper!” Coventina tossed the scraps into the washtub.
“Fresh rosemary and thyme from my herb garden,” Jaguar Priestess said.
“Whole nutmegs and cloves,” said Arielle.
Other offerings went into the washtub: whole cinnamon sticks from Passionata, small pinecones from Rhiannon, dried apple slices from Green Dragon. Gladwyn contributed dried orange and lemon peel, and Ceres Vegetina a small amount of orrisroot.
“Each of us will stir the mixture and call out a wish,” Gladwyn said. “Yule is when the light is reborn: from this night on the days will gradually become longer and longer.”
“Good thing, too,” Coventina muttered.
The Circle sisters stirred the offerings with their hands, feeling the soft, feathery pine needles, thyme, and rosemary, the prickly yew, the hard nutmegs and cinnamon sticks, leathery dried apples and citrus peel, and silky orrisroot powder.
“May every child in every country be well fed!” Rowan called out.
“May all the wars stop right now!” Green Dragon said.
“May everyone suddenly be struck with the huge light of wisdom and recognize that global warming is a bigger threat than Iran!” Ceres Vegetina said.
“Too right,” agreed the others.
“May everyone who needs a job get a job—a good one!” TigerLily said.
“May everyone have all the health care he or she needs!” Arielle said.
“Let marriage equality be the law in all fifty states!” Passionata said.
“And U.S. territories,” added Jaguar Priestess, who hailed from Puerto Rico.
Gladwyn looked round the circle of women and smiled. “May the coming year be the happiest year yet for everyone in every country!”
There was silence for a few minutes as they meditated on the wishes they had stirred into the potpourri. Then each Circle sister picked up several red or green organza bags and filled them with the aromatic mixture. These would be given to family members and friends as Yule presents.
“Okay,” Rhiannon said, getting up with difficulty and stretching. “Whew! I’m too old to sit on the floor for so long. When do we cast the circle and invoke Mithras?”
“In just a few minutes,” Gladwyn said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to put your cloaks and coats on again. We’re going to do this outside.”
Putting on her own cloak and hood of black crushed velvet, she took her athame and led the way through the French doors to the terrace. Outside, the brightness of the waxing moon lit the night sky beneath the cirrostratus clouds. As the Witches formed a circle they could see their breaths forming small puffs of vapor in the cold air.
“What a beautiful night,” TigerLily said, almost in a whisper.
After Gladwyn cast the circle, Green Dragon, TigerLily, Rowan, and Arielle invoked the quarters.
“Mithras, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun,” Gladwyn said in her deep “ritual” voice, “born of Anahita the Virgin; Mithras, light-bringer to the world, we invoke you on this, the longest night of the year, in celebration of the anniversary of your birth.”
“So mote it be,” responded the Circle.
“In this season of Yule do we celebrate the rebirth of the sun,” Gladwyn continued. “Through the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, we ask the blessings of light for the year to come. Let us kindle fresh fire to light Lord Mithras on his way.”
Coventina lit a white candle. “Fire for strength!”
Passionata lit a red candle. “Fire for life!”
Jaguar Priestess lit a black candle. “Fire for love!”
“Fire for strength, fire for life, fire for love,” the Circle sisters responded. “So mote it be.”
Coventina, Passionata, and Jaguar Priestess set down their candles, enclosed in small glasses, on the round stone altar in the middle of the circle.
“Let us join hands now,” Gladwyn said, “while I recite a poem that pays tribute to Mithras, the Unconquered Sun.”
Then slowly, with deep feeling, she recited Rudyard Kipling’s "Song to Mithras."
The Circle sisters were silent until Gladwyn recited the third stanza:
Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main--
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now when the watch is ended, now when the wine is drawn,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!
“Not likely,” Passionata murmured. A soft breath of laughter came from Coventina, standing next to her.
When Gladwyn declaimed,
Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great bull dies,
a collective shudder, initiated by Ceres Vegetina, ran around the Circle. Gladwyn ignored it and finished reciting the final stanza.
“Let us now meditate on the return of the Light,” she said. As the Circle stood in silence the clouds that had dimmed the moon’s brightness sped away so moonlight once more shone down on them. During the next few minutes nothing stirred, not even the wind: but something made its presence known to the women standing silently in the circle, something so powerful they felt almost lifted out of their physical selves.
In silence they made their way through the French doors back into the light and warmth of the house. Then a babble of voices broke out.
“Did you feel it?” Gladwyn sounded awestruck.
“Did everyone feel what I just felt?” Rhiannon sounded incredulous.
“Did we all feel it?” Ceres Vegetina asked.
“What exactly did you feel?” TigerLily asked Coventina.
“I felt an enormous tide of happiness washing over me,” Coventina said slowly. “I can hardly find the words to describe it—I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such deep serenity and joy.”
“That was it!” Green Dragon said eagerly. “A tide of happiness and—and a sort of calmness, as if something were telling me everything was going to be all right.”
“I felt that too!” Passionata said.
“And I!” Arielle echoed.
“What do you suppose it was?”
“It was He, Lord Mithras,” Rhiannon said, smiling. “We did invoke Him, you know. Oh, no—we forgot to thank the quarters and devoke!”
“We can do it after Cakes and Ale,” Gladwyn said. “When I cast the circle I made it wide enough to include the house, so we're still in sacred space.”
“It’s nice to be back in the warm house again,” Jaguar Priestess said. “What a beautiful Yule table, Gladwyn!”
In the dining room the spicy scent of bayberry candles burning in apple-shaped holders blended with the scent of the cider simmering in the crockpot at one end of the table.
“For our grounding meal we’re having mulled cider and applesauce cake,” Gladwyn announced. “And for those of you who don’t want cake, there’s lemon syllabub. Please sit anywhere you like around the table. Rowan, will you help me serve?”
“Goodness, what smells so wonderful in here?” Rowan asked, lifting the lid of the crockpot. “Cinnamon sticks, whole nutmegs, and cloves. Look, the orange slices are almost caramelized from simmering in the cider for hours.” She ladled some of the cider into a mug and handed it to Rhiannon.
“Yum-a-licious,” Rhiannon said after taking a sip.
Ceres Vegetina gazed longingly at the applesauce cake, rich with raisins, studded with nuts, a-swirl with whipped cream.
“Would you like some cake, Ceres?” Gladwyn asked. “It has butter in it and cream on it, you know.”
“What the hell,” Ceres Vegetina said recklessly. “It’s Yule! Yes, I’d love some cake, thanks.”
Laughter and chat ensued as the Circle sisters ate and drank their way through the Cakes and Ale part of the ritual.
Coventina pushed her plate away and looked around the table. “You know what? I don’t hate winter any more. I’m quite looking forward to those dark evenings now. I might do all the pleasure reading I’ve had to put off for the last couple of years while I was working on my master’s degree. And think of all the movies I’ve missed! I’ll rent them all and watch them.”
“Arielle, Rhiannon, and I are going to work on a community quilt for AIDS patients,” TigerLily said. “We hope to finish it by the time Imbolc rolls around.”
“I think I’ll add Mithras to my worship,” Jaguar Priestess said. “Perhaps I’ve been too narrow-minded, missing out on the strengths of the male principle. I like Mithras’ qualities of honor and courage.”
“Goddesses have those qualities too, you know,” Rowan said.
“True, but there’s something about men…”
“You got that right,” Passionata said under her breath.
TigerLily spoke. “I’ve never told any of you before, but I’ve always liked Herne, the Green Man. He’s on my mind constantly at Beltane.”
“I like him too.” Gladwyn nodded. “I think about him at Mabon as well.”
“Well, since we’re doing true confessions,” Green Dragon said, glancing around the table, “I really, really dig Ganesh.”
“Who wouldn’t like a god who looks like an elephant—
“—And is always in a good humor!”
“Circle sisters, I’m going to renounce fruitarianism and go back to being a vegetarian,” Ceres Vegetina said. “This cake is too delicious.”
“Thank you, dear,” Gladwyn said. “Have some more.”
Passionata spooned up the last of her lemon syllabub, swallowed it, and said, “Mithras was celibate, wasn’t he? I wonder what celibacy is like.”
Arielle, sitting beside her, patted her hand. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever find out, darling.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Passionata said. “It might be quite interesting.” She struck a dramatic pose. “I could be the celibate Winter Queen, cold and pure as snow from now till Imbolc, thaw out a bit at Ostara, and break out completely at Beltane.”
The idea of a celibate Passionata made Arielle laugh so hard she fell off her chair and had to be helped up again by Rowan and Rhiannon.
Into the sudden silence that fell on the gathering as each Circle sister sat, wrapped in her own thoughts, the album in the CD player burst out with the rousing strains of “Gaia, Carry Us Home.”
Gladwyn looked around the table, lifted her mug of cider, and said, “And the Wheel turns again. Happy Yule, everyone!”
“Hail and farewell, Lord Mithras,” Jaguar Priestess said, lifting her mug and touching it to Gladwyn’s. “We thank you for your presence here tonight.”
“The Light returns,” Coventina said, smiling at the Circle sisters. “Merry meet, merry part—“
All the Witches spoke at once. “—and merry meet again!”
"Oaken Logs" and "Gaia, Carry Us Home" from This Winter’s Night (a Celebration of the Winter Solstice) by MotherTongue, EarthSpirit Records, 1997.