Yule and the Solstice – Welcoming the Return of the Light

My daughter lays with Yule lights, 2007

Our ancestors lived in a world where the sun and moon phases were their clocks, their rhythms, and their guides to the seasons.  In the spring, they planted.  During the summer and fall, they harvested.  As the days became darker and the last bits of harvest was collected, our ancestors gathered wood and hunted, made candles to move through the dark of winter.  They hoped that they had prepared enough, stored enough.  By going to bed early and rising late, they were able to use less of their candles and oils and wood.  The ate food that could be stored, such as gourds and grains and meat.  Our ancestors hibernated as the animals did, telling stories around the fires and connecting to the natural cycles of the inner clock of the earth.

Welcoming the return of the sun.

The first day of Yule, celebrated on the day of the winter solstice (Monday, Dec 21, 2020 at 2:02am Pacific), is a celebration of the returning of the sun.  In a time where we were earth centric and it was thought that the sun moved around the earth, our ancestors watched the horizon line and waited for it to reach it’s southernmost journey.  At that point, the sun appeared to stand still with a shallow arc along the southern horizon.  The translation, Sol (Sun) and Sisto (to stop or stand still) speaks to what our early families saw; the sun standing still as it reached it’s solstice peak.  After solstice, the sun appeared to start his northern journey once again.

The term Winter Solstice and Midwinter mean the same thing, the astrological aspect of our earth at her furthest tilt from the sun, and thus the returning of the light.  The term Yule responds to the religious ceremonies  and spiritual practices around Winter Solstice. 

Welcoming the return of the light, children run through the light tunnel at Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo, 2012.

Yule lasts for 12 days and is often connected with the 12 days of Epiphany (which start with Christmas) or the 12 Sacred Nights.  In times past, before the Gregorian calendar used today (1582 AD) and the Julian calendar (45 BC), people used a lunar calendar.  The lunar month, or lunation, is approximately 29.5 days long creating a lunar year of approximately 354 days.  The solar calendar based on the movement of the earth around the sun is 365 days.  This created a difference each year of 11 to 12 days between the lunar and the solar calendar.  With the solstice generally falling around December 20th or 21st, there were 12 days until the New Year of the solar calendar.  (Yule traditionally ends with a large feast on the 12th day, which corresponds to New Year’s Eve parties.) These 12 days each responded to a month of the coming year and were thought to foretell the year to come, specifically through dreams. When counted from Christmas, these 12 days end at Epiphany.  

Saturn and Jupiter come together, just 2 nights from their closest conjunction in 800 years. The sun has set far to the south, with only 30 hours until Solstice.

Why are the Pagan traditions and Christian traditions so closely linked?  We understand that the old traditions were deeply ingrained in the people who’s lives revolved around the wheel of the year.  When Christianity took root, it was difficult to pull our ancestors out of their traditions and so religious leaders absorbed the festivals of the Pagans into the religious holy days.  A beautiful example of this is that pre-Christian Romans celebrated the birth of Mithras on the Winter Solstice.  Mithras was the sun god, and his birth on the solstice meant the return of his light to the people of Earth.  In the 4th Century, the Church of Rome changed the birth of the SUN to the birth of the SON, the Christian Jesus who would bring light to the world.  It is believed that the historical Jesus was born in the spring, but as the pagans already celebrated at solstice, the birth of Jesus as the return of the light symbolically celebrated our lives being reborn with the sun/son.

Gifts were traditionally given to the Gods and Goddesses at midwinter to curry favor, stop famine, and improve the weather.  Rewards and incentives were given to children on St. Nicholas day (December 6th in Europe).  Good little children were given candy and small gifts in their shoes and socks, when bad children were given sticks and stones and coal.  Gifts were also given as charms and talisman to travelers in hopes that their journeys were safe. 

For a beautiful article on the Nordic celebrations for each of the 12 days of Yule, check out this article by Sam Silver.  

A visit to Disney, December 2013, the lights honor the storms and Goddesses of Winter.

The Tradition of the Yule Log

The Yule log was generally a piece of Oak, however Ash was thought to bring insight and luck.  The home was cleaned and the the largest log that could fit in the hearth was drug home.  It was carved and shaped until it could be placed in the fireplace.  The family then decorated the log with carvings, often in the shape of the Celtic mother crone, known as Cailleach.  She was the embodiment of cold, death, and the coming of the end of the year.  Other carvings included runic symbols, writing, and important sigils.  The log was covered in greenery, ale, mead and whisky and then lit on solstice eve.  It was good luck to light it on the first attempt using a piece of last years log as kindling. Once lit, it was watched through the night, with stories told, wishes made, and toasts and celebration.  It was considered a good omen if it burned until morning.  By burning the log, winter was replaced by heat and light and celebrated the rebirth of the sun. 

You can follow this tradition by anointing your own Yule log with oils, specifically the oils of evergreen trees.  Concentrate on giving thanks for protection from the cold and for a good Yule or upcoming year.  Carve your own sacred symbols, use a wood burner, or simply write on the surface of your log.  Prayers and wishes can be tied to your Yule log with colored ribbons or cotton string, preferably in the colors of Yule. (Red, prosperity and passion.  Evergreen, magic and the return of life.  White, purity and light.  Gold, the return of the sun, the gifts of the Magi.). Light your log with ceremony, whether that be within your own hearth or a fire pit in your yard.  Imagine your prayers going up with the smoke to your guardians, angels, and ancestors.  If you have a live Christmas/Yule tree in your home, save a portion of the trunk for next year’s yule log.  

Choosing a Yule tree with my daughter, 2006.

An alternate tradition to the Yule log is the Yule candle.  Light a gold or yellow pillar candle in the center of the table to welcome the return of the sun. Give each individual a white pillar candle to carve into and have them carve their prayers and symbols and wishes directly into the wax.  Place the white Yule candles around the sun candle and allow them to burn down or light daily through the 12 days of Yule, burning down to the base on the final day of Yule.  

Do you have any Yule, Solstice, Christmas, or holiday traditions that are particularly important to you?

Solstice Blessings and a Happy Yule.

Wandering the evergreens, looking for a tree, 2007.

Links

The Christmas Star: Who’s Ready for the Great Saturn and Jupiter Conjunction of 2020 – NYTimes

12 Nights of Yule by Sam Silver – Nordic Wiccan

Yule – Day of Winter Solstice – National Day Calendar

The 12 Days of Yuletide, A History – Valerie Biel

Lunar Calendar – Wiki

Earth’s Axis – NASA

Winter Solstice: The sun stands still on Saturday (2013) – Space.com

December 25th: Birthday of Mithras, the Sun God

Magical Colors of the Yule Season – Learn Religions

New here? More about me…

Books

Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for the Winter Solstice

Llewellyn’s Little Book of Yule

The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year

The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice

The Legend of the Icelandic Yule Lads

Gifts under the Yule tree, 2020.

What is Samhain?

Two shapes move through the dark, silhouetted by a light in the distance. They carry a lantern. Photo by Anna Loscotoff.

Samhain (pronounced SOW-in in Irish and SAH-win in Oxford English) is the final spoke in the Wheel of the Year, a marker of the beginning of Winter.  You may have heard it called, “The Witches’ New Year” as it is the start of a new cycle; honoring ancestors, the end of harvest, and preparing to go inward with winter to start over again. It is believed that the veil between the living world and the spirit world thins at the end of Autumn, allowing our ancestors, spirits, and faeries to cross over.  

For the ancient pagans, Samhain revolved around a fire festival in which the family fire was left to die while the grazing animals were gathered from their fields and the final bits of the harvest were collected.  The community then congregated while a Druid priest relit the central fire using friction of a wheel and spindle.  Food was left at the edges of the land for wandering spirits and the Fae.  At the end of the ceremony, families relit their home fires, bonfires, and torches with the sacred fire. Bonfires and torches were burned at the edges of the fields to celebrate the end of harvest and direct their energy to turning inward- survival through winter. It was believed that their ancestors would come and visit at this time, along with other energies beyond the veil, both bad and good. By dressing as animals or other frightening beasts, individuals were protected from faeries, and later, witches. 

A woman leads the way, carting 6 lighted torches, with the orange silhouettes of other's following her.  Photo by Anna Loscotoff, 2012.
A reenactment of the story of Harvest, Hoe’s Down at Full Belly Farms, October, 2012, Guinda, Ca.

In the middle ages, boys would light torches from the communal fire and run them to the edges of their land in an effort to protect it from supernatural harm.  Those who went out on Samhain carried carved turnips on strings with glowing pieces of coal inside.  These were called jack-o’-lanterns, named after a Christian legend of a blacksmith named Old Jack, who was so evil, neither heaven nor hell would allow him entrance. He was said to roam the road on Halloween night with nowhere to go, a turnip lamp lighting his way.  Carrying a jack-o’-lantern protected those who carried them from being kidnapped or harmed by that which came through the veil.

The torches and jack-o’-lantern were used to keep witches away,  but they were also used as guides for ancestors who had crossed the veil to commune with their families.  To let the fire burn down on Samhain night meant an ancestor may not be able to find their way home.

The lit up face of a jack-o'-lantern at night.  It has many sharp teeth and cat-like eyes.  Photo by Anna Loscotoff.
A jack-o’-lantern at night, guiding our way in the darkness and scaring away evil.

In the 5th century, as Christianity moved through Europe, Pope Boniface attempted to change the pagan tradition of honoring the dead to honoring saints and martyrs.  The celebration date was moved to May 13th, hoping the non-Christians would forget their pagan holiday.  The fire festival continued.  In the 9th century, Pope Gregory moved the holiday back, hoping to again pull the pagans from their festivals.  Instead of overlapping with Samhain, the church chose November 1st as All Saints’ Day, and later, Nov 2nd as All Souls’ Day. In time, Samhain began to be called All Hallows’ Eve, or the evening before Hallows’ Day (Saints’ Day).

When the Irish settled in America, they brought their traditions around Samhain and Halloween with them.  Turnips were not yet common in the new world and so pumpkins, being available, replaced turnip lanterns. All Hallows’ Eve during early America revolved around parties and games for children with an opportunity at courtship for those unmarried.  Non-Irish neighbors joined in the celebrations and took the traditions on as their own. By the 1920’s, pranking, mischief and violence took over Halloween.  The tradition of giving candy eventually took over (into the 1950’s)  as a successful alternative to reducing damage and easing the fear that had settled around the date.  

A skeleton ornament rides a bike with many textures in the background. In honor of the Day of the Dead. Photo by Anna Loscotoff.
On an October trip to San Antonio, TX, the city celebrated Dia De Las Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Photo by Anna Loscotoff.

Rituals for Samhain

Prepare A Path for you Ancestors

Many cultures today believe that their ancestors will visit on All Hallows’ Eve.  They clean their homes, prepare family meals, and line their walkway with lights; guiding their ancestors to the door.  You can follow in this tradition through the lighting of jack-o’-lanterns and lining you walkway with decorated paper bags lit from inside with LED tea lights.

Create an Altar for your Ancestor

Create a space to make your ancestors feel welcome.  Put out pictures of them or trinkets from their lives.  Write them letters or write down your memories of them.  This can be as simple as a mason jar with a few memories inside, to something much more complex.  You can also honor a group of ancestors, using family crests, slips of paper with family names, tartan patterns, anything that symbolizes the family line.

Create a “Dumb” Supper Setting

A dumb supper leaves space to feed your ancestors, the word dumb meaning silence.  This can be as simple as leaving a bit of food out on a plate over night for your ancestors, to a full dinner in which the living family members toast to the departed.  Traditionally, a white tablecloth was used and a bit of wine was spilled with each toast onto the cloth as an offering.  At least one seat should remain empty, more if possible.  The family eats in silence and observes what happens around them, watching for slight changes; a breeze, a moth, a noise, to signify a family member’s presence. 

Our Own Tradition – The Lighting of the Candles 

Every year since my daughter was little, after trick-or-treating, we light white candles.  We set them up in a base of rice or grain or sand. We each take turns lighting a candle and saying the name of a loved one that has passed. This is not limited to humans, we also light candles for our pets.  We allow the candles to burn down naturally through the evening.

A girl stands, her face lit by many white candles honoring her ancestors. Photo by Anna Loscotoff.
On Samhain, we light white candles in honor of our ancestors. We say their name as we light the candle and think of them. We allow the candles to burn down on their own.

Books

My favorite book about Samhain; Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween (Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials)

Llewellyn’s 2021 Sabbats Almanac: Samhain 2020 to Mabon 

Links

My favorite white candles for burning on Samhain

A Sinister History of Halloween Pranks

A Feast with the Dead: How to Hold a Pagan Dumb Supper for Samhain

The Pagan Dumb Supper: What It is and How to Host One

The Origins of the Word Halloween

Hoe’s Down at Fully Belly Farm (where many of these photos were taken)

My Most Important Blog and a Bit About Me

Candles burn down, almost burning out. Photo by Anna Loscotoff.
After lighting candles for our ancestors, we let them burn down on their own, until they extinguish themselves.

My Creative Muse and the Afterlife

Mandalla drawing of my creative muse with a white mandala background and rainbow color shape. Her arms are outstretched and she wears a rainbow crescent crown on her head. Drawing by Anna Loscotoff.

In January of 2008, I took my first Artist Way class in Sacramento, California.  Artist Way is about making space for your creativity, identifying your critical inner voice, and clearing out the congested wounds that have gotten in your creative way.  During one of our classes, we were asked to meditate on our Creative Muses and draw them.  I closed my eyes and without a second of thought, she stood in front of me.  She consumed my vision with flaming light, radiant. She wore a crescent crown, her arms outstretched, a rounded base.  This vision of her filled every ounce of my conscience.  

A symbolic shape of a woman is drawn in rainbow chalk pastels.  Her arms are outstretched, she has a round belly, she wears a crown of the sickle moon. Drawing by Anna Loscotoff, 2008.
Drawing in chalk pastels of a vision of my Muse, January 2008, Sacramento. We were asked to meditate on our creative muses and this image came immediately to my closed eyes.

The image was new to me.  As time has passed and technology grows, I see hints of her on the internet through the Triple Goddess and her horned consort.  I see the other Lunar Deities and how the image of the crescent crown has been used over time.  But for me, in that time and place, the crescent moon sitting on the head of my Muse was new. 

In 2011, I tattoo’d her shape onto my left wrist.  Her tattoo was a reminder; she is always present with me and creativity is a part of who I am.  I chose my left arm because the left is often seen as our spiritual, creative, and feminine side with the right side being rooted in the here and now, our masculine, logical side.  I signed my art with her shape, honoring my muse.

A new tattoo in the shape of a symbolic woman with arms outstretched, a round body, and sickle moon crown.
In 2011 I got a tattoo of my Muse on my left wrist. She stands in the shape that I saw her in 2008.


In the spring of 2013, we left Sacramento, moving to the dry Tehachapi Mountains.  I left behind a very dear friend, Susan.   A woman who was constantly reminding and supporting the divine feminine within me; reminding me of who I was and who I could be. Just after Christmas of that year, she called me.  Her friend was dying and she wondered if she could come and visit. 

Susan’s friend was Signe.  Signe was blind, and Susan, an avid hiker and outdoors woman, would take Signe with her.  She would guide her through the trees, up paths, and gave Signe an opportunity to see the world through Susan’s eyes. Susan instinctively felt that Signe could not pass with her in town, and if she came to visit me, Signe would be able to transition.

Signe passed the first night and, in her honor, Susan asked if we could go hiking.  As we drove up the mountain, Susan’s brother called.  He told her, “Signe can see every color of the rainbow now.”

We arrived at Mountain Park, a camping and hiking area just above Tehachapi with beautiful pines.  We stepped out of the car and began to climb. Two baby trees caught Susan’s attention and she pulled out her digital camera and took a photo.  She stopped, looked at me, and said, “Look at this!”

There in her photo, in the upper right corner, was a glorious rainbow burst of light.  It wasn’t at all like the shape you get from the sun, with circular orbs.  This was quite different. My daughter, 8 at the time, asked to see.  Immediately she stated, “Mommy, it’s your tattoo.”  And she was right.  The shape of my tattoo had appeared in Susan’s photo and she was every color of the rainbow, just as Susan’s brother had said not 15 minutes earlier.

A orb, every color of the rainbow, which appeared in a digital photograph. The shape of the orb mimics the shape of a woman with a round bottom and crown on her head.
A glimpse of the Afterlife. The first photo taken after the passing of Signe, this orb appeared in the upper corner of the picture, mimicking the tattoo of my Muse and containing every color of the rainbow, symbolic to the woman who passed.

We knew in that moment that Signe was with us.  We knew Signe could now see every color of the rainbow in this new space. I also understood that what I had seen in 2008 was real, not something my mind created in the moment.  The figure of the Goddess on my wrist wasn’t a figment, but rather a form that exists outside of our human bodies. 

When I find myself doubting or fearful as to what comes next, I return to Mountain Park and my time with Susan.  I return to Signe’s message of existence after our earthly death.  I return to my Muse, the form that appeared to me when I asked for her support and guidance. I am comforted that there is more.  I am comforted knowing we have glimpsed the Afterlife.

A drawing of my Creative Muse using every color of the rainbow on black paper. Drawing by Anna Loscotoff.
A drawing of my Creative Muse on black paper in every color of the rainbow.

Thank you to Susan, for allowing me to share her part of this story and for being such a powerful and beautiful influence in my life.

My Dear Readers, what gifts have you been given that allow you faith in an Afterlife? Have you seen, felt, or heard something that you hold on to? Do you have an interpretation different than mine? Are there books that have influenced you? You can send me a message here or comment below.

Links:

Lunar Deities

The Faces of the Goddess

Cernunnus, the Horned God of Celtic Mythology

Books:

Maiden, Mother, Crone: The Myth and Reality of the Triple Goddess

By Oak, Ash, & Thorn: Modern Celtic Shamanism

The Mists of Avalon (my all-time favorite fiction about the Triple Goddess)

Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations

Original Mandala by Anna Loscotoff. Drawing of experience with Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations, drawn on Procreate. Image of woman with blonde hair dreaming her arms are too long. She's sitting in blue bed with orange light in background. 2020.

I recently had a rough night of sleep.  The hallucinations kept coming, one after another, for hours.  Because I understand what’s happening, or at least understand it’s not real, they don’t last as long as they used to.  I can generally pull myself out fairly quickly, but on nights like this I become afraid to close my eyes again and the anxiety rises. The adrenaline and fear is exhausting and at a certain point my brain begins to think something is really wrong.  On this particular night, after hours of partially waking, I told my husband that I thought I was having strokes. I was mostly asleep, not fully conscious of what I was saying. Other nights I’ve told him I was having a heart attack.  One night, I got up and told my daughter, full of panic, that my arms were too long. Yes, my arms were too long.  In reality, my brain is somewhere in the in-between; not yet awake, not completely asleep.

Anna sleeping at around 5 years of age with her dog.

When I was in high school I slept with my lamp on.  My dad, always conscious of the energy bill, would come in at 2 or 3 in the morning, my light having somehow woke him. He would switch it off, unintentionally waking me, and quietly reprimand me for keeping it on.  I’ve come to learn it was a sleep survival instinct. Research has shown that increasing light pulls the individual out of the hallucination.  That’s why, in second grade, the skeleton on my shelf didn’t disappear just because my dad came in the room.  It disappeared when he turned on the light. Many nights, with the lights off, I would see doors in my bedroom walls.  My brain told me I needed to go through the doors, curious about where they went.  Only I couldn’t get to them, something was in the way.  That something was often a dresser or bookshelf, and I would fully wake trying to move them.

You’d think a solution would be to sleep with the light on.  As an adult, I wish that were an option.  I do sleep with a salt lamp, but that often feels too bright and doesn’t allow me to fully sleep.  Nightlights cause shadows.  Those shadows become stories, creatures, forms.  Those shadows become anxieties to my sleeping mind. 

I go through stages of hallucinations, my mind fixating on certain subjects, sometimes for years at a time. I’ve had weeks of aliens coming through the ceiling, years of an important ring that I have lost or swallowed (and the loss of that ring to my sleeping mind will end the world), fairies flying around the room, floods. Lately my mind has a preoccupation with electricity. All of these are symbolic and visions into where my subconscious is centered. I will go more into symbolism, both in dreams and in hallucinations, in future posts.

Could there be something really wrong? This condition can be found in completely normal, healthy individuals, but there are some genuine medical reasons that people experience nocturnal hallucinations.  I just don’t seem to have any of them.  I don’t have hallucinations during the day, either visual or auditory, which is common in Schizophrenia.  I don’t have Epilepsy.  I don’t use drugs or alcohol.  No sight deprivation, Parkinson’s or Lewy body dementia.  Complex Nocturnal Hallucinations are also common in Narcolepsy, however Narcolepsy has several other defining factors such as excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep paralysis (neither are issues that affect me.) Also, it started when I was in 1st grade, (perhaps earlier, I just don’t have the conscious memory), which makes me think it is just how my brain fires. 

What types of things have you experienced while sleeping?  Any common symbols that keep coming up for you?

Want to explore deeper?  Here are some studies about Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucination:

Complex Visual Hallucinations in Mentally Healthy People

Complex Visual Hallucinations; Clinical and Neurobiological Insights

What You Should Know About Sleep-Related Hallucinations

Melatonin-Responsive Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations

The Skeleton on the Shelf

Anna in 1981, age 6, in her backyard.

I was only in first grade, nestled into my blankets on the loft of my bunk bed. It was late, everyone asleep, all the lights out. I opened my eyes from my deep sleep. Sitting across the room, on my book shelf, sat a skeleton. Not a little one, like a toy, but a full sized boney form, staring at me.

I screamed.

I kept screaming.

It kept staring at me.

My dad burst into the room; the skeleton sat until my dad flipped on the light. Mercifully, the light banished my visitor.

At school, I told the third grade girls who I so delightfully looked up to about my experience.  They were convinced I had been visited by Bloody Mary and I feared they were right.

Anna holding her birthday cake in the shape of a giraffe on her 7th birthday.

This is my first memory in a long history of sleep disorders, all falling under the umbrella of Parasomnia.  Parasomnia includes common sleep disorders you’ve probably heard of like Sleepwalking, Sleep Talking, and Nightmare Disorders, but it also includes sleep disorders a little less familiar, like Hypnagogic Hallucinations (upon falling asleep), Hypnopompic Hallucinations (upon waking), and Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations (middle of the night.) While  Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations are often connected to Narcolepsy, Sleep Paralysis and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations often disappear with increasing light and don’t cause that same exhaustion during the day.  

Through my years of sleep disorders (Sleepwalking, Sleep Talking, Nightmares, Teeth Grinding, Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations) I’ve become deeply invested in the world of sleep, how our dreaming brain works, symbolism and dream interpretation.   

This blog will be an exploration of dreams and symbolism, mandala work, art, meditation through art, and sleep. It may lead us down unforeseen paths, like the time I followed a red balloon through my parent’s room, trying to convince them it was real and them trying to convince me I was asleep and needed to go back to bed. I hope you will join me on this journey.