Winter Solstice/ Yule, December 21, is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. It is the time of the greatest darkness and is the shortest day of the year.
Since the BC years, Yule has long been viewed by pagans (people that worship nature) as a time of divine birth. The Goddess gives birth to a son, the God, at Yule. This marks the point of the year when the sun is reborn. Bonfires were lit in the fields. The ceremonial Yule log, traditionally ash wood, was placed in the fireplace decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze by a piece of last years log, (held onto for just this purpose). The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days after before being ceremonially put out. Candles are also lit to welcome the sun’s returning light. The Goddess, slumbering through the winter of Her labor, rests after Her delivery.
Holly and ivy not only decorated the outside, but also the inside of homes, in hopes nature sprites would come and join the celebration. A sprig of holly was kept near the door all year long as a constant invitation for good fortune to visit the residents. Mistletoe was also hung as decoration. Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun. The boughs were symbolic of immortality (evergreens were sacred to the Celts because they did not “die” thereby representing the eternal aspect of the Divine).
Many customs created around Yule are identified with Christmas today. If you decorate your home with a Yule evergreen tree, holly or candles, you are following some of these old traditions. The Yule log, (usually made from a piece of wood saved from the previous year) is burned in the fire to symbolize the Newborn Sun/Son, Jesus.
Adapted notes from
The Celtic Connection