Yule is the festival that occurs on the Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year. It is generally celebrated on December 21, though the actual Solstice may happen a day or two earlier or later, depending on how the calendar lines up with the astronomical phenomenon of the Solstice.
The primary Neopagan celebration at Yule is that of the rebirth of the Sun. The Goddess-cycle says that She has been pregnant since the Spring, and the God, her lover, was slain at the harvest, ushering in the darkest part of the year. Now He is reborn and the light returns to the world. This is also seen as the time when the newly birthed Oak King defeats his twin and rival, the Holly King, to rule for the coming “light” half of the year (the two will switch roles at Midsummer).
Common celebrations include bonfires and all-night-vigils to welcome the sunrise after the longest night of the year. Also common is gift-giving, feasting, lighting lots of candles to celebrate the return of light, and decorations of evergreens, to show the promise of returning spring and green things. This is the turning point of the year from dark to light, and though the coldest days of winter are still ahead, the increasing sunlight is a sign that spring will come again.
There is not a particularly notable celebration in the Celtic hearth culture for the Winter Solstice, though the Ancestors would still have been important at this time of year. In the Gaulish hearth, the midwinter feast of Devoriuros was a celebration of plenty, as well as of the renewal promised by the returning light. The Coligny calendar clearly marks the winter solstice, so there would have been some notation that the longest night had passed. (Our Own Druidry, 62-64)
I celebrate many of the secular traditions in North America that go along with this holiday, many of which have ties to the Neopagan (and older) customs of this time of year. I particularly enjoy baking cookies, giving gifts, hanging evergreens, and lots of candle light to illuminate the darkness. I also celebrate this holiday (and it’s Christian equivalent) multiple times, since each part of my family will have its own gift-giving and celebratory gathering, with a big feast as well.