The Winter Solstice, celebrated as Yule (or Jól) in many European pagan traditions, is the darkest and shortest day of the year. The occasion marks a turning point, and though months of winter lie ahead, each day that follows slowly becomes a bit brighter. On this day of peak darkness, Yule (and many other holidays observed in and around the Solstice) celebrates the return of light and the promise it brings for the new year to come.
Yule is about cultivating strength, gratitude, and hope. We release the struggles that we have worked through during the dark half of the year so that we may welcome in the energy of the Sun—the source of the vitality and resilience that carried us through those hardships. By reflecting in the shadow of the night, we find inner knowing, peace, and resolve that readies us to shine anew.
Winter Solstice Traditions & Rituals
Winter Solstice traditions vary by time and place, but one common thread weaves through them all: light. In pagan Yule traditions originating in Scandinavia, Winter Solstice celebrations were meant to encourage the sun god to journey back towards the earth after six months of wandering away from it. To do so, communities would build large fires, often including whole trees that came to be known as Yule logs. These bright symbols of renewal were later taken up in Christian celebrations, where they came to represent a different sort of sacred rebirth. Some people decorate their Yule logs with candles and incense, or burn slips of paper with wishes for the new year. Flames also illuminate the rituals and festivities of other December holidays, from Hanukkah menorahs to Kwanzaa kinaras. When all around us is at its darkest, it seems we have always felt a need to fill our homes and communities with warmth and light.
Astrological Insights for the Winter Solstice
Solstice begins December 21, when we leave the season of Sagittarius (typically a time of abundance and exploration, inside and out) and enter the time of Capricorn, a period of practicality, resourcefulness, and dedication. Saturn is the planet that rules Capricorn, and though it often suffers from a bad reputation, it can be an ally to those who respect and work with it. Saturn is a disciplinarian: it brings structure into our lives and asks us to step up our efforts. The element that rules Capricorn is Earth, which exerts wisdom, stability, and grounding influence.
This pair makes for a very punctual and empirical combination. The energy of Capricorn urges us to clarify our goals, create a schedule, and pursue our vision with hard work. Capricorn’s influence may move many people to make New Year’s resolutions during this season (though they often drop off by the rising of Aquarius in late January, when the heady influence of Air can pull people off-track if they don’t stay focused).
THE GREAT CONJUNCTION 2020
What makes Winter Solstice 2020 special? December 21, 2020 coincides with a Great (or Grand) Conjunction in the sign of Aquarius. In a regular astrological conjunction, two planets line up with the earth and one another, allowing the energies of the planets to converge and strengthen each other’s influences. A great conjunction describes the alignment of the two largest planets in our solar system, Saturn and Jupiter. The last great conjunction occurred in the year 2000, but this is also the closest these planetary powerhouses have been to one another in 400 years.
Both planets signify authority, but in different ways. Jupiter is all about expansion and spiritual growth, whereas Saturn encourages boundaries and structure. This interesting combination of initiative and focus is happening within the sign of Aquarius (some say it’s the true beginning of the age of Aquarius), which is associated with innovative, rebellious, and visionary thinking. All this heralds great change and a new era of transformation ahead. On a personal level, this Solstice will be an especially potent time to release old patterns and achieve your goals!
Herbs for the Winter Solstice
By working with planetary, elemental, and natural energies of winter, we can intentionally invite more light, determination, and structure into our lives. There are a number of plants that can help us in this endeavor:
Blessed Thistle: Linked to the planet Mars and the Fire element, blessed thistle helps divert negative energy to protect and strengthen humans and our animal familiars (animals should not consume it, but they benefit energetically from its presence). Medicinally, this plant is a galactagogue, helping to encourage milk production in those who are nursing. This bitter also supports the liver and encourages circulation. Blessed thistle flower essence assists those who need comfort in giving and receiving.
Chamomile: In folk traditions, this flower of the Sun and of Water has been used in sleep amulets for dispelling insomnia and nightmares. It is also used magically as a hand wash to attract money. From a therapeutic perspective, this plant may be used as a mild sedative for natural sleep support, a slightly bitter digestive tonic to calm the stomach, or a relaxant to naturally ease tension.
Cedar: Influenced by Jupiter and the Fire element, cedar is believed to bring confidence, prosperity, growth, magnetism, and good health. This germ-fighting and tonifying botanical has applications but is often used to relieve congestion, or to cleanse and support the urinary tract. Cedar essential oil is especially useful in aromatherapy blends to fortify the immune system against seasonal maladies.
Cinnamon: Associated with both Mars and Mercury and embodying Fire, cinnamon brings purification, success, psychic vision, and clarity of mind. It has been used for millennia to awaken the mind and restore the body. Energetically, cinnamon is a moistening and warming spice, helping to stoke inner fire and keep vital energy flowing during dry and cold winter months. Medicinally, cinnamon is helpful for relieving gas and bloating, as well as regulating circulation.
Mistletoe: An herb of the Sun, Jupiter, and Fire, this plant is famed for attracting love and fertility (hence the holiday tradition of kissing beneath it). It also symbolizes peace—according to Nordic folklore, if you were to encounter an enemy under mistletoe, you were meant to drop your weapons until the next day. Herbalists use this nervine to relax the body, promote circulation, and reduce pressure and accumulations through the body.
Hawthorn: Hawthorn (of Mercury, Mars, and Air) has been used to ensure a fruitful harvest and fidelity in romantic relationships. Hawthorn tends to the heart magically and physically, offering aid for emotional heartache and a range of well documented cardiovascular benefits as well. This tonifying and diuretic plant helps dilate the blood vessels around the heart to promote better blood flow and function.
Clove: Cloves (of Uranus and Fire) bring protection, joy, wealth, and domestic harmony. Clove is said to help stop the spread of gossip and bring truth to light. Medicinally, clove has been used to relieve discomfort, particularly dental-related complaints. It may also help with seasonal congestion and stomach disturbances.
Orange Peel: This fruit of the Sun and Air (also known as “neroli”) brings confidence, happiness, and vitality into our lives. Orange peel offers spiritual guidance, helping those who are confused or lost in life find direction and focus. Orange peel is a warming and uplifting carminative that helps with digestion and mood. It contains vitamin C, folate, B6, and other vital nutrients and antioxidants.
Frankincense: Blazing with the energy of the Sun and Fire, frankincense is one of the most revered sacred herbs in human history. It helps call in the presence of the divine, and many cultures consider it essential for raising the spiritual vibration in rituals and ceremonies. This resin also has many therapeutic applications, offering relief and support for joint, digestive, and oral health.
Festive & Purifying Herbal Blend for Winter Solstice
You can enjoy the energetic and aromatherapeutic benefits of many Winter Solstice herbs with a simple homemade herbal potpourri. Unlike many store-bought versions made with synthetic fragrances, this all-natural blend will help cleanse and purify the air in your home (or car, or office!). Infuse this blend with your New Year's intentions and let it permeate your space to make its lovely scent an encouraging presence to bring your goals into fruition. It also makes a thoughtful DIY gift for loved ones.
YULE HERBAL POTPOURRI RECIPE
- 1/2 cup pine needles
- 1/2 cup cedar needles
- 1/2 cup oak bark
- 1/2 cup juniper berries
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 3 Tbsp. whole cloves
- 3 Tbsp. frankincense powder
- 12 drops of Forest Essential Oil Blend by Floracopeia (or essential oils of choice)
- Combine evergreen needles, bark berries, cinnamon, and cloves in a bowl and stir to mix.
- In a separate bowl, mix frankincense powder with essential oil.
- Pour resin/oil mixture over blend from step 1 and toss to combine (salad servers work well).
- Transfer blend into an airtight glass jar to store. When ready to enjoy, scoop mixture into small bowls placed around your home to diffuse.
How to Make a Yule Altar
You can combine your Yule potpourri with other Winter Solstice symbols to create a celebratory space for connecting with the energies of the season. Here are a few ideas:
YULE ALTAR SUPPLIES & DECORATIONS
- Animals: Reindeer, bear, phoenix, owl, raven, stag, squirrel
- Crystals: Bloodstone, garnet, quartz, ruby, emerald, diamond
- Foods: Spiced cider, mulled wine, eggnog, gingerbread, dried fruits, roasted meats, apples, cinnamon cookies, nuts, red cabbage, latkes, chestnuts
- Colors: Red, green, gold, white, silver
- Charms and Talismans: Wreaths, candles, bells, pinecones, holly, lights
MEDITATION RITUAL FOR WINTER SOLSTICE
Gather precious items, delicious foods, and your Yule herbal potpourri, and arrange them in an indoor or outdoor space where you can enjoy their energy. Find a comfortable seat before them, and take in the sights, scents, and feelings evoked by your altar.
Then, close your eyes and meditate on your intentions for the year ahead. Visualize your goals coming to fruition, and hold this image clearly in your mind. Picture yourself sending this vision onto your altar and letting the potpourri absorb your desires, infusing the herbs to be slowly released into your space throughout the winter to focus and inspire you.
Happy winter, everyone!
WANT MORE RECIPES?
TRY THIS ELDERBERRY SYRUP MOCKTAIL
You might also enjoy:
- Fall Equinox Rituals, Herbs & Recipes
- Herbs for the Summer Solstice
- TCM Fire Cider with Chinese Five Spice
Written by Jules Benefico. Jules is a Clinical Western Herbalist and the Retail Manager at Five Flavors Herbs. She studies medical astrology, western alchemy, and clinical nutrition and infuses this into her herbal practice.