One of the many reasons I love our Pagan community and Path is because they’re fun. Because we affirm the value of enjoyment, and don’t attach guilt to having fun, we can let loose and enjoy a party, a gathering, a practice, and so on. Here is a holiday practice which is fun and adds so much to our lives.
Which practice is this? The Yule Calendar! Also known as an Advent Calendar, it helps us experience the building excitement leading up to the Winter Solstice, just as Pagans have done for at least dozens of thousands of years (maybe hundreds of thousands of years!). It fits well with both families and solitary Pagans, takes only a little preparation, and rewards us every day.
Little Paper Doors?
A Pagan Yule calendar has brightened my Winter Solstice season for nearly 20 years. The basic concept is familiar to many of us who grew up with Christmas Advent Calendars (see the surprising history* below). As a child, my family had a simple Advent calendar – just a paper calendar with little cut out doors, which open to show a little picture – maybe of a snowman, a decorated tree, a stocking, etc. Each evening in December, my sisters and I would ask to be the one allowed to open a door, which we’d do with excitement. Looking back, it’s a little funny to think that a simple little paper door with nothing behind it other than a poorly printed, simple picture would command such attention and excitement – but it did. This is yet another example of the power of holiday practices to fill our lives with joy and especially to teach both kids (and adults) what they value in life.
We can make my little paper Advent Calendar practice even better, in many ways. In my family, we’ve used an Advent Calendar with little doors to count down the days to the Winter Solstice with the kids for about 20 years. We took a regular Advent Calendar (here it is on the right), and instead of using the numbers as dates (opening door #3 on December 3rd), we used them as days until Solstice (hence starting at door 24, on November 28th, and working from the bottom of the tree to the top). This feels completely natural, and the kids wouldn’t think it was meant to be used any other way. I’m a little surprised that even after so many years of use, all of the doors are working, not broken off and lost, etc.! Behind each door is a surprise – either a note with a Solstice related wonder of our Universe (such as the Geminid meteor shower, or a solar flare), or candy, money, or a hint to be used on Solstice morning (you can print out these notes for your own use, here). We’ve found that we can make this all so much more meaningful than the Advent calendars I had as a kid, because we are celebrating the real return of the real Sun, and can share that with the kids again and again (children don’t often learn by experiencing something just once – it often takes many repetitions over the years). Here are more details to all our family Winter Solstice celebrations.
Now I see that many more Advent Calendars are available, making it easy for you to start this as a Pagan tradition yourself. In the Nordic countries, Advent calendars are already called “Yule Calendars” (Jule kalender). For families, this can be a great way to light up a child’s life, show her or him the Universe, and teach the wonder and joy of our Pagan Spirituality. Similarly, for those with no kids around, this is a power way to connect with our Ancestors who viscerally felt the loss of the Sun and anticipated it’s return. You can put Pagan devotions in each door, or otherwise take a moment to start the day with purpose and with the feelings of the coming light of Solstice morning. In both of those cases, it helps to have a calendar ready made. Here are several options.
Make your own! Here is one example.
Yule Advent Calendar Packets
These kits with small cloth bags for each day are especially versatile, and can easily be used for a Yule Calendar. One could count down as I do (starting with bag #24 on November 28th) or use the date in December (starting on December 1 with bag #1 and counting up to the Winter Solstice on December 21st this year – and simply not using a few of the bags like bag #23). One could put a special marker on the Winter Solstice bag, such as this beautiful Atheopagan pendant. At $13, these bags are inexpensive and can be used year after year. Plus, these look better than the little wooden door unit we are currently using, because (in addition to the versatility), their is more room in the bags than in our doors. With 4 kids (and two parents), if we put small candies (such as a Hershey’s kiss), we find that we can’t fit all six in a door. One might be concerned about needing to plan out and fill all bags ahead of time, but we very often fill a door the day before (or hours, minutes!), and it seems it would be easy to crumple up some paper in each bag to make it look full ahead of time. Some additional designs are here and here.
One could look to do doors just as we do, and that works well too. There are lots of designs with doors, and for those you can’t really toss away a few doors (to use the date method), so you’ll have to count down starting around November 28th. Here are a few door designs. Here is one which is completely blank, so you can paint it to perfectly fit Solstice, and put a Solstice Sunrise or such in the middle (though of course more work than the bags)! Or, as a bare minimum, an addition to the above, or just a simple start, here is a printable Winter Solstice Advent calendar for just $5.
Moon Phase Advent Wreath
Another meaningful tradition is the use of an Advent Wreath. A wreath is, of course, a very natural item, with a long history dating back well before Christianity. The idea of lighting four candles on a wreath to anticipate the Christmas is quite new (see the history below), and of course, it’s a human invention just like any other religious practice. So it makes sense to use it in a Naturalistic Pagan practice if it works well without harm. It seems like it does – one way could be to light the four candles in order in the time leading up to the Winter Solstice to again anticipate the coming return of the Sun and emphasize its importance in our lives. Advent wreaths are very common to find for sale, and are almost always consistent with Naturalistic Paganism. But why four candles instead of three, six, or whatever? Of course it’s easy to find sacred reasons for any number under about 15, but four is especially sacred to Pagans, being the number of elements, moon phases, seasons, quarter holidays, and so on. In fact, some Christian denominations use numbers other than 4, such as the Greek Orthodox church which uses an Advent Wreath with six candles.
Since four is already so perfect for Pagans, it’s easy to get an Advent Wreath with 4 candles. While many churches use the four Sundays before Christmas, perhaps a better marker for us would be the dates of the four primary Moon phases before the Winter Solstice? If so, here are the dates for 2021 (see table below)!
On a practical level, if a family is only free one night of the week due to work, or such, then maybe use every Wednesday before Solstice, or whatever works. If using the Moon phases, then altar tiles (check out these!) of the four quarter phases (new, 1st quarter, full, last quarter) could be temporarily used from the full set. Some Advent wreaths are here, here, and here (this one has a center candle for Solstice Day). Note that most of these require the candles to be purchased separately – which is good because that allows you to pick the colors to fit your personal approach to the Winter Solstice celebrations. For me, they would be metallic candles, representing the metals made by dying supernova stars.
The use of evergreens to celebrate the Winter Solstice dates back at least thousands of years, and the use of wreaths in particular for spiritual significance goes back at least 2,500 years with the Etruscan civilization. With those old ages for these Pagan practices, and that relatively old practice of the Advent in Christianity, I was surprised to find that many of these specific Advent practices in the US and Europe are relatively new inventions. For instance, the Advent Wreath wasn’t widely used in America until the 1930s, within my dad’s lifetime (he’s alive today). I guess when we see something as a child, we tend to think it has “always been that way”. Similarly, I can’t know about others who grew up Christian, but for me, as a child Advent was not focused on the idea of the 2nd coming of Jesus to end the world – but apparently the impending apocalypse and destruction of the world was indeed much of the focus of Advent for most of Christian history.
However you celebrate, I hope your Solstice season is filled with joy, love and meaning. As with nearly every practice in Naturalistic Paganism (and any naturalistic spirituality), what matters is what works – so if it doesn’t work in your situation, do something else. If it speaks to you, go for it! I know this post seems early, but with shipping times (and the current supply chain issues), if one is going to order any of these items and make this year the first one to use a Solstice Advent Practice, one may have to order very soon. The first doors, and the first candle (if going by Moon phase) are just a few days after Thanksgiving.
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.