The Pagan celebration of the longest night or winter Solstice is one of the oldest festivals in the world. When the world is at its darkest it is a time to celebrate the awaking and rebirth as in the days that follow the earth gets warmer and lighter.
It has strong likes to sun worship and the word Yule is thought to have come from the Norse word for wheel ‘Houl’ as the ancient Norse saw the sun as a wheel which turned the seasons. Many ancient peoples lit bonfires at this time of darkness, told stories and made merry, the light and laughter a protection of against the darkness.
The ancient Romans held the festival of Saturnalia from the 17th December till the 24th to celebrate the rebirth of the year, a time when ordinary rules were over turned, men dressed as women and women as men, masters as servants. These traditions can still be seen in the British tradition of pantomime at this time of year and in traditions associated with Boxing Day when in the British Army traditionally the officers serve the enlisted men, a tradition possibly inherited from the Roman legions. Saturnalia also involved lighting candles, giving presents and decorating the home with greenery.
Many of our modern British traditions of Christmas actually have their roots in Druid traditions for this time of year; ironically many people now associate such things as Christian. Mistletoe for example is well known to be a druid tradition, the druidic priests would cut mistletoe that grew on oak trees with a golden sickle and give it a blessing, seeing it as the symbol of life and fertility. Mistletoe rarely grows on oak and has no apparent roots so under the principles of what Druids and Wicca call sympathetic magic it is associated with fertility, hence the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.Holly (the UK has more native Holly than any other country in the world) and ivy were seen as powerful plants to ward off evil spirits and hence were used to decorate doorways as a protection for the household. The Yule log is also a Druid tradition as it was burnt at this time of year to ward off evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year. The ancient Celts believed that the sun stood still for twelve days and this period was left off their calendars as if time was dormant awaiting the rebirth of the land. This idea has survived in the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas.