For those unfamiliar with what a Yule celebration looks like in a Heathen household (well half-Heathen anyway, TheScott being of the Catholic persuasion), GG and I decided to share with you what we did this year.

Bûche de Noël, photo by Jebulun and released into the Public Domain. I made a Yule Log cake once. It wasn't this pretty.

Due to all the December festivities, TheScott and I hosted a (very) late Yule celebration this year. Growing up my family never placed a high priority on celebrating holidays on the “right” day – we celebrated when the most people could gather. Now-a-days I don’t do much magic or other things that are affected by astronomical events, so I’ve continued this consideration for friends over calendar dates into my Heathen practices.

We held a simple celebration with close friends. I see Yule as a binding time, a way for the innermost circle of frith to start the new year by strengthening bonds of wyrd with a shared meal and sumbel (sometimes spelled symbel). To me this meant keeping it simple enough that I could spend the time with my peeps instead of in the kitchen!

As is traditional, I served a ham (smoked, from Paidom<link> where they pasture-raise their meat sustainably) and accompanied it with some of the last of our CSA vegetables for the season – mashed sweet potato and butternut squash along with a side of warm cabbage salad. I try to buy local and organic meat and produce on a regular basis, although I admit that I sometimes fall to the pressure of price points. But for holidays I put forth the extra dollars to go all sustainable organic. Choosing seasonal ingredients helps make this more feasible and is one more connection tying the celebration to the time of year. Despite hosting our festival nearly two weeks too late, it’s still a seasonal celebration, rooted in the reappearance of the sun!

I also made a (flour-less)* plum pudding with port-cream sauce, figuring even if my flour substitution didn’t taste perfect, at least we got to set it on fire, which makes everything better.

That afternoon I lit candles to the gods, my house spirit, and my ancestors as I cleaned and prepared the food, being mindful of why today was important to me from a religious standpoint. As I’ve mentioned before, to me the most important part of a holiday is the gathering of personal community, not the gathering of shared faith – the gathering of friends, not the gathering of people who agree with me spiritually. GG and I had plans to attend a faining (the closest thing to a Heathen “church service”) the next day to hail the northern gods with other Heathens. At our personal Yule celebration, while we certainly didn’t shy away from faith, we knew there would be Heathens, Christians, and atheists in attendance, and so we made our event as inclusive as possible. (‘Cause, as you might have noticed, that’s how we Pagan Princesses typically roll.)

As our friends gathered, we poured wine, GG cut up the cheese and summer sausage she brought for appetizers, and another friend mixed up a new cocktail he’d recently discovered (yum!). We started with dinner and let the conversation run it’s own course, again, community being the important part of the occasion.

After dinner (but before dessert), we went outside to the fire pit our friends had brought. In Celtic tradition (one of our friends feels a deep connection to her Celtic roots) it’s customary to jump over fire on the solstices, and we thought it would be fun to incorporate that into the toast, boast and oath of our sumbel**

According to our “house rules” Yule toasts can be made to somebody real or symbolic that you want to carry with you into the new year or honor for their work in the previous year. I started with a toast to Bragi, northern god of poetry – or, as my friend said after I finished explaining why I chose Bragi (which I will explain in this blog as soon as I can  😉  ), “northern god of the published writer.” The group said, “Hail!” and I drank mead from the community cup as everybody else drank whatever they had poured into their own glasses. Then I passed the cup widdershins (counter-clockwise; that part’s not actually important) and jumped over the fire. Jumping over fire may not be historically accurate, but I have to say it’s a might fine addition to a sumbel. The different way people jump a fire is not only fun to watch but reflective of everybody’s personalities (particularly with our friend who studies Capoeira and decided half-way through to start showing off some cool moves whenever he “jumped”; yay mead!) .

As I said, we run a very open sumbel – people can toast whoever is meaningful to them, and we all respect each other’s toasts. We had toasts to Ganesh, to groups, and specific individuals both living and dead. It’s pretty cool to listen to your friends talk about who is meaningful to them while sharing hopes of the future and memories of the past.

Next we had a boast, something we were proud of that we did this year. I love this part because, being a good Southern girl, I was taught to act humble, so it’s nice to have a socially approved outlet for a good brag. 🙂 Because way back in college my husband and I and my best friend and her husband all sang in a Madrigal Choir together, and GG acted in the performance that went along with it, our house rules for this round state that the appropriate answer to a boast is “Huzzah!” And, of course, after each tale there was another pass of the community cup and a jump across the fire.

Finally we made our oaths. I warned everybody at the beginning that in Heathen tradition, everybody who drinks to the oaths will be connected to the “luck” the person earns or loses as they complete or fail in their oath. As a community, we hold ourselves responsible to each other, responsible to the good of the whole. So don’t make an oath you don’t fully intend to keep, and don’t be afraid to ask the people in the circle for support in fulfilling it.*** This year, GG made note of all the oaths and sent them out to us to help us remember. (Thanks GG!)

After the last round was complete, we went back inside, lit the pudding on fire, and ate dessert.The dessert was a little falling-apart-y, but luckily my bread crumbs substitution maintained a taste and texture that was in line with the gluten-y version. (w00t!) I think everyone had a good time, and I feel like I know my friends a little better and feel better connected to what they’re planning for 2012. I sure hope I can be helpful to everyone as they move forward. I am definitely glad to have the support of my friends as I progress through 2012; it’s going to be a big year for TheScott and I.

Thank the gods for friends, right?

How did you celebrate Yule (or the winter holiday season)?

* I’m still learning how to make desserts since TheScott and I went gluten free. I refuse to just sub in gluten-free flour for regular flour because, honestly, it doesn’t taste the same and the texture is all wrong. So I’m experimenting with recipes that don’t need flour. This plum pudding recipe came from a present I’d gotten this year, and required bread crumbs – something to absorb liquid and stick things together – instead of flour, which would be there to create texture and help the pudding rise. I replaced the bread crumbs with almond meal and a little tapioca starch, put it in the water bath to steam… and then realized I probably would’ve been better served subbing coconut flour. Oh well. Next time. Any other gluten-free Pagans out there have favorite dessert ideas?

** To all you hard-core Heathen Recons out there… yes, we bastardized our sacred traditions by mixing them with another group’s! And we’ll probably do it again at our next gathering!!! (Um… can I still keep my Recon Card?) (In case you can’t tell, I love messin’ with my peeps. 🙂 )

*** I figure in the past, knowing that a gang of big guys with swords who thought their luck was tied up with yours was probably a pretty good motivator for sticking to your resolutions.

+ Featured Image: The Yule centerpiece I put together for the event (sorry ’bout the crappy photo, y’all… I need a royal photographer!)