Mark Green's Atheopaganism Blog

Living an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science

The Yule Log—A Winter Solstice Ritual

This year, the longest night of the year—Winter Solstice, or Yule—takes place on Thursday, December 21st. On the night of the Winter Solstice, an old tradition that we have adapted for Atheopagan purposes is the burning of the Yule log.

Yule marks the moment in the year when the sun’s steady decline, with days growing shorter and shorter, comes to a halt, and the days begin to become longer again. The day the sun begins to return is celebrated by cultures throughout the world and going back far into prehistory; indeed, such archaeological marvels as the Newgrange passage burial in Ireland were constructed precisely so that they aligned with the sunrise on this momentous day.

We have many traditions drawn forth from antiquity for this time of year: the burning of candles and colorful lights, the decoration of the home with evergreen boughs and holly and other plants which persist in life through the dark months, and, of course, the “Christmas” tree, a Pagan holdover into modern times.

One such old tradition is the Yule log.  While found in various forms, here is what I have adapted as a tradition for our own Atheopagan celebrations.

For the log itself, I start with the trunk of the previous year’s Yule tree, which I have saved. This I bind with (non-plastic) ribbons of red and green to a large oaken log of firewood. Decorations, too, are tied on (with natural twine if cotton or silk ribbons aren’t available): boughs of holly and pyrocantha, redwood and fir. Some people drill holes so that taper candles can be inserted in the log, allowing the log to be “burned” for multiple nights in a row before burning the whole thing in the hearth (or if they don’t have a fireplace). A dusting of flour will create a “snow” effect.

Finally, we sit before our Yule tree one night, contemplating the coming year; we write wishes for the year on slips of paper, and tuck these under the ribbons binding the log together.

On the night of the solstice, we make ourselves a rum toddy or some eggnog, and sit outside in the cold and dark for awhile, to feel the character of the season. We then light a single taper each and return inside, where all lights have been extinguished except the Yule tree. We light candles which have been placed throughout the house, to bring the light back.

Then, we gently carry the log to our little fireplace, where we have made a nest of paper and kindling. We sing a Yule song, and light the log ablaze.

Solstice night is also a traditional time to tell ghost stories, so we might read a few out of a book of Victorian ghost stories we have.

Our Yule tradition no longer includes presents, as we have enough “stuff”. But we do have Yule stockings with little gifts and sweets. Under our tree, we place various treasures from among our existing possessions, to remind ourselves of how fortunate we are.

The Yule log is a fun project to do, and the entire family can help with making and creating it. Just be sure that everything on it is plastic-free, to avoid creating toxic fumes.

Happy Yule to you!


  1. The Winter Solstice has always seemed to me to mark the ending of the year, and the beginning of the new. I know there are other candidates. Some Pagans (for reasons I’ve never quite understood) celebrate Samhain as the turning point, and the larger population, of course, celebrates the end of the Gregorian calendar’s year as “New Year’s Eve”.
    Perhaps I’m too literal minded about it, and I do have to ask myself, why not Summer Solstice, the other time of the year when things seem to pause, and then resume? I guess there’s just something irresistible about celebrating the whole “Light returning” thing, bringing joy while Summer Solstice brings more of an “Oh-oh” feeling.
    In any case, I’ll be there, holding my candle, bringing back the light one more time of (Goddess willing) many more.
    See you there.

    1. Yes–I think of the Winter Solstice as the New Year, as well. For one thing, I don’t believe in reincarnation, so having the season of death, decay and fallowness as the beginning of the cycle, rather than the end, doesn’t make any sense to me.

      But there are also just some cultural rocks that aren’t worth pushing up the mountain, and the New Year is one of them. Winter Solstice is close enough to the calendar New Year that saying “Happy New Year” doesn’t elicit a confused stare, which it certainly does in November.

    2. I think one of the many wonderful aspects of modern paganism is that there are many such new beginnings. For those that follow the “wheel of the year” model, every 8 weeks or so can be viewed as a new beginning. As the seasons change, as the light grows or diminishes, there’s always a place to reflect, adjust and move on. It’s kinda neat that way 🙂

      1. Yes. Having a formal calendar requires that we have a “beginning,” but the Wheel of the Year asks, at each point, “beginning of WHAT?” Sun cycle? Grain harvest? Sprouts above the snow?

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I’m actively seeking some pagan and nature/science rooted celebrations for this holiday season, as I carve out new family traditions with my daughter. Wish we had a fireplace! We’re not allowed to burn outside here, either. I think I will find an amazing wood scented candle and give a suburban nod to the Yule log tradition. 🙂

  3. This sounds so wonderful and peaceful. Reminds me of the advent wreath I loved so much as a child but more on track with my current beliefs and spirituality. I also appreciate your reduction of presents with more simple things. My newest tradition is making food and herbal gifts for grandparents and friends. It just seems more personal and thoughtful for them and the world. Thanks for sharing your beautiful traditions! 🕊️🌲❄️

  4. It’s so refreshing to find some pagans not tied up in heavy mystical thinking–I feel at home here!

    It was a dark period in my life when I gave up the winter holidays: a time of sadness, frustration, anger, fear and resentment for me personally. PTSD had raised it’s ugly head during the #metoo moment and was complicated by the pandemic and difficulty of my mother’s dementia and her eventual death on Dec 26th, 2021. It was followed by the loss of my siblings and stepfather et al (by my choice, but still) it was not easy. I began spending the 3rd Thur of Nov fasting and studying: learning more about plants and foodways native to this continent, both of which my Puritan ancestors had destroyed; putting what I learned to work in my garden; researching the history and ways of my own indigenous ancestors in a far away place anchored to weather patterns completely foreign to me. I was figuring out how to continue the journey of becoming who I want to be and living in a way that more closely aligns with my values. I fully adopted what I’s always known: I was a pagan, and it fit just fine with my atheism.

    As it became safe for our adult children and grandchildren to travel and gather again, I looked for new ways to celebrate not centered around the dominant damaging belief system and the rampant consumerism that seems to come with it. The Covid break had provided a pause long enough for us to exit the holiday shopping train –what a relief!

    I began crafting my own rituals. My visiting daughter and I roasted apples with cinnamon and raisins. We sat by the fire hand painting antlers and horns for her niece and nephew. I decorated with icicle lights and hand painted a small deer sculpture, jewelling her antlers and placing her in a small frozen winter forest scene that grows each year as the kids add another tiny pewter forest animal to it. Won’t be long til we’ve exhausted them, but then we’ll have our favorites, and be glad to see them again each winter. We move a larger table in to have some of our meals by the fire. On the 21st we read a story book about the longest night, and a fairy tale about the Deer Mother before we “fly” her to a sun sculpture lit with gold candles, light her antlers and place her back in the forest. We talk about myth: how it gets created, how it’s fun to pretend and tell stories. We eat in a room lit only with golden sun candles and a Yule Log.

    Starting in Nov, my husband and I make a yule log from a choice piece of our firewood. I hand paint little wooden mushrooms for it using food coloring, employing frosting as glue to fasten evergreen clippings from our yard and a clove studded orange, so it can all burn without toxic consequences. Each family member gets to glue or staple something to the log. The grand-kids get the honor of lighting the candles first, each day at sundown, the 4 year old so pleased to be trusted with fire! After dinner on the 22nd we burn it. The first time they were shocked, amused and curious. We talked about the temporal nature of existence, including our own. Grandpa sets the telescope to whatever is noteworthy. We walk the tiny vegetable garden in our front yard in California, noticing how it behaves in winter; don the horned headdresses, howl and holler at the coyotes and the moon and beat drums as we pour wassail at the foot of the dwarf apple trees. My son and his indigenous partner make a chocolate Atole for us. We sip it outside around a fire in puffy coats (or not) roasting marshmallows, knowing there will be years when we can’t burn safely outside. We talk about the changing planet, and about how we will adapt. When it’s just past bedtime we light the flameless fairy strands in the kids mason jar lanterns with handles and return inside to the stockings by the fireplace. They love taking the mason jar lanterns to bed with them as night nights! And they all love fire almost as much as we do.

    Thanks for the space to share! It’s good not to feel alone in this.

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