It happens unfailingly in the Western world every December. Folks take to the farms, shopping mall lots, nurseries or even their neighbor’s wooded property with one objective: to cut, cull, purchase or purloin an evergreen tree. Once obtained, they are spun in spider cocoons of cord and driven away, whirled through revolving doors, packed into elevators and hustled up flights of stairs. They’re popped into stands, bedecked with lights and laden with decorations of cultural and spiritual significance. Beneath their branches, people make toasts, pray and play, and exchange gifts and tokens of affection. They are robed in garland and tinsel, crowned with star, serenaded, sung about, and made the focal point of the child’s wonder still living in all our hearts… for a while.
Then the day comes: Out come the boxes, off go the decorations. The trees are zipped into evergreen-body-bags, hoisted on shoulders and taken away for disposal amid a great shower of pine needles and sometimes, poor language. It takes between 7-12 years for an evergreen to reach the average holiday tree height of about 7 feet. And exactly how many of those 7 footers end up in homes across the world? According to the National Christmas Tree Association, in the United States alone, 28.6 million households purchase live evergreen trees as a part of their holiday celebrations. The chopping down of 30 million trees is not as environmentally harsh as it sounds. 98% of holiday trees are farm grown, which means that new saplings are planted for just about every tree that's cut. Artificial trees (most of which only have a life span of about 6 years) are not as viable an alternative as they seem their manufacture, transportation and disposal cause air, land, and water pollution.
Some cut trees go on to serve a greater good in the mundane world. There are communities that collect and use them to form needed barriers to halt beach erosion while others have public works departments that convert them into mulch. Yet, unless collected in a timely manner, many more take flight in January winds to become road hazards, or are transformed by snowplows into semi-permanent ice sculptures next to driveways and street corners. It is an ignoble end to a part of Nature taken into our homes and hearts, invested with spiritual symbolism and used as a touchstone to the pure essence of life.
Surely, that which has been endowed with magical significance should continue to be of use. The crafts and rituals that you'll read about (and hopefully try) over the course of 2016 are attempts we have made to keep the magic of our Yule cedar, spruce, fir or pine going throughout the Wheel of the Year--some have become beloved family traditions. Each incorporates the live Yule tree as well as elements and traditions of the seasons and sabbats—those significant points of betwixt and between—being celebrated. Several are purposefully returned to the earth once the season has passed. In this way, they too become a part of the next cycle. Anyone can shape them to their own beliefs; we may walk different paths, but they are all on the same planet.
(CLICK HERE to print out a coloring page of the image above!)
Cut all the branches from the TRUNK, leaving it bare and with as few nubs as possible. The naked trunk will do its first stint as a Beltane Maypole. Clip the slender balsam laden TWIGS from the BRANCHES. Keep these twigs as full as possible and leave the balsam on as it will help to preserve the needles and their scent for a longer time; they can be removed as needed.
The challenge with storing the parts of the Yule tree until it is ready to use is to keep them from turning into compost. It is important to keep all wood and balsam free of mold and moisture. The ideal storage area is a cool dry place such as a garage or shed where the materials will be protected from the elements. If this is not possible, store the branches, balsam and trunk outside under a tarp. Spread out the pieces as much as possible to avoid overlapping, and check and turn them periodically so that one surface is not always in contact with the ground. Balsam and shorter twigs can be stored indefinitely in airtight bags in the freezer. If you didn't put up a cut, live tree, it's probably easy to find one--keep an eye out for folks putting their trees out for recycling or trash collection. One tree will yield enough material that can be shared.
Make something with your Yule tree material RIGHT NOW: Propel the the energy of this past Yule into the coming year with some kindling bundles for your sabbat fires. Form 8 bundles of twigs, small branches and balsam and bind them with colored string: White for Imbolc, Green for the Spring Equinox, Red and White for Beltane, Pink for the Summer Solstice, Golden Yellow for Lughnasad, Orange for the Autumnal Equinox, Black for Samhain and Green and Red for Yule (or use colors that are unique to your tradition). You can also make these for new and full moon circle fires, binding the bundles with black string for new moons and white string for full moons.Imbolc, coming up in less than two weeks, marks a period of quiet growth. Seeds are coming to life underground, the sun is growing in strength, and waters begin their mid-winter thaw, another indication of the flow of life to come (Brigid, as Goddess of healing, had many ancient wells dedicated to her. Those that are still extant remain sacred to Saint Bridget). As an act of sympathetic magic, hoops would be set afire and rolled down hills, or pinwheels (Bridget’s crosses) staved and set to turn in the wind. In this way, the return of the sun was encouraged.
A New Spin on Brigid's Cross
Use a branch from your Yule Tree in a ritual of renewal. If you do not have access to a Yule evergreen, fallen branches from other trees can be used for this craft. Use your favorite resource to identify the tree from which the branch came, and what energy that particular tree will bring to this work.
- Imbolc Pinwheel (CLICK HERE for a free PDF to print out)
- 12-14” long Yule tree branch
- Two Pony Beads
- Twist ties (from the produce section of the grocery store)
- Construction Paper
Tips to make this a greener craft: Use recycled paper (computer printer paper printed on one side), or gift wrap that is blank on one side to print or trace the pinwheel. Magazine covers are usually printed on a heavier weight paper than inside pages, and can be used in place of construction paper.
- Cut out the pinwheel, and color it any way you wish. Colors special to the season of Imbolc are red, gold yellow and orange for fire, brown for the awakening earth, and blue for Brigid's well.
- Glue the square to a piece of construction paper and trim any excess. This will reinforce the paper so that it will withstand repeated turning.
- Cut the corner lines down to the center circle, but don't cut in or around the circle. Each section will become a blade of the pinwheel.
- Take the corner of each bade where the text ends and bend it to the center of the back of the pinwheel and secure it with a piece of tape.
- Thread the twist tie through one of the pony beads so that the bead is centered on the twist tie.
- Using a gentle hand, make a small hole in the center of the circle on the pinwheel. This can be done by pushing the tip of a pen or pencil into the paper.
- Slip the ends of the twist tie through the hole, then slide the second bead on in the back. Make sure that it is secure, but loose enough so that the pinwheel turns when it is blown.
- Position the pinwheel near the top of the Yule tree branch and wrap the remaining lengths of the twist tie around it to secure the pinwheel to it.
Speak or sing the poem on the pinwheel. The poem, like a circle, can be started at any line:
Dear Brigid be with us as we turn the wheel,
Wells of blessed water to help us all heal.
A cross like a pinwheel to help the year flow,
Fire to Inspire, fire to grow!
Blow on the pinwheel to make it turn, envisioning healing and growth for yourself, loved ones, the earth or any special intention that you may have. Repeat the spell as many times as needed. If the pinwheel is part of a group ritual, pass it clockwise around your circle, with others present chanting the poem, and the one who has the pinwheel stating their intentions aloud. At the end of the ritual, place the pinwheel outside a doorway on the night of February 1st to welcome Brigid and the energy of renewal, taking heart that Spring is indeed on the way.
In The Belly: The Brideog
The Brideog, or “little Brigid,” comes down to us from ancient times. She was a corn doll (corn being wheat) that was fashioned into a female form and decorated with ribbons and shells. A bed of straw was prepared for her before the hearth in the home where she was assembled, and the young, unmarried women of the village would sit vigil with her on the night of January 31st. The next morning, on Imbolc, the girls would parade the brideog through the village to each home. There, the married women (or the female head of the household) would welcome the spirit of the Goddess.
Create a modern-day Brideog using branches from your evergreen as a base, so adding a dash of Yuletide's hopeful energy.
- Two Yule tree branches. The length will depend of the wheat being used for this craft (branches should be half the length of your wheat stalks)
- 30-40 Stalks of wheat. Soak the wheat in warm water for three to four hours in a container that will accommodate its length. Weigh the wheat down with a brick or stone so that it is completely submerged. When you're ready to construct your Brideog, remove the wheat from the water and pat it dry with a towel before crafting.
- White ribbon
- Optional: Small shells that can be threaded through the ribbon
Tips to make this a greener craft: An often overlooked resource for ribbon—and other supplies—is gift packaging. Try to salvage all ribbon, wrapping, boxes, and packing materials so that they can be recycled for crafting. Yarn can be substituted for ribbon. Left over lengths from other projects can be used for magical crafting, but articles of knit clothing that are no longer wearable—hats, mittens, sweaters—are also good resources for yarn. When using recycled materials of this nature (especially articles of clothing) be sure that the material is clean and free of stains, and sprinkle it with salt to remove any unwanted energies and associations that may be attached to it.
- Lay the branches on a flat surface so that they form a non-equilateral cross, the bottom half of the vertical piece being longer than the top. Both sides of the horizontal branch should be equal in length.
- Cut a length of ribbon or yarn and bind the twigs together where they intersect to stabilize them. This will be the base of the Brideog.
- Divide the wheat into two equal piles and set one of them aside.
- Divide the remaining pile into two smaller ones. Lay one of these smaller piles on top of the left hand “arm” of the crossed twigs, heads pointed outward.
- With a short piece of white ribbon, tie the wheat to the arm, right beneath the heads.
- Align the other small pile with the right hand arm of the crossed twigs and, again, tie the wheat to the arm with a small piece of ribbon. The stalks of the wheat should be long enough to overlap the center of the crossed twigs. If the stalks are too long, trim them down.
- With two more pieces of ribbon, tie the stalks to the arms at the axis of the cross, left and right.
- Lay a piece of ribbon or yarn (about a foot long) on your working surface. Then take the remaining wheat and place it on top of the ribbon vertically, heads downward.
- Place the branch cross on top of this wheat, face down. The bottom of the cross should be even with the wheat heads. The wheat should be long enough that the stalks extend above the top of the cross. Fold these stalks over the top of the cross.
- Use the horizontal ribbon to tie the stalks in place at the back, anchoring the stalks to the heads. If desired, another piece of ribbon or yarn may be used to tie the stalks directly above the point where the two twigs cross. When turned right side up, the Brideog should now resemble a female figure, the folded stalks being the head, the horizontal twigs and wheat, her arms, and the wheat stalks and heads facing downward, a skirt. Fan out the downward facing wheat stalks for fullness.
- To add stability to the Brideog, wind a length of ribbon over and across at the intersecting point and knot it three times. Small shells representing Brigid's water element can be threaded onto the ribbon ends.
It was traditional to parade a Brideog through the village so that Brigid, in the form of the Brideog could visit every home and bless it. Bless and purify water with three pinches of salt and anoint the Brideog. Carry it, and the water through your home, speaking the following poem to invoke the blessing of Brigid for the coming year:
Welcome the spirit of Brigid Welcome, to our hearth and hall!
With water and pyre With dew, mist and fire We welcome the healing of all.
Using your fingers, spritz the corners of each room with the purified water. When every space is so blessed, hang the Brideog where it can watch over you, undisturbed. At the Winter Solstice, place her atop the Yule log before it is set alight.
An Imbolc Healing Necklace
It was tradition for each member of the family to hang a strip of white cloth outside the window on Imbolc Eve, so that Brigid could infuse it with healing and protective powers as she walked through the village. These would later be used to cure headaches and tooth aches (tied around the forehead or from chin to crown), and as a special touch to poultices.
Craft a modernized version of this folkway with the protective properties of the Yuletide evergreen's balsam.
- 48” x 5” strips of white material (cotton is best)
- Yule tree balsam
- Small healing stones such as jade, clear quartz, fluorite, or stones specific to a particular healing problem (stone chips work best)
- Black Pony Beads
- Ribbon or yarn
- White thread
Tips to make this a greener craft: Bed linens and clothing that is no longer wearable or usable are recyclable sources for the white material required for this craft. When using recycled materials of this nature be sure that the material is clean and free of stains, and sprinkle it with salt to remove any unwanted energies and associations that may be attached to it. Use ribbon recycled from gift packaging. Leftover yarn from other projects or recycled from articles of knit clothing that are no longer wearable—hats, mittens, sweaters—can also be used for this craft. Remember that when using recycled materials of this nature (especially articles of clothing) be sure that the material is clean and free of stains, and sprinkle it with salt to remove any unwanted energies and associations that may be attached to it.
- Lay the strip of material on a flat surface and fold it lengthwise, then sew the long ends together so that you have a long tube. The tube should be large enough to accommodate the balsam and stones, but small enough to be threaded through a pony bead. If a happy medium between these two cannot be achieved, use ribbon or yarn instead of the pony bead to separate each “link.” Trim any excess and turn the tube right side out.
- On Imbolc Eve (February 1) place the tube outside where it won't blow away. Out a window is traditional, but it can also be hung off a clothes line, draped over an outdoor chair, or placed on a surface like a deck railing or picnic table with something to weigh it down. If you are doing this craft after Imbolc, you can place the tube
- Bring the tube in on Imbolc and allow it to dry.
- Keeping in mind that when the necklace is complete the ends will have to be tied to close it, knot one side of the tube several inches (allow about 5-6 inches) from the end.
- Starting with the balsam, insert one or two full pinches of needles into the tube and push to the end; for this you can use a straw, chopstick, or even a pencil.
- When the material is compacted in the end of the tube by the initial knot, slide on a pony bead or tie a ribbon to make a link.
- Next, take a stone, or a few if they are small, and insert these into the tube, push to the end of the last link made, and slide on another pony bead or tie another ribbon to make a second link.
- Repeat the process going back and forth between stone and balsam until nine links have been made, ending as it was begun with the balsam. Knot the tube at the base of the last link, and trim the ends so that they are even.
As you are filling the healing necklace and forming its links, speak or sing the following spell to call on Brigid to invest your necklace with her healing touch:
Touched by Brigid as she did pass
On the eve of Candlemas
Healing power now dwell within
When worn by me or kith or kin.
Present the necklace to someone that is need of healing, or use it yourself. The ends of the tube can be tied together to form a necklace or bracelet. It can also be tied onto objects and plants.
Decking The Halls For Ostara
The spring or Vernal Equinox is one of the two points on the agrarian calendar of equal night and equal day. The rabbit and the egg, symbols of Ostara bespeak of the same sense of victory over death; in pagan belief, the “death” of winter. Eggs represent not only sustenance but also the potential of new life. Rabbits symbolize endurance and fecundity—a prey animal that still manages to survive, thrive and multiply. Beyond hard-boiled ovum and chocolate hares, the evergreen Yule tree can again lend itself to the festival of the season in traditional ways.
At each spoke of the wheel of the year, it was customary to cleanse the environment. This would be a through sweeping of the house and barns, a replacing of straw and bedding, and “smooring” (or smoothing over) the fire in the family hearth and setting a new blaze. Finally, a token indication would be created to show that the homestead had been purified and made ready for the next Sabbat season. The most recognizable form of this custom was the “decking the halls with boughs of holly” at Yule, and the making of flower garlands and daisy chains at Beltane. At other times, special swags were created for over the front door (or over the altar), incorporating plants, woods and herbs sacred to the season.
The crafting of an Equinox swag carries the seeds of the Yule spirit forward. If you need to backtrack a bit, have a look at our introduction to this year-long magical project and tips for preparation and storage. If you do not have access to a Yule evergreen, fallen branches from other trees can be used for this craft. Use your favorite resource to identify the tree from which the branch came, and what energy that particular tree will bring to this work.
- 4-6 Yule tree branches, balsam on Note: If the balsam on your Yule tree branches is dry or has fallen off, bare branches can be used for this craft. Greenery can be added in the form of ribbons, and faux greens and vines which can be recycled when the swag is taken down.
- 4-6 branches of spring time buds or flowers such as pussy willow or lavender
- Ribbon (use whatever color represents Spring to you; wide, wired ribbon works best as it will hold its shape)
- Floral wire
- Optional: A small cup to hold flowers and water, or soil and seeds
- Divide the evergreen and spring branches into two equal piles on your work surface, laying the pussy willows on top of the evergreens.
- Line up the cut ends of each pile, keeping the spring branches on top of the evergreens, and wrap with the floral wire to secure. Trim any balsam or smaller branches if needed.
- Cross the wrapped ends and bind them together with pipe cleaners or wire. Your evergreens and pussy willows should now be pointed left and right, with the bare ends all joined in the middle.
- Make a bow with the ribbon and secure it to the swag to cover the wired portion in the center.
- Thread a length of wire through the ribbon at the back of the swag and form a loop for hanging. For further embellishment, a colorful bag of cleansing herbs, crystals, feathers, or other springtime objects can be incorporated into the swag. Bells can be threaded and tied on to the swag with thinner ribbon that compliments the color or pattern of the larger bow.
- Depending on where you intend to place the swag, a plastic cup or chalice can also be wired on to accommodate fresh cut flowers or soil and seeds.
Wherever you chose to place your swag, speak or sing these words to invoke the spirit of the season:
With ever-green, And gray-tipped bough,
I bid the Spring come to this place.
With light and warmth, With gentle rain,
Bless and cleanse this humble space.
If you have incorporated a chalice or cup to hold fresh cut flowers or to start a seedling, be sure to maintain it; keep baby plants watered and change flowers as they fade. Repeating the ritual spell as you refresh the swag renews the magic of its creation.
A Wand For Spring
A wand is a magical tool, an extension of the power within your own hand, projected through the wand, to affect the world via your Will. The Yule tree was once a living reflection of the wand’s magic. It drew its own strength from the earth—it’s source—much as the wand draws its strength and direction from your Will, channeled through you. The Yule tree directed water and nutrients upward through its trunk, expressing these elements outward as branches, needles and pine cones. They, in turn, affected the world by providing shade, shelter, protection, food, and the seeds of a new generation. Therefore, at a time of freshly flowing sap, and the awakening of nature, a wand can be fashioned from the offering of branches of the old tree, copper wire to conduct energy, and quartz crystal to focus it. The crafting of an Equinox swag carries the seeds of the Yule spirit forward.
- 5-7 slender flexible Yule tree twigs
- 12-14” long with balsam removed
- Copper wire
- Quartz Crystal or other stone or crystal of your choice. Points work best, but tumbled stones can also be used successfully.
- Glue gun
- Optional: beads, and/or small crystals, shells and stones with holes drilled in them so that they can be threaded on the copper wire
- Bundle the Yule tree twigs so that all the cut ends are together and even. Trim the bottoms of the twigs if needed.
- Cut a length of copper wire that is at least twice as long as the length of your twig bundle.
- Starting 1.5” - 2” from the top of the budding ends, weave the wire through and around the twigs. The small crystals, stones, shells or beads can be threaded through the wire as it is being woven through the twigs.
- When you are about 1” - 1.5” from the cut ends, wrap the copper wire tightly around all the branches until you reach the bottom of the wand. Trim any excess.
- Cut a smaller length of copper wire and wrap it tightly around all the branches about 2” from the top of the wand.
- Nestle the crystal in between the branches at the top of the wand, and secure it with a few drops of hot glue.
While sitting in a quiet Circle, light incense and a white candle. Take 3 pinches of sea salt and add them to a bowl or chalice of water. Stir three times dossal with your fingers. Holding the wand in your dominant hand, use the fingers of your opposite hand to bless the wand with the salted water three times. Next, pass it through the heat of the candle flame, at a safe distance, three times clockwise. Pass it through the smoke of the incense in the same manner. Finally, take a deep breath and blow down the length of the wand from the crystal tip to the end. Do this three times. Elevate the wand overhead, still in your dominant hand, then point it with both hands to the East, South, West and North, saying as you go:
Powers of earth, air, fire, sea
Bound now in this wand, and me,
Flow like magic, flow like sap,
Hand to wand – there be no gap.
Bless this wand and charge it well
For the purpose that I tell!
At this point, if you have created your wand for a specific purpose, such as healing, calling the elements/casting Circles, for blessing other tools, etc., state it aloud and clearly in the East, South, West and North.