Gabriela Herstik has practiced witchcraft for more than a decade, and her favorite ritual at this time of year is to write letters by hand and burn them, one by one, watching the paper curl away into weightless ash. Her words serve as effigies of the self. “It’s a letter to your demons and the pain or regret you felt through the seasons, and what it taught you or how it helped you heal,” Herstik says. “You can include things you want to manifest in 2020. Just getting it out of your head and burning it is really powerful.”
It might sound like an unusual ritual for the holidays, but it turns out Paganism, witchcraft and magick actually form the DNA for many of our most treasured mainstream Christmastime traditions. It’s no coincidence that the festival of Yule, which begins on the winter solstice, is one of the most anticipated by Pagan practitioners. Coming in the aftermath of the critical fall harvest, Yule is a time of both introspection and cheerful catharsis — a nod to the winter darkness, cold and the longer days to come soon.
Witchcraft and Paganism is booming in America these days, with millennials and Gen Z propelling a new cohort fascinated by ancient traditions and magickal acts. The definitions, for starters, are pretty confusing — “Pagan” stems from a loose label applied by early Roman Empire-era Christians to pretty much anyone who believed in old folk traditions and multiple deities. Naturally, modern Paganism pulls from a smorgasbord of regional beliefs; many stem from Germanic and Celtic roots, and there were often overlaps between different historical Pagan communities. Of note is that not all Pagans practice witchcraft, and witches themselves can belong to Wicca or practice a more diverse style often referred to as “eclectic” witchcraft.
Despite this web of competing ideologies, the huge common foundation is a reverence given to nature and its cycles, says Jason Mankey, a witch who oversees two covens (with his wife) in San Francisco. Pagans follow the “Wheel of the Year,” which is marked by eight major festivals that correspond to each season’s solstice and equinox. Even non-Pagans sense that changing seasons bring different energies, Mankey tells me, and he sees Christmas and other holiday celebrations in December as a connection to old rites and customs that have faded from the mainstream over hundreds of years.
Yule, which begins this year on December 22nd and runs through January 2nd, is a particular favorite for witches, along with Samhain (which most of us know as Halloween). Mankey is no exception. “I love Yule the most of all the sabbats because it’s the one time of year where it seems like everything is allowed to be magickal in ways you don’t normally see in mainstream culture,” he says. “All these different groups of people are celebrating this giant winter seasonal holiday regardless of their own religious beliefs, or lack thereof. It’s a feeling we just don’t really replicate anywhere else on the calendar.”
Santa Claus, he points out, is a “textbook magical creature” (“His job is literally a Christmas miracle,” he adds). Decorating and celebrating around an evergreen tree? That stems from European traditions of brightening up a gloomy winter home with fresh boughs, an act historians believe began in the fourth century C.E. Feasting, giving gifts, using fire not just to spark physical warmth but a feeling of comfort — all these typical Christmastime pleasures are really, in a way, rebranded Pagan hits. This isn’t a coincidence, but rather the result of growing Christian forces staring at a patchwork of polytheistic people across Europe and deciding that dressing up local practices with a Christian context would probably make converting the “heathens” a bit easier. The persecution of Pagans grew worse through the rise of the Holy Roman Empire; Constantius the Second would likely be deeply alarmed at the sight of us circling around an evergreen that’s lit up with devilish lights.
Why is Yule so important to witches, even after all these centuries? It has everything to do with confronting the longest night of the year and finding joy in the rebirth of the sun’s annual cycle. Herstik observes that it’s a narrative found in other belief systems, too: “The idea of the son of God being born on Christmas, four days after the winter solstice, right? Or that Hanukkah is the festival of light, showing a path out of darkness. Compare that with Wicca, in which a goddess gives birth to the sun,” she says. “It aligns with the winter’s literal return to light.”
Other metaphors abound, as with the significance of gifts or hosting big gatherings to share food and drink. “The party aspect is that you eat a lot and nurture yourself and others around you,” Mankey says. “It’s an emphasis on sustenance, community and connection, which we see with presents, during a dark time. There’s a 2,000-year-old history of loud revelry and drunkenness at Yule, and while we don’t get drunk at the coven, we do often raise a glass of Wassail and toast.”
Not all practices overlap, of course — a favorite of Thorn Mooney, a Gardernian Wicca priestess who maintains a coven in North Carolina, is to select a beautiful log, bore holes into it for candles, and then eventually burn it in a bonfire. But the most unique, and perhaps challenging, aspect of witchcraft for laymen to grasp is the concept of magick. Despite the stereotypes of witches throwing odd animal ends and mystical flora into cauldrons, magick is mostly about putting something metaphysical into effect to better your life, or another’s.
“To me, magick is that additional line of power that I can draw on, an assurance of my own agency. With magick, there’s always something you can do to connect with the divine or effect some positive change in the world,” Mooney says. “But I also think it’s an ability to appreciate the unseen and underappreciated in the world. Sometimes I see magick as simply taking notice of features in life that others might ignore, and putting those things to use.”
Mankey compares the feeling of magickal energy to the sensation of feeling the air vibrate in an arena as a concert crowd begins to roar. Ritual serves as the mechanism to channel that energy, and it can be a litany of things — an intimate group activity in a coven, a prayer in the woods or simply lighting incense in your living room with intention. Even the singing of “Happy Birthday” could be seen as a form of magickal ritual, with loved ones channeling joy toward someone who concludes their “wish” with the symbolic extinguishing of flame.
“Magick can’t cure cancer or help you win the lottery. It’s energy that we utilize to change our circumstances. It can make addressing problems easier, and make life less complicated in some ways. It’s not precise, like science. But somehow, I’ve always seen results,” Mankey says.
Yule is a beautiful time to think about magick if only for the reason that, despite the cheer and lights around us, so many people struggle through the holidays. Loneliness and isolation are quick to strike. The pressure to afford nice things can trigger resentment and envy. The specter of a disappointing year can hang like stale air. Or maybe change is happening too fast, with 2020 feeling full of insecurities.
Using personal rituals to make peace with these feelings on the longest night of the year is difficult, but rewarding, even for non-witches, Herstik says. Not that it’s always simple for witches themselves to navigate Yule. Mooney mentions how managing different friends and families sometimes means she has to put her witchcraft on a back burner. “My husband and I celebrate Yule, but what ends up happening is we often go separate ways to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or whatever with our families,” she says. “So many of us can’t be that open about our beliefs with our families because it’s checked by other traditions.”
This tension is partly why many modern Pagans are quick to criticize the Christianization of old-world deities and worship, which came intertwined with persecution of polytheistic communities. Mankey, Mooney and Herstik remain more optimistic than anything else, however, that modern Paganism is staying for a while in the zeitgeist. They all note that Pagan revivals follow a roughly 15- to 20-year cycle, with witches being the hottest thing in the mid-1990s (“I was a product of The Craft, myself,” Mooney quips).
Yule reminds them that, as people prepare to turn the page on the calendar year, we reach for common sources of comfort and reflection. “When we get out the Christmas decorations, we’re getting out the same kind of decorations that people used in Rome two millennia ago,” Mankey says. “I think that’s pretty magickal.”