The following traditions are from Tink, a Wicca blogger pal.
Yule is celebrated on the 21st of december: today!
Yule is a turning point in nature: the shortest day and the longest night. After Yule the days become longer again.
At Yule we celebrate the return of the light. The God (the sun) is reborn. Fires and candles are lit to encourage the light to become stronger and stronger.
Yule means "wheel", which refers to the Wheel of the Year: the cycle of the 8 witches' sabbaths. The wheel starts at Yule.
Other names are: Midwinter, Winter Solstice, Winter Equinox, Alban Arthan, Finn’s Day, Joel.
The colours of Yule are: red (fire), green (nature), white (light), gold (God, sun), silver (Goddess).
The Yule tree is decorated with all natural material: fir cones, berries, straw figures, etc. In earlier times the tree was burnt as an offering to the Sun, the God. Now we put lights in the tree instead.
The Yule log is a large log of freshly cut wood (oak). Originally, the Yule Log was burned in honour of the gods and to bring good luck in the coming year. To help kindle the fire, holly was placed under the log. Guests would toss a sprig of holly into the fire to burn up the troubles of the past year and to keep their houses safe from burning down in the New Year. The ashes were scattered over the land to give them fertility for a good harvest. Each year a piece of the Yule Log was saved and used to start the fire for the next year's log. Pagans today use the Yule Log in a symbolic way to do the same.
Yule was a time to eat and drink all the remains of the harvest that were liable to decay. This feast was shared with the whole family. The rich often shared with the poor because there was enough for everyone.
The explanation of kissing under the mistletoe extends back into Norse mythology. The Norse god Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth) that they would not harm her beloved Balder. Leave it to Loki, a sly, evil spirit, to find the loophole. The loophole was mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood. To make the prank even nastier, he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder's brother, who was blind. Guiding Holder's hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder's heart, and he fell dead. Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant, making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
Yule is also a festival, not just a single holiday. The Yule season or Yuletide begins on the solstice, which is the Mother Night of Yule, and ends 12 nights later with Twelfth Night/New Years.
The Horned God is represented by a stag. That's where our present reindeers come from.
Drinking Wassail at Yule is an English custom from heathen times. 'Wassail' comes from the Anglo-Saxon Wes Hal, meaning "to your health". The beverage is made from ale, wine, and/or cider with fruits and spices added. Traditionally it was used in part as an offering to apple trees in thanks and for their continued fruitfulness. Bits of toast were floated in the wassail bowl, then placed in the branches of the tree, and libations poured over the roots. (This is the origin of our term "to toast" someone.)
Thanks Tink for such a cool list of things about some traditions that were passed on and blended and transformed but somehow they are a link to our older peoples.
p.s. I will add to Tinks excellent list that the fireplace has magic history as an icon of the winter festival in the home as a gate between heaven and the underworld. The yule log is from the earth, the hearth and ashes are connected and return to the ground, the underworld, and the flames and wood evaporates into the air, the heavens. As for the holiday tree...isn't it ironic that people always say they are afraid of the tree catching on fire from the lights, yet, in the past we lit the tree on fire on purpose!