Music for Winter Solstice and Yule: Performances and Facts
Winter Solstice and Yule
Winter Solstice is a special time of year for pagans, nature lovers, and others attuned to the seasons. It's the name of the shortest day of the year. In the northern hemisphere, it usually occurs on December 21st or 22nd but sometimes happens on Dec. 20th or 23rd. It's a wonderful sign that the days are about to lengthen and the light will gradually return. Some lovely music is associated with the solstice. I've included six of my favourite pieces in this article as well as some facts about the music and the performers.
The Yule festival is associated with Winter Solstice. Some pagans celebrate Yule on a single day, which coincides with the date of the solstice. Other groups—especially those associated with a Northern Europe or Germanic tradition—celebrate for twelve days, starting on the day of the solstice.
"Yule" is sometimes used as an old-fashioned name for Christmas, but this is not its original meaning. The word is an ancient one and is believed to have originated in Norse culture. The word "Norse" usually refers to Scandinavian culture and language as they existed long ago. It sometimes refers to modern language and culture, however, which is why the quote below refers to "Old Norse".
Middle English yol, from Old English geōl; akin to Old Norse jōl, a pagan midwinter festival— Etymology of "Yule" from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Wiccans and some other pagan groups celebrate the wheel of the year. The celebrations occur at solar events (the solstices and the equinoxes) and at times midway between them. They have different names in different belief systems. The events are also celebrated by some non-pagans who are interested in the cycle of the year.
Yule by the Sowulo Band
Sowulo is a band from the Netherlands. According to their website, they play modern Viking folk music. They use instruments from today but dress as Vikings during their performances. They try to create a specific atmosphere with their clothing, hairstyles, lighting, onstage behaviour, and special effects. The package seems to work well for their fans.
The band aims to celebrate the pagan legacy. I think "Yule" is a beautiful piece. It stirs the emotions in me and in others who like the group's style of music. Despite its title, the link between the piece and Yule is not obvious and is open to the listener's interpretation. There's plenty of scope for the imagination.
Yule Song by Tor Lundvall
Tor Lundvall is a musician and painter. He was born in New Jersey in the United States and is based in New York today. He once said that his musical creations are essentially a painting in music. The music is the most important aspect of his "Yule Song". There are only six lines in the lyrics.
The singer is viewing a town from a high point. The streets of the town are covered by snow and glowing trees can be seen. The town is empty and silent, apparently because people have left to join the singer and celebrate the day. He says that "Nothing this day could bring us down" and mentions the laughter that he has heard. As the sun disappears at the end of the day, the celebration ends.
A fire is burning
The long night draws near
All who need comfort
Are welcome by here— Verse one of "Solstice Carole"
Solstice Carole by Wyrd Sisters
Wyrd Sisters is a folk music group based in Winnipeg. The group has existed since 1990 and began as three female vocalists. The members have changed over time, though Kim Baryluk, one of the original singers, remains. Today the group contains three vocalists and a variety of instrumentalists. On their website, the group switches from calling itself "Wyrd Sisters" to "The Wyrd Sisters". I've chosen to use the first version of their name.
An interesting episode in the group's history occurred in 2005. The group sued Warner Brothers for using their name for a band in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie. The final outcome of the court battle occurred in 2010 and has remained a secret.
"Solstice Carole" is a Wyrd Sisters creation and was first sung by them. It's sometimes said to have been composed by Kim Baryluk instead of by the group as a whole. It's often sung a capella (without accompaniment). The first version below is sung by Sirens, a Canadian vocal group from Prince Edward Island. I've included the Wyrd Sisters version of "Solstice Carole" as well. Its audio quality isn't as good as in the first video, but I think it's important because it's the original version of the song.
The word "carol' in the song's title has an e at the end. This isn't a mistake. A carole was a historical dance in which people were linked in a ring and sang as they danced. The lyrics of the song mention a bonfire and a plan to dance under the stars. A repeated idea in the lyrics is the fact that the dancers welcome everyone to join them by the fire in the spirit of the solstice.
Come by the fire
The harvest to share
For the spirit of solstice
Is still living here— Verse six of "Solstice Carole"
The Pentagram in Wicca
The pentagram is shown several times in the video below. It's an important symbol for Wiccans. It's a star with five points that is associated with mysticism and magic. Wiccans prefer to write the second word as "magick" to distinguish it from the magic tricks performed by stage magicians for entertainment. For most Wiccans, magick is an attempt to work with the energy of the universe in a beneficial way.
The figure is arranged so that a single point of the pentagram is pointing upwards. This point represents the spirit. The other four often (but not always) represent the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. A pentagram is not part of my life, but I've discovered that it has a fascinating history. It has been used in multiple cultures and religions.
Bring Back the Light by Gypsy
Gypsy is the performer in the video below. She's a singer and songwriter who was active in the 1990s. From what I've read, she was very popular in pagan circles at that time. Her music is still appreciated by some people today. I'm unaware of her current situation or whether she's still performing. She sings the first part of the song, chants with music in the background in the middle part, and then sings the last part. I think the rhythmical chant is especially effective.
The lyrics of the song are an invocation to the Lord and Lady asking them to bring back the light. Wiccans are generally duotheistic and believe in a god and goddess, or the Lord and the Lady. They may believe in other deities as well, but these deities are usually thought to be an aspect of the Lord or Lady. As in Christianity, individual beliefs may vary in Wicca. The song asks the god and goddess to "hearken to this witches' rune". Witches may be Wiccans, and vice versa, but this is not always the case. Wicca is a religion while witchcraft is a practice.
Yule: The End of Darkness by Trobar de Morte
Trobar de Morte is a Spanish group. According to their website, they create music in the dark, medieval, pagan, and folk categories. The group first came together in 1999. It was started by a woman who bills herself as Lady Morte, which can be translated as Lady Death. Today it consists of Lady Morte, another woman, and five men. The group sings and plays instruments.
Like the Sowulo band, Trobar de Morte dresses and behaves to match their theme. Their website says that their performances include "performances, dances and ritualistic elements which enhance the audience's experience". "Yule: The End of Darkness" is performed in the video below. It's a loud and dramatic piece that seems suitable for a triumphant event such as the defeat of darkness.
Light Is Returning
"Light Is Returning" was written by Charlie Murphy, who was a singer as well as a composer. His music contains themes related to paganism and LGBT rights. Sadly, he died in 2016 from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The disorder is a form of motor neuron disease.
I haven't encountered Charlie Murphy's work before, but it seems to have been popular. In the video below, his song is sung by Freyja Wild. She's a classically trained vocalist from Boulder, Colorado, but sings songs from multiple genres. I think she has a lovely voice.
On her Facebook page, Freyja describes herself as a "tree-hugging dirt-worshiper, singing to the wild places". I suspect that Freyja Wild in her stage name, not her real one. Freyja was a popular Norse goddess. I've found additional evidence to support my suspicion. On YouTube, a listener complimented Freyja for her performance in the video below and referred to her by a different name. The singer thanked the listener for their comment without mentioning that there was an error in the name.
Light is returning
Even though this is the darkest hour
No one can hold back the dawn— Charlie Murphy in the first verse of "Light Is Returning"
One planet is turning
Circles on her path around the Sun
Earth Mother is calling her children home— Charlie Murphy in the last verse of "Light is Returning"
The Cycle of Nature
Though Winter Solstice and Yule are highly appreciated by many pagans, the solstice is also noted by other people where I live. Nature in its widest sense seems to be important to many people here, though the shortest day of the year is most often referred to as the winter solstice (usually uncapitalized), not Yule.
We've learned how to compensate for the cycle of the year in various ways, but the seasons are still noticeable and still affect our lives. Perhaps that's part of the reason why the solstices and equinoxes remain important and attract our attention. Although science is advancing in many areas, there's still a lot of mystery associated with the universe and the nature of reality.
I think that listening to music is a lovely way to celebrate the arrival of the winter solstice and the approach of longer days. For some people, the celebration and the music may enable them to connect to a numinous dimension that is important to them. The solstice can be important for multiple reasons.
© 2019 Linda Crampton