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Guest spot: Woodland in Winter and the Yule-tide by Huw Woodman

Photo: Sam holding the Yule log

There’s something deliciously pagan about woodland in winter. It calls to me and I answer in a very deep-rooted way. There’s an invisible golden thread that connects me to the pre-Christian world and when it tugs me I have to go.

Today, we are preparing for Yule on the farm and on the Bushcraft Magazine. This fabulously old, pre-Christian festival is deep in the culture of many northern peoples; Celts, Lapps, Vikings, Britons and Teutons, have all celebrated this magical day in the year. Even the Romans had a mid-winter festival called Saturnalia.

Yule is of course the shortest day in the year and in the northern hemisphere is around 21/22 December. For pagans it is a fire festival and fires are lit to keep the darkness of the dark half of the year at bay, for on this day forwards, the daylight will only grow stronger. Fires help encourage the return of the sun and the light half of the year.

I love the magic of entering a wood and I do so with a sort of reverence.  The hunter-gatherer in me is strong and I stop, look and listen. I stay very still, for it is then that I see most: the strong limbs of the trees without a leaf canopy and the wildlife; and I hear most: the wind in the trees and the rustling in the undergrowth.

We are in our wood today to do the Yule logging – to gather our winter firing. We drag deadfalls from the tops of trees – branches that have died and remain jammed in the canopy.  These are effectively air-dried and they burn well. I always think of the old feudal right of gathering “by hook or by crook” when I do this. We add to the occasion with a woodland fire and some damson gin, made a few months earlier. 

Every year we choose a Yule log. Choosing a Yule log is a very personal thing; pagans will tell you that the log chooses you. Walk around for a bit – take your time and one will take your fancy. The picture here is of Sam, my eldest son holding this year’s log which was borne home and will be lit at Yule with the remains of last year’s log (kept in the barn).

The Yule fires should be nurtured and enjoyed. Try a poker in the fire and when cherry red, plunge it into a cup of cider –lots of theatre and a great taste! These fires are for stories too – Icelandic sagas, Norse legends and Boewulf.

Photo: Sam holding a brace of pheasant

Photo: Sam with a brace of pheasant

The Yule brings other gifts as well and if we are lucky, a couple of pheasant will fall to the gun and will grace our festive table.  The other picture is Sam holding a brace of cock pheasant that he shot in the wood and will hang ready for plucking and roasting.  We saw more but let them go, for we are pot shooters; we value the food and only take what we need – that way our wild larder is always full.  

We also gather armfuls of greenery for the house: bay, yew and holly; remember, only female holly has berries.

One last thing: After the logging, when the Land Rover is full, we turn for the last time and honour the woodland gods. We cup our hands and yell at the tops of our voices: “YOOOOOOOL” two or three times.

It’s immensely satisfying and I always feel that older pagan deities briefly wake at the sound and smile before returning to their winter slumbers.

Huw Woodman is the consultant editor of The Bushcraft Magazine. A subscription to this quarterly (just £12.00) would make a great Christmas present for any country lover.

Check out their website for some of their courses in 2009 in Kent and other events. The Bushcraft Magazine is hosting the first south-east Bushcraft Meet 2-4 May 2009 in Kent. Huw Woodman writes:
‘Come and find out about wild food and wild medicine. Light fires, cook and camp if you wish. This is a family event in a quiet rural location that will appeal to all. It’s very back to nature. Learn how to use wild dyes, spin wool, make bows, bake bread in a Neolithic oven and much more!’

Thank you Huw. It’s always a pleaure to publish your articles.


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4 Comments

  1. This cheered me up – I don’t want to celebrate Christmas because I’m not a Christian, but I always feel the need for a big winter knees-up. So we will have a big Yule party instead, have a long walk in our local wood, and get some fires going at home!

  2. Jane aka:aromatic

    Such an interesting post, its nice to learn new things. I am with S.O.L… going to go over to our local wood later today and shout yoooooooollll, think it will be very helpful for me at the moment…. have had rather a tense week and it may help to shout a bit…
    Jane xxx

  3. Tonight I am going to go across the road and shout yoooooooooolll. The neighbours already think I am potty.

  4. Oh! I didn’t know the origin of that saying (hook/crook). I love learning things like that. I also love the way Huw and his son only shot the pheasants they needed. If everyone respected wildlife in this way…

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