Every year, thousands of people – pagans, druids and, well, people who like to party all night long - flock to Stonehenge to celebrate mid-June’s summer solstice. This celebration of the longest day of the year is led by Druid King Arthur Uther Pendragon (not his birth name), and festivities include drumming, chanting and sun-worshipping.
By the time the winter solstice swings round on 21 December, the short daylight hours and dismal weather mean significantly fewer people tend to brave the elements to stand by some giant stones in Wiltshire - or at other places of druidic interest.
Most who do brave the winter solstice are, just like King Arthur, Druids. There's very little information about the original druids but from what we know they were the spiritual leaders of the ancient Celts before the Romans turned up and today, modern druidry is a spiritual or religious movement that fosters a deep respect of the natural world. Its followers worship the spirit they believe inhabits the Earth, the forces of nature (like thunder) and places (mountains and rivers).
The number of Druids in the UK today is relatively small. The 2001 census showed there were just over 30,000 and by 2011 that number had dropped to just over 4,000. But, with more young people turned on to the beating heart of the planet - more watched Planet Earth 2 than The X Factor - could druidry be a way of getting back in touch with nature and community at a time when so many of us experience everything digitally?
Two young Druids spoke to BBC Three and explained how they celebrate the winter solstice.
James, now 36, has been a follower of pagan practices like druidry since he was 22, and Laura, 31, is a Druid Priestess also known as Ivy Hare. They are part of the same Druid order - Genesis Order - and are also members of the same local 'grove' (group).
The last time James celebrated the winter solstice at Stonehenge in 2015 “it got a little crowded”. This year, both he and Laura will be out on 21 December celebrating at an ancient monument at Hilsea Lines near Portsmouth.
During the celebrations the druidic oath – a rhyming chant – rings all around. “It’s not very long,” Laura says. “We repeat it three times: ‘We swear by peace and love to stand heart to heart and hand in hand, mark us spirit, hear us now confirming this, our sacred vow and we will chant.'”
Then, poetry based on Celtic myths is read aloud. Laura herself is a keen poet, regularly contributing to ceremonies. After that, all participants are “invited to speak to the circle” Laura explains. “Some sing songs. We don’t have hymns or prayers organised, but you’ll often come across some lovely folk songs by singers such as Dan the Bard.”
Then, finally, comes the annual challenge between the Oak King and the Holly King, which involves “two druids wearing masks and have a mock battle”.
The Green Man, James explains, “is Druids’ main deity”. This god has two sides, “the Holly King and the Oak King, which are the embodiment of winter and summer".
This year, two of Laura’s mates will play the roles. “They’re relatively new to the order so it will help them settle in,” she says, “there’ll be a lot of theatrics… they’ll make it into a mock-boxing match!”
“In the summer,” James explains, “the Oak King steps back, the Holly King wins, and winter comes. But at the winter solstice, the Oak King will win, so he can help bring in the warmth of the summer.”
The whole point of winter solstice, James says, is to “welcome back the rising sun". It marks the shortest day of the year, after which "the nights will get shorter, the days will get longer… It’s all part of how the wheel works.” The 'wheel' in question is central to Druidry and Paganism. It represents the annual cycle of Druidic and Pagan festivals. Yule runs through December and forms both the beginning and the end of it.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word 'yule' is derived from 'geól', an Old Norse word for Christmas festivities. 'Yule' is how Druids and Pagans have long referred to the winter solstice, even if most of us associate it more with festive chocolate logs.
James explains that, according to Druid tradition, at the winter solstice, “people in the village would bring a wooden log to the central fire, so everyone could take part in the celebrations”. So, there you have it: the modern chocolate yule log might just have its roots in more ancient traditions.
While the official number of Druids in the UK might be relatively low, Laura says that the community is thriving. She adds that social media has enabled Druids all over the country to connect.
“People seem to be a lot more accepting of it now,” she says, “I think people find it easier to be open about being a Druid today.”
However, social media has also been used to mock Druids. James says he has had to deal with lots of negative comments on their Facebook page from people who "just want to criticise us”.
Someone took photos of their ceremony at Hilsea Lines last year and “put it up on a WhatsApp group for Portsmouth, trying to encourage people to criticise us,” says James. And the words "burn the witches" were once shouted at the group during an outdoor celebration, he adds.
Such stigma is part of the reason why, in the past, Laura hasn't felt comfortable saying she needed time off work for the winter solstice. She works in a high street shop, so the days immediately before Christmas are one of her busiest times of the year.
This year, solstice falls on a Friday, and for the first time in two years, Laura can make it. She's excited to celebrate Yule with fellow Druids again. “I don’t care how cold it gets, I’ll be there rain or shine. I have hated missing out!”
Worshipping outdoors is all well and good in summer, when traditional robes can waft a cooling air about, but in the depths of winter, Druids switch up the dress code.
“I’m going to wear whatever I can feel swishy and ethereal in,” Laura says. This, she tells me, will probably mean her flowing velvet robes.
“There’s a look I like to go for, but we’re reaching the time of year when it’s about comfort first!” she adds. This means casual coats, scarves and anoraks. “I need to make sure I’m warm rather than fancy!”
James shares Laura’s practical outlook. “Most people don’t bat an eyelid if you show up wearing thermals - some people will conduct a ceremony in the clothes they normally wear; others will make themselves look like a priestess from some fairytale, while some just wear simple white robes,” he explains. James has actually been known to wear thick leather armour for the winter solstice.
“It was snowing when I wore it,” he remembers. “The landscape was beautiful and the leather definitely kept me insulated.”
As for make-up, Laura wears “an ivy wreath in my hair, and sometimes when I’ve got the time I might do make-up,” she says. “I do it to draw the Awen symbol, which is three-lines. It means the realms of the land and sky.”
However, she adds that, if it’s raining, she won’t bother.
For some people, Christmas begins with a bottle of fizz, but for many Druids, mead, an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey and water, is the tipple of choice.
“I’ve got an amazing mead in the cupboard - it’s molasses-based,” Laura says. She explains that the best mead is often homemade. “In our order, we have one gent who is very talented at making his own home-brew, but you can also buy it in the supermarket for a fiver.”
It seems mead is not only popular among Druids. According to English Heritage, sales of it have been rising recently because of demand from younger drinkers.
What makes a good mead, then? “You should feel it tingle in your head, but not your belly,” Laura explains. “If you get a sip and you feel warm through your head, you know this is going to get you very merry, but you’re not going to regret it afterwards!”
James points out that to make the ceremony inclusive, they also “include a non-alcoholic alternative".
Druids' focus on the natural world means, “there’s more of an emphasis on the simple pleasures,” Laura explains. And with an increasingly commercialised Christmas compelling so many of us to make spending money part of the wintery festivities, Yule seems a refreshing alternative - a back-to-basics option, if you like.
“We say ‘your presence rather than your presents,’ is the most important thing at Christmas,” Laura says. Gifts – or 'offerings', therefore, are typically hand-made or baked goodies.
Yule is James’s main winter celebration because he doesn’t actually celebrate Christmas on 25 December.
“I usually mark Christmas by having a nice peaceful day away from people, but that's my personal choice. My family live all over the UK, so I don’t see them. It's difficult.” However, he admits that he will be putting up Christmas decorations this year because of his partner.
Laura, on the other hand, does celebrate on Christmas Day. “I’ll wake up as soon as I can, open a bottle of fizz and exchange presents with mum and dad. Then there’ll be a big Christmas lunch and we’ll drink too much and fall into a food coma!” she says.
But, she's still mindful that Christmas is about more than giving gifts. “It's supposed to be a holiday about being good to your fellow man. I worry that the human element of it gets forgotten.”
For both Laura and James, the sense of community among Druids is a constant reminder of what it means to put people first.
“We’re all from very different backgrounds - a lot of us are working class and may be struggling financially,” Laura explains. “More than anything, people in the Druid and pagan community want to spend time with one another.”
Druidry isn’t for everyone, and certainly isn’t taken up by everyone, but for Laura and James it helps them remember what’s important on what can, in so many cases, be an over-pressurised, over-hyped day of expense.