Everyone knows that Yule and “Yuletide” are largely treated as synonyms for Christmas or Christmas time in modern, popular culture. But what precisely is Yule? When people are asked this question, their answers vary, from “the12 days of Christmas” [link to 12th Night article], “the Winter Solstice”, “an old pagan holiday”, to “I don’t really know.” In truth, all of these answers are equally, or at least equally possibly valid, including “we don’t really know.
What is known is that Yule, or “Yuletide” was an ancient winter festival, that was celebrated by the ancient Germanic tribes, and later specifically adopted into the Christian festival of Christmas. Most indication are that it was a specifically religious festival, likely originally associate with death, rebirth and ancestor worship, that easily reaches back into the Bronze Age. An animal sacrifice was likely offered to hasten the coming of spring. Many scholars believe that the principle deity venerated in connection with this ancient holiday during historical times was Odin, in his guise as Jólnir (Old Norse "yule figure"), master of the Wild Hunt. Over time, Yule festivals became more celebratory, became associated with feasts, the first drinking of midwinter ale and displays of largesse, particularly gift-giving from master to servant. These customs seem to have had little to do with the original somberness of the cult of the dead, and may have been adapted from exposure to the Roman mid-winter celebrations of Saturnalia.
The word “Yule” itself is a modern rendering of the Old English ġeól or ġeóhol, which is, in turn, related to the Old Norse jól and ýlir. In the old, Germanic lunar calendar, these terms were both associated with an inter-calendar festival and the first month of the year, first appearing in written sources as early as a Gothic calendar from the 4th century, where fruma jiuleis roughly corresponds to the current month of December.
After the Gothic calendar, there is little reference to Yule until the Venerable Bede wrote about the heathen Anglo-Saxon calendar in the mid-8th century. Bede also states that geola was the name of a winter month, corresponding to late December and early January: they began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas. Bede goes on to write that the first day of this month included an all-night religious vigil and celebration to the gods. What is perhaps most notable is his comment that Yule itself had a fixed date of December 25 in the Julian calendar before it was universally accepted as the date for Christmas.
Our principle sources for pre-Christian Yule traditions, however, come from the Norse. The Prose Edda lists one of the names of the gods as the Yule-People. Yule is mentioned in a number of Icelandic Sagas, such as Svarfdaela, Grettir and Njal’s Saga. Although the latter two were written shortly after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, all three make it clear that Yule itself was an ancient holiday, associated with merriment and the giving of gifts. Both the religious character and vestiges of the holiday’s origin as commemoration of the dead can also be seen, particularly in the Svarfadelasaga, where a berserker delays fighting a holmgang (duel) for several days, until Yueltide was fully passed, in honor of the holiday and out of respect to the dead.
But the best, and most detailed description of pagan Yule may, ironically, be found in the Saga of Haakon the Good, the saga written in honor of Norway’s first Christian king. Haakon was already a Christian when he became king, but most of Norway remained pagan. Yule had previously been celebrated on midwinter night for three nights (corroborating the three days mentioned in the Svardaelasaga), and a description of traditional, Norse practices follows:
It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was called hlaut, and hlautbolli, the vessel holding the blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs. These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and served as food at the banquet. Fires were to be lighted in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over them. The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as all the sacrificial meat.
This saga is also our principle source for the making of toasts and the order of the order they should be given in, a tradition which would be adapted and pass into Christian tradition, and then readapted into modern, Neopagan reconstructions of heathen Yule rites. According to the saga the first toast was to be drunk to Odin, as king of the gods and lord of the dead (again, the symbolic death of winter), the second to the gods Njörðr and Frey (as fertility gods, the symbols of the new year and the coming of spring), and finally a toast to the king. Once this was done, a final series of toasts were made to commemorate the dead, showing that the ancient connection to ancestor worship had still not been forgotten.
Although we have little more than these glimpses, a clear picture of Yule’s nature and importance becomes clear. But how did it become associated with Christmas? The Saga of Haakon the Good, claims that Haakon himself established that Yule would henceforth correspond with Christian, but this was clearly a conflation by the chronicler, for, as Bede notes, Christmas was already being associated with Midwinter centuries before. Although scholars disagree as to the precise process, the most likely pattern is that Christmas became associated with Saturnalia, and as it spread north, simply blended and assimilated the corresponding festival of the Germanic peoples. Ironically, while today, we associate Christmas gift-giving with a celebration of Christ’s birthday, in truth birthdays seem to have been little celebrate in the ancient world, so it is more likely that our modern birthday traditions are derived from Christmas, which in turn was a blending of Yule and Saturnalian practices. In this sense, Christmas is both a Christian holiday and unique cultural amalgam that maintains and blends some of the most ancient Mediterranean and Germanic customs. In the Yule log, the singing of Christmas carols, the exchanging of gifts, the lighting of candles during a midnight vigil service, and even the stuffing of ourselves on Christmas dinner, we are connected with a celebration to “drive the cold winter away” that extends deep into antiquity.
Faulkes, Anthony (Trans.) (1995). Edda.
Hollander, M. Lee (Trans.) (2007). Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway.
Jones, Prudence, Pennick, Nigel (1995). A History of Pagan Europe.
Van Renterghem, Tony (1997). When Santa Was A Shaman: Ancient Origins of Santa Claus & the Christmas Tree
May your your Holidays be safe and happy.
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