The 21st December 2020 is the Winter Solstice, which traditionally marks the beginning of Yule, a pre-Christian festival still in part celebrated in Scandinavian and Germanic societies. Whilst it’s easy to get wrapped up (pun intended) in the jollities and frivolities of Christmas, we thought we’d take a moment to look at its distinctly pagan roots…
Like with many pagan beliefs, Yule is centred around the sun. The modern word ‘Yule’ has a few possible etymological origins; in Old Norse Jól or Jul could refer to a feast to the sun, and formed part of one of the many names given to the chief god Odin who was often known as the Jólfadr or Yul-father due to his strong association with the sun. It could also be used as a general term attributed to the gods associated with the Yule festival – the Jólnar or ‘Yule-Ones’.
In Anglo-Saxon, the word hwéol is attributed to meaning ‘wheel’, and was associated with the ‘wheeling points’ that the sun travels through throughout the year (the summer and winter solstices being two such points). In addition, géol or geōla, was the name attributed to a month of the year which fell between modern December and January… So you can see, it’s hard to pin the etymology down for sure!
Yule and reverence to the sun
Though the possible origins of Yule may be varied, in Germanic, Celtic and Saxon societies, the significance of the Yule period and the celebrations attributed to the festival are all broadly the same. Rather than being observed on a single day, Yule begins on the Winter Solstice, and lasts from 12days to a month, depending on the belief system. Interestingly, though the Winter Solstice normally falls on the 21st/22nd December in our modern calendar, under the Julian Calendar (named after the emperor Julius Caesar), the solstice actually fell on the 25th December itself.
For early societies, December was a bleak and uncertain time of the year, and the fear that the sun may not return unless appeased drove the practices associated with Yule. On the solstice and the 12 days following, Celts welcomed the ‘new’ sun, though its arrival was by no means guaranteed. This was a time to pray to the Yule deities to ensure the sun’s return, and that it would bring with it fertile and bountiful lands in the year to come. Feasts were thrown, and fires lit to symbolically ‘recall’ the sun.
The Yule Log
The most well-known tradition associated with Yule involves the ‘Yule Log’, though unsurprisingly, this hasn’t always been made of chocolate like the version that many enjoy today. During the 12day period of Yule, Celtic tribes believed that the sun stood still in the sky, and it was tradition to keep a Yule Log burning to coax it back into moving again, as well as to conquer the darkness and banish evil spirits. Anglo-Saxon tales of the Yule Log, or geolstocc, attest to whole tree trunks being used as the ‘log’, which were progressively fed into the fire as they burnt down. The end of each year’s log was kept in order to light the log in the following year. This, along with the ashes from the log, were kept in order to ward off a range of misfortunes from toothaches and chilblains to hail and even lightning!
Other practices that we’re familiar with today included bringing evergreens, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe, into the home as a reminder of the return spring and new life in the new year. Mistletoe in particular was hung above doorways as a symbol of hospitality and to ward off evil spirits.
The ‘Wild Hunt’
For both Norse and Anglo-Saxon societies, certain gods (like the Jólnar mentioned above) were associated with Yule. The chief god Odin (or Woden in Anglo-Saxon) was believed to lead a host of other deities on a ‘wild hunt’ across the night sky, which would carry away the souls of the dead, along with any unsuspecting members of the living if they strayed too far from the hearth at night! Sacrifices were therefore made to ensure the safety of the household, and a ‘Yule Boar’ centrepiece was often part of Yule feasts as a symbolic recognition of the hunt.
Introduction of Christianity
With many pagan traditions such as this, however, the introduction of Christianity ensured that Yule began to take more of a back seat in December celebrations, though references to Yule or ‘Yuletide’ are found peppered throughout history. In Robert Herrick’s book ‘Ceremonies for Christmas’ written in the late 16th century, he makes reference to the Yule Log, saying:
“Come, bring with a noise,
my merry, merry boys,
the Christmas log to the firing”
Victorians were also keen on the idea of the Yule Log, bringing albeit smaller versions into their homes to burn for 12hours, rather than the 12days as originally practiced. Christmas Trees also became popular in England in this period, the origins of the practice developing from the importance of evergreens in pagan Yule festivities. As for the cake form of the Yule Log, it’s recorded as early as the 19th century, first appearing in the bakeries of Paris.
You may not recognise Yule itself, or celebrate the birth of a new year at the solstice, but elements of the festival will certainly be present in your home. Whether you go for that chocolatey dessert, decorate a Christmas Tree, or have greenery (the real deal or representations) around your home, these elements can all be traced back to this pagan festival celebrated long before Christmas…