Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is a religious festival observed by the Northern European peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas. The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). Scholars have connected the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modranicht.
Terms with an etymological equivalent to Yule are used in the Nordic countries for Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Yule is also used to a lesser extent in English-speaking countries to refer to Christmas. Customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule. A number of Neopagans have introduced their own rites.
Nearly all Christmas traditions that exist come from the pagan Yule festival. The early Church adopted these traditions to make it easier for the conversion of pagans to Christianity. By adopting the traditions the natives were familiar with, the Church was able to slowly introduce them to their message by making it look like the very traditions they were used to celebrating with.
Yule was an indigenous midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples, absorbed into celebrations surrounding Christmas over time with Christianization. The earliest references to it are in the form of month names, where the Yule-tide period lasts somewhere around two months in length, falling along the end of the modern calendar year between what is now mid-November and early January.
In this modern era most pagans or Neopagans try to seperate their celebration of Yule from that of Christmas. In a way they are reclaiming their heritage with paganism.
In modern Germanic language-speaking areas and some other Northern European countries, the etymological cognates to Yule are employed to describe the midwinter holiday season. Various traditions are present in these branches, some of which extended from the pre-Christian period. Examples include Jul (Sweden), Jul (Denmark), Jul (Norway), Jól (Iceland), Joulu (Finland), and Jõulud (Estonia). Additionally, Yule is the traditional name used for Christmas in the Scots Language.
As forms of Neopaganism can be quite different and have very different origins, these representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Some celebrate in a way as close as possible to how they believe Ancient Germanic pagans observed the tradition, while others observe the holiday with rituals culled from numerous other unrelated sources.
In Germanic Neopagan sects, Yule is celebrated with gatherings that often involve a meal and gift giving. Further attempts at reconstruction of surviving accounts of historical celebrations are often made, a hallmark being variations of the traditional. Groups such as the Asatru Folk Assembly in the US recognize the celebration as lasting 12 days, beginning on the date of the winter solstice.
In the Heathen tradition of Urglaawe, the Yuletide begins at sundown on December 20 and ends at sundown on January 1. The Yuletide includes several observances that are part of the Urglaawe faith or the wider Deitsch culture. Belsnickeling, which is the original Deitsch tricks-or-treats, takes place on December 21 or 22. Visitations from men dressed as Belsnickel, who is the Urglaawe equivalent to the riddling and seeker aspects of the god Wudan, may occur throughtout the Yuletide. The Berchtaslaaf, or the Progression of the goddess Berchta, is celebrated on December 31 and includes Berchta’s commanded meal of herring and gruel. The Yuletide ends on January 1 with the Feast of Frey. This traditional feast includes pork and sauerkraut, both of which are held as sacred to Frey.
In most forms of Wicca, this holiday is celebrated at the winter solstice as the rebirth of the Great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. The method of gathering for this sabbat varies by practitioner. Some have private ceremonies at home, while others do so with their covens.
The separation of Yule and Christmas can be tenous at best. Though could be viewed as highly impossible. The two are so entwined that depending on where you are, Christmas and Yule are the exact same thing.
The Saga of Hákon the Good credits King Haakon I of Norway with the Christianization of Norway as well as rescheduling the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. The saga states that when Haakon arrived in Norway he was confirmed a Christian, but since the land was still altogether heathen and the people retained their pagan practices, Haakon hid his Christianity in order to receive the help of the “great chieftains.” In time, Haakon had a law passed establishing that Yule celebrations were to take place at the same time as the Christians celebrated Christmas, “and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.”
Yule had previously been celebrated for three nights from midwinter night, according to the saga. Haakon planned that when he had solidly established himself and held power over the whole country, he would then “have the gospel preached.” According to the saga, the result was that his popularity caused many to allow themselves to be baptized, and some people stopped making sacrifices. Haakon spent most of this time in Trondheim, Norway. When Haakon believed that he wielded enough power, he requested a bishop and other priests from England, and they came to Norway. On their arrival, “Haakon made it known that he would have the gospel preached in the whole country.” The saga continues, describing the different reactions of various regional things.
The adaptation of Yule into Christmas came from the highest of powers within Church and State and took a great deal of time. The fact that both are still used, whether in reference to each other or as separately celebrated holidays is a testament to the enduring spirit of the peoples who celebrate them.
The heathen rituals associated with Yule that were adopted into Christmas have a long history with the Germanic peoples.
A description of heathen Yule practices is provided:
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 [ sacrificial blood ], and hlautbolli, the vessel holding the blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs [ aspergills ]. 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.
The narrative continues that toasts were to be drunk. The first toast was to be drunk to Odin “for victory and power to the king”, the second to the gods Njörðr and Freyr “for good harvests and for peace”, and thirdly a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. In addition, toasts were drunk to the memory of departed kinsfolk. These were called “minni [memorial toast]”.
You can see in the description above that many thinks we do now were done then. But those aren’t the only similarities.
Scholars have connected the month event and Yule time period to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky), the god Odin (who is attested in Germanic areas as leading the Wild Hunt and, as mentioned above, bears the name Jólnir), and increased supernatural activity, such as the aforementioned Wild Hunt and the increased activities of draugar—undead beings who walk the earth.
Modranicht, an event focused on collective female beings attested by Bede as having occurred among the pagan Anglo-Saxons on what is now Christmas Eve, has been seen as further evidence of a fertility event during the Yule period.
The events of Yule are generally held to have centered around Midwinter (although specific dating is a matter of debate), and feasting, drinking, and sacrifice (blót) were involved. Scholar Rudolf Simek comments that the pagan Yule feast “had a pronounced religious character” and comments that “it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule feast still had a function in the cult of the dead and in the veneration of the ancestors, a function which the mid-winter sacrifice certainly held for the West European Stone and Bronze Ages.” The traditions of the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar (Sonargöltr) stilll reflected in the Christmas ham, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule customs, and customs which Simek takes as “indicat[ing] the significance of the feast in pre-Christian times.”
So if it were not for Yule, the amazing traditions of Christmas that we celebrate now would be vastly different!
Fir more information on specific Yule traditions mentioned in this blog post you can click the following links: