As it is practiced now, Christianity is quite different from its practice as a fledgling religion surrounded by established pagan and cultural practices going back several centuries. It is, therefore, inevitable that in its growth, it was going to be influenced by these practices, especially as rulers of these societies accepted Christianity.
Rome, which was the first power to accept Christianity as the state religion, had already understood the strategy of incorporating numerous cultural beliefs in their expansive kingdom. The new religions quickly caught up to the strategy.
As the pagan practices became forgotten, most of their practices, especially festive seasons, found their way in Christianity only with different meanings and purposes. One such practice is the winter solstice celebration which, from Romans’ Saturnalia to Norsemen Yule, has strongly influenced modern Christmas.
Presently, Yule is a synonym for Christmas, and yuletide refers to the Christmas season, and it has been so for many centuries. However, Yule has traditionally been a pagan celebration. This article will explore its origins, what it meant, relations with Christianity and Saturnalia, practices, and customs. It will also look at how a modern person can celebrate Yule closer to its original form.
Yule Origins and History
Yule was a traditional Germanic festival celebrating the winter solstice. It dates back thousands of years ago, with the first written mention around the fifth century. Even then, it is not Yule but its older Germanic language form.
The majority of scholars agree that the word Yule comes from older English words ġēoland ġēola, where the first means the 12-day festival of Yule and the latter word means the month in which it was held. These words themselves find their origin in the Germanic word jiuleis, and it has relations to other Nordic words like jol, Jul, Mjolnir (which is one of Odin’s names meaning the Yule one).
According to a 5 – 6th Gothic calendar, fruma jiuleis appears as a month name. In the 8th century, an English monk and history scholar Bede writes that the Anglo-Saxon calendar had the months geola or giuli, which correspond to either modern-day December and January or just December. Thus, the pre-Christian Yule likely referred to the period of the festivities and not the festivities themselves.
There are likely up to three events that the Vikings celebrated during this period. According to some sources, the period was a celebration to mark the Wild Hunt led by Odin himself. Other sources associate the festivals with the veneration of the dead spirits and gods. At the same time, there was the marking of the Winter Solstice with the observance of the Módraniht or Mother’s Night on the eve of the Winter Solstice, and the celebrations would continue to signify the start of the new year.
With time this became the main observance for the Yule season, celebrating the return of sunlight and marking the end of one year until the summer solstice. Some sources even suggest Yule could have come from the name of the wheel of life and could have come from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘iul,’ meaning wheel. It is not until about 1475 that the word Yule is attested in writing. By then, it referred to the festivities and not the period, and more importantly, it has already acquired its modern Christian perspective.
As migrations happened to the new land, the early settlers took the new Yule practices and celebrations to the new lands. And thus, some of the Pre-Christian traditions have survived to this date even though they have a new significance.
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Customs and Traditions of Yule
There is no comprehensive account of how pre-Christian Yule was celebrated. The common theme, however, in all accounts, is that it was a time of merriment, feasting, song and dance, renewal, and reverence to various deities. Here is a look at some of the customs and characteristics of a traditional Yule.
During Yule, a large tree was specifically chosen felled in time for the start of the season. The Yule Log is a significant part of the season and serves different functions. It was placed in the hearth trunk first and burnt the whole 12 days of the season, and the remaining part was stored to light the fire the next season.
The log was burnt as an honor to Thor and for protection, to keep bad spirits out. The pagans also believed the faster the log burnt; the faster the Sun’s rebirth happened. Norsemen also believed that the ashes and the remnant log would protect against misfortune, lightning, chilblains, and other issues.
The Yule goat is another symbol with several origins and functions. The popular theory is associated with the two goats that pulled Thor’s chariot across the sky. In other regions, the Yule goats come from the last bunch of harvest believed to have housed the spirit of the harvest and thus left for us an offering, and it looked like a goat.
Further, Vikings believed the Yule goat ferried the spirit of the season who rode inspecting if all preparations were in order. With time, all theories seemed to merge, and young men would even wear goat costumes and move around seeking gifts.
Another Symbol or feature of the season was the sacrifice of pigs or boars in honor of Freyr. The meat would be boiled and served at the feast. Since the head was considered the best part, it was served with an apple in its mouth at the head table.
Old Man Winter
According to Norse traditions, a mythical figure in the form of an older man with a white beard would appear during the celebrations and visit people’s homes. He would walk and, at times, ride a horse. The Vikings believed he was Odin. With time an older man would wear the costume and move around as a symbol of Odin. The old man could carry gifts or be given gifts to and from the houses he visited over the 12 days.
A Yule Wreath
The winter solstice completed the Wheel of the Year for the pre-Christian Nordic communities. To mark this, they created huge wreaths. In some customs, the wreath was made as big as a wheel and then set on fire and rolled down a hill to wish for the Sun’s return. In others, wreaths were made to be hung at home or given as gifts to celebrate friendship and infinite goodwill and joy. To make wreaths, people would use evergreens and adorn them with berries and corns.
Wassail comes from the old English words waes hael, which means ‘be well or good health.’ It is a strong drink whose ingredients include honey, ale, and spices or apple cider. The drink was at the center of the festivities. The people made toasts for the gods, the kings or chieftains, and friends. Soon the process would be accompanied by wassailing songs. Further, the Yule log often got anointing from the wassail.
Besides the Yule log, there was also the yule tree, an evergreen tree that symbolized the Tree of Life according to Norse beliefs. They would place the tree at a central place and decorate it with gifts the people wanted to receive the coming year. It would also have pinecones, berries, and symbols important to their gods. At times the tree would have corn and coins representing the people’s hope for abundance and prosperity.
Ancient Norsemen believed the winter solstice was also a time where strange beings and demons wandered the earth. As such, they would tie bells in their homes and often rung them in the morning to drive away demons. The bells also helped chase away the darkness and welcome the warmer days ahead.
Elves, too featured in the celebrations, and they became a symbol of Yule as the ancient inhabitants of Scandinavia believed the Sun lived in the land of the elves. Thus they would include elvish symbols or decorations in the celebrations to coerce them to release the Sun. They were also thought to be the bearer of gifts during the season.
Yule is also associated with certain color themes. The main ones are red, green, white, silver, and Gold. Red is a color associated with prosperity and passion. It is also the color of the Holly King, one of the deities for this period. Green represents the Waxing Oak King and symbolizes life, rebirth, and renewal. White represents the hope and purity of the new light. Silver represents the moon, while Gold represents the Sun and its light.
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Yule sacred plants & Herbs
Plants play an important role in the Yule observation and rituals. They make part of the décor and the logs for keeping the fire on. Some of the important ones include;
- Mistletoe: Mistletoe was believed to hold sacred energy, and it represents the female element. It is the perfect plant to represent winter solstice, seeing as it is lives between heaven and earth. The druids believed the green leaves represented the fertility of the Mother Goddess while the white berries represented the seed of the Forest King or Oak king. Mistletoe was also used to ward off evil and provide healing.
- Holly: The holly tree represents the male element, and it is also a symbol for the Holly King. The Vikings used it to decorate windows, fireplaces, doors, and other areas around the house. It symbolized hope, and the red berries represented its potency.
- Evergreens: Evergreens were highly valued and held sacred since they maintained their greenery even in harsh winter. This tenacity made the ancients believe that they had power over death. They represented rebirth and renewal, and the pre-Christian Norsemen used them to keep off destruction and winter demons. Evergreens were also used to encourage the Sun’s return.
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Yule was a time to celebrate the cyclical nature of life, and more importantly, life and death is the main theme. As such, there are plenty of deities being worshipped both for protection and to seek blessings. The number of deities would vary by the local culture through the main deities were;
- Odin: He was worshipped for protection during his Wild Hunt for dead souls, his role as the Allfather and bringer of victory, and as the God of death and transition.
- Thor: Odin’s son is honored for driving back the frost giants.
- Frigg/Freyr: Frigg is worshipped along with her maidens. She is the Goddess of motherhood and has power over fertility and harvest.
- Goddess Brechta: She visited houses punishing those working like spinning during Yule.
- Ullr and Skadhi: They are associated with the wild and are also winter hunters
- Njord: For peace and wealth of the ocean
- Balder: The dying and resurrecting son of Odin who dies descending to the underworld but is reborn after Ragnarok.
- Sunna: Worshipped as the Goddess of the Sun
- Mani: God of Moon
- Nott: The Goddess of the night
- Dagr: God of day
The Yule is associated with several crystals which serve as symbols and potent decorations. They help in making spells and prayers, and their power is heightened during the yule period. Common crystals include;
- Bloodstone: It is used for its healing and grounding properties. It also offers courage and love.
- Ruby: Its functions include protection, passion, and prosperity, making it useful for new year manifestations.
- Garnet: Provides fire and vitality and increases your creativity. In ancient times it served as a talisman.
- Black Onyx: Another grounding stone allows you to release negative energy, acquire clarity, and deepen the internal connection.
- Azurite is associated with mystery and magic and helps have deeper vision and clarity when communicating with your higher self and guides.
- Sugilite: It is also known as the healer’s stone, and it helps balance your mind, body, spirit, which you will need when reflecting on the season.
- Snow Quartz represents winter’s purity and offers calming and soothing energy. It is used for spiritual purification.
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Runes like crystals serve both as decorations and tools for prayer and rituals. Each has a powerful role, and only after knowing their functions and having clear intentions should one use them. Runes associated with the yule season are;
- Jera: It means year and is used to symbolize the cyclical nature of time, reminding light and darkness are cyclical and not permanent.
- Dagaz: It is a liminal rune, like the winter solstice, being neither death (Autumn) nor rebirth (Winter). It helps when making transitions.
- Sowilo: It is the rune for sunlight helping those struggling with the heavy winter
- Wunjo: It is the joy rune and emphasizes the gift of good company, friends, and celebration. It helps overcome loneliness.
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Yule Spells & Magical Works – Pagan Rituals for Yule
Yule was a period associated with magic and magical beings. Thus, many rituals and spells were done for protection and as prayers seeking good fortune. As with other elements, the exact methods and rituals differed, and the information available is not conclusive. Some of the common rituals include;
- A ritual to celebrate the return of the Sun and light a well as honoring the sun god
- A Yule altar ritual: It prepares the altar setting it to face North. You also decorate it with mistletoe, holly, colored candles, runes, symbols, etc.
- Blessing ritual for the Yule tree
- Family protection ritual
- Cleansing rituals
- Rituals to honor the ancestors and the Mother goddess
Yule Celebration – How to Celebrate Yule
There is no definite framework to follow if you want to celebrate Yule as a pagan in the traditional manner. Many neopagans customize various aspects using knowledge from older sources to suit their situations. Others even add elements from other winter solstice practices across the world. Still, if you are looking for a place to start, the following are the basics.
1. Light a furnace
It would help to practice one of the main traditions of the season, and that is having a yule log. Get one that you can use to burn the whole 12 days in your furnace or bonfire, and try sticking to the older practices as much as you can, as we have described earlier.
2. Perform a cleansing ritual
The end of the year is an excellent time to declutter your space and prepare for the new season or year. Like the ancients, it helps to conduct cleansing to remove the bad energy and unwanted item freeing up your space for new blessings. You can also conduct a smudging ritual to cleanse the energy space.
3. Decorate a Yule tree
A Yule tree is another staple for Yule, and you should get one too. Find an evergreen tree, ideally one grown sustainably, and decorate it with traditional symbols and things you value, avoiding the synthetic decorations.
4. Create a wreath
It would be best if you also had a wreathe or two for protection one can hang inside the house another outside the door. Make the wreaths with evergreens (fir, juniper, cedar, etc.) and other plants for Yule, including ivy, mint, sage, and pine.
5. Brew Wassail
Try your hand and brewing wassail using the various recipes online for a drink for the season. Find one whose ingredients you can easily acquire and work enjoy the process.
6. Have a traditional Yule feast
Yule is about feasting and spending time with family and friends. For some days, it would help to have friends and family over exchanging gifts and making merry.
Yule and Christmas
By the time Christianity came to Scandinavia, it already had Christmas as its major holiday, having adopted it from the Roman Saturnalia. However, to make it easier for the converts to adopt Christianity, rulers and religious leaders incorporated several Yule elements.
As the religion spread to the Anglo-Saxon world and later to America and the other global colonies, these elements were already entrenched as Christmas customs adding color and tradition to the season. Here are some ways in which Yule inspired Christmas.
1. Father Christmas
From the descriptions of Old Man Winter and his function, it is evident he is the origin of the beloved Christmas figure along with Thor’s role as a giver of gifts to obedient children.
Christmas decorations often feature wreaths that are a remnant of the ancient Yule traditions to symbolize the wheel and life cycle.
Mistletoe still adorns Christmas settings, and more importantly, kissing under the mistletoe on a tree is part of the modern tradition.
4. Leaving out treats
In the past, people, mostly children, would leave out treats for Odin’s horse Sleipnir and the wassailing youths. Modern-day children still leave out cookies for Father Christmas.
Christmas carols are now part of the celebration. They get their origins from the wassailing carols people sang as they drank in the halls and houses. The youths also sang carols as they moved around in goat costumes.
6.12 days of celebration
Christmas never used to be 12 days, which is an addition borrowed from pre-Christian Yule tradition.
Other inspirations include the Christmas tree from Yule’s tree, a celebration of the tree of life, the eating of ham from the killing of pigs and boars to honor Freyr, and the Yule Log that still inspires furnaces, even the log cake.
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Yule and Saturnalia
Yule and Saturnalia are closely related ceremonies though there are significant differences. The obvious similarity is that they were all holidays organized around the winter solstice. They all celebrated rebirth and return of longer daylight.
Both these feats featured merry-making and sacrifice to various deities. It is also instructive that normal productive activities like wars, courts and most economic activities unrelated to the preparation of the ceremonies came to a halt in both cultures.
Despite the similarities, there are certain critical differences. First, Saturnalia largely celebrates one deity while Yule has many deities. There is also a significant amount of mischief around Saturnalia, with the normal social order disrupted and mock kings appointed.
On the other hand, despite the merrymaking, Yule was also a solemn time to seek favor and protection from demons and other beasts roaming around. Yule also seems to have required a more elaborate preparation given the care of the decorations and the numerous symbols.
FAQ about Yule
Why is it called Yule?
Yule gets its name from Old Norse jōl, which later turned to Old English geōl and then the modern Yule. Initially, the word was a month’s name in the old Germanic calendar and rose to refer to a specific event prevalent in Scandinavia and later Christendom.
When did Yule become Christmas?
Yule became Christmas around the 900s as most people in Scandinavia converted to Christianity, and political rulers and religious rulers blended the celebrations. From here, the new ceremonies were carried elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the world, and now Yule and yuletide refer to Christmas and the Christmas season.
Is Yule the same as Christmas?
Generally, the modern use of Yule is as a synonym for Christmas, referring to the holiday season that starts in December to the early week of January. However, the two can be celebrated differently following different practices.
Why was Yule changed to Christmas?
Yule was changed to Christmas to encourage the conversion of the pagan cultures to Christianity. It would allow them to easily embrace a new religion if they found a relatable major festival to their cultural observances.
Do pagans give gifts to Yule?
Yes, the celebration started with ancient pagans leaving out gifts for Odin’s horse and, with years, started giving each other gifts to go along with the festivities.
What do pagans do for Yule?
During Yule, pagans celebrate rebirth and the passing of the winter solstice as they welcome light into their lives. They feast, pray, purify themselves, conduct rituals honoring mother nature, the beloved dead, and prepare for a new season with friends and family.
Did the Vikings celebrate Yule?
Yes, Yule celebrations began during the Vikings era, and they celebrated by holding festivals, drinking mead, song, and dance, making sacrifices, and performing other rituals in honor of their gods.
What are the 12 days of Yule?
The modern 12 days of Yule, when used for Christmas, refers to the 12 days of Christmas starting on December 25 to January 5. The traditional 12 days of Yule started on the eve of the winter solstice till the twelfth night, so it usually varied from December 20 to January 3, depending on when the solstice happened.
Is Yule a Celtic?
Yule is not Celtic as at the time, the Celts had their equivalent celebration, and the name comes from the Germanic Norse nations. However, since the Vikings and celts often interacted, they borrowed practices from each other, and Yule now has Celtic and Nordic traditions.
Who is the Goddess of Winter Solstice?
Frigg and Freya are the goddesses usually associated with Winter Solstice, and scholars often view them as one God, all having the same role over love, fertility, and marriage.
Is Christmas stolen from pagans?
Not really, as early Christians did celebrate Christmas as a parallel event to the winter solstice celebration. They, however, interpreted the pagan practices to their celebration, and as these religions died and Christianity grew, Christmas became the main event during this period.
Is Saturnalia older than Yule?
Yes, early records place Saturnalia observation as early as the second century, while the earliest Yule mentions are around the fifth and sixth centuries.
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