On the History of Yule

Posted by Chris Glosson on Dec 14th 2018

On the History of Yule

Most people, upon hearing ‘Yuletide’ think of the usual holiday fare: feasting, gift-giving, decorated trees, and songs about the cold weather of winter. The historical Yule, while not too far off, has some slightly different connotations than we give it today. As with many other celebrations around the world (Saturnalia, for example), Yule celebrated not only the darkest point of the solar cycle, but the eventual return of the sun’s warmth. As the longest night, it was the hardest point of the year; and what better way to deal with hardship than with a festival? Here, I’ll be discussing the older traditions of yule, and the origins of what we currently incorporate into our midwinter celebrations.

Yule began as a pre-Christian Germanic holiday centered on the winter solstice, or the longest night of the year. The long night would be spent in feasting and celebration, to stave off the dark and cold, and to welcome the return of the sun in the morning. The celebrations coincided with many mythological concepts of the early Germanic cultures. As an example, the incorporation of mistletoe in historic Yule traditions harkens back to the story of Balder, who was slain by the trickster god Loki with a sprig of mistletoe. However, Balder was brought back by the tears of Frigga, thus adding an element of rebirth to the symbol of the mistletoe. Likewise, a boar was often slain and offered to the god Frey at this time of the year, to petition for a good harvest in the coming year. With many of these traditions, the impact was long-lasting, even through the later Christianization of the holiday.

Many of our traditions harken back to this time period, and even some modern movements have resurrected and remade these older traditions to better fit today’s world. As an example, the Yule log, which many people recognize as one of the holdovers from the more ancient traditions, can be traced back to the ancient Germanic solstice celebrations. A log would be burned for the duration of the festivities, and a piece saved for good fortune until the next Yule season. There is also the tradition of the Yule-Goat, a symbol seen more in the northern locales such as Scandinavia and Norway, which seems to harken back to the goats of Thor in the older traditions. Even the Christmas tree, while generally considered Christian in origin by most scholars, may have some pagan roots in both Norse and Roman traditions involving decorations such as fruits and candles being placed on evergreens and other trees.

Imagine, if you will, a midwinter long past. The sun has dipped below the horizon. The feast is set out, as the festivities whirl about in a cavalcade of celebration. The Yule log burns in the hearth. Burnt offerings, wood smoke, and the warm scent of roasted food perfume the cold, dark night. The local brew fills every drinking horn and cup, and a toast is raised to the gods, to past year, and to the year to come. The festivities commence long into the night, a party as if the world itself might end, as if the sun might never rise again. Yet, as with every year, the sun returns triumphant at dawn, and the celebrations slowly ebb into a day of relaxation and rest. From this celebration many of our modern practices and traditions drew influence, and added their own twists, creating one of the most celebrated seasons in contemporary society. So, whatever tradition you follow, may this time be blessed for you and yours.

Check back soon for Gale Hamby’s post about the modern Yule!

Because no person is an island unto themselves, here are the sources I used to discover and confirm the information in this post:

  1. Yule-Tide in Many Lands by Mary P. Pringle
    • This exploration of Yule celebrations, while a bit dated and dubious in accuracy, does contain some information on the early history of Yule, as well as some information on the original mythologies.
    • It can be found on Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18570
  2. How We Inherited Christmas from the Viking Yule
    • This article approaches the subject from a Scandinavian perspective, and provides much insight into many of the traditions that are holdovers from the ancient practices
    • It can be found here: http://skandland.com/vikxmas.htm
  3. Yule, hosted on Candlegrove
    • This article gives a fairly general, yet well-explained overview of Yule traditions and where they come from, including an insight into the rationale behind the Yule celebration
    • It can be found here: https://www.candlegrove.com/yule/
  4. History of Yule; the Winter Solstice by Lady SpringWolf, hosted on The Pagans Path
    • This article is a well-researched discourse on ancient yule traditions, and provided an interesting glimpse into the connection between the Roman traditions and those of the Norse
    • It can be found here: https://www.paganspath.com/magik/yule-history.htm
  5. And, of course, I have to give some credit to my German professor in college, who had the good graces to bring up the older origins of many Germanic holiday traditions during class discussion.