"Yule" is related to the Old Norse word “jul,” a festival of the winter solstice celebrated by Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians.
Over time, the midwinter solstice became the major festival of Northern Europe. It was celebrated with traditions that sound suspiciously familiar to those of us who celebrate Christmas. For example:
- There were elaborate feasts, especially with roast pig. These may have represented sacrifices to the Norse god Freyr. After all, he was responsible for creating bountiful harvests, health, and peace. Furthermore, Freyr was usually depicted with a golden-bristled boar named Gullinbursti beside him. (8)
- Festive greenery—cue holly and mistletoe—was also used to decorate for Jul. Holly was said to keep away evil spirits and witches. Mistletoe was believed to have magical powers of healing. In one story, mistletoe was used to both kill and revive Baldur, son of the Norse gods Odin and Frigga—mistletoe berries are sometimes said to have come from Frigga’s tears—and after Baldur was revived, Frigga declared mistletoe to be a symbol of peace, friendship, and love. (3,8)
- And of course, people celebrated the coming of longer days by lighting huge bonfires—or sometimes, just burning special logs on the hearth. These were often made of oak, in which Scandinavians believed lay the origins of humankind. You can think of these fires as the earliest versions of the “Yule log” we know today. (1,3)
As Christianity rolled across the land, many people let go of their “heathen” beliefs and accepted this new religion. But they were loath to let go of their ancient traditions. And so feasting, the hanging of holly and mistletoe, and the burning of a Yule log were rolled into Christmas and became part of that holiday’s traditions.
By the way, you may be glad that some of the Jul traditions didn’t continue. These included running around wearing animal masks, hanging dead male animals from trees, and placing the severed head of a sacrificed horse on a pole. (1,6)
Why Christmas Is on December 25
In case you’re wondering how this all comes back around to Christmas, here’s the deal. No Christian churches claim to have any record of the actual date of Christ’s birth. Early Christians didn’t seem to care about this too much; some even ridiculed the concept that a god could have a birthday.
That changed in the fourth century AD, when we find the earliest record of people holding a nativity festival. It was in Rome, on—guess what?—December 25. That day coincided with both the winter solstice and the Festival of Sol Invictus—the Festival of the Unconquered Sun, which celebrated a pagan sun god called Mithra. (4)
We don’t know for sure who in the Christian Church decided that December 25 should be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus. They may have chosen this day to turn people away from worship of the actual sun to the worship of Jesus, also known by Christians as the “Lord of Light.” (4) Or this may have just been another example of the Church “tolerating and absorbing pagan customs as it spread over pagan lands.” (10)
In sum, the word “Yule” actually has a rich and ancient history. And it shows that even before the advent of “Yuletide,” humans have always found a reason to celebrate—even on the coldest, darkest days of the year.
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- Bogucki, Peter. Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Ancient World, Volume 4, page 467. Facts On File, 2008.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Christmas (subscription required, accessed November 30, 2018).
- Folkard, Richard. Holly, Mistletoe, Oak, in Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom. Library of Alexandria, 2015
- Ryan, Fr. Thomas. The Festival of the Unconquered Sun, on Catholic Exchange. catholicexchange.com/the-festival-of-the-unconquered-sun (accessed November 30, 2018).
- Hyde, Walter Woodburn Hyde. The Origins of Christmas, in Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008.
- Kvilhaug, Maria. The Old Norse Yule Celebration: Myth and Ritual, in Freyia Volundarhusins: Lady of the Labyrinth’s Old Norse Mythology Website. freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com (accessed November 30, 2018).
- Lecouteaux, Claude. Yule, in Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic. Inner Traditions, 2016.
- McCoy, Daniel. Freyr, Frigga, in Norse Mythology for Smart People. norse-mythology.org (accessed November 30, 2018).
- Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Yule (subscription required, accessed November 30, 2018).
- 10.Pennick, Nigel. Yule, Yuletide Guising, in Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition: Customs, Rites, and Ceremonies. Simon and Schuster, 2015.