Today, when we encounter the word ‘yultide’, we’re thinking of a Christmastime fireplace or an overwhelming food table with domestic Christmas food and decorations – and gifts. But I dare say, most of us are not well informed about Yule – or Norse yuletide.
The Christmas carol ‘Deck the Halls’ sings ‘Troll the ancient Yuletide carol’ and ‘See the blazing yule before us’. But what are these lyrics referring to – Christmas or not?
Yule lads roasting on an open fire, spirits of the ancestral dead nipping at your nose. It’s indeed the most wonderfully strange time of the year. It’s that time when the sun proverbially turns, prying the coming spring from the cold dead hands of winter darkness. It’s the time when we spend all our money on symbolic trinkets, and open our hearts and doors to friends, family, and fire hazard in great abundance.
Related: Christmas in Scandinavia
A Nordic pagan festival
However, Yule or Yuletide (Yule time) was originally a Nordic pagan festival celebrated from 21 December to 1st January. It was connected with the Germanic Wild Hunt, the Anglo-Saxon Mondranich and the Roman Sol Invictus. The European folklore and mythology surrounding Yule all offer symbols relating to the confrontation of the dark nature as a process of initiation into the light.
My research on the internet has given some insight, some astonishment, lots of laughs, but not least lots of reflection. One article said, “Yule means feast, or maybe wheel.” The Scandinavian word for Christmas is ‘jul’. The Scandinavian word for wheel is ‘hjul’. So, “Yule” can mean either a feast that celebrates the winter solstice or reference a wheel, depending on which country of origin you are speaking. Confusing, isn’t it?
And now it’s Christmas again (or jul, as we Scandinavians call it). This old word is handed down to us across generations from the Old Norse ‘jól’, and Yuletide is widely recognized as the Christmas season. During the Christianization of Europe, we have seen many Christian feasts taking over many of the traditional pagan festivals. In the fourth century, the church decided to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ with a 12-day feast called the Epiphany or the Feast of the Nativity. With Christ’s birth seen as conquering the darkness of sin to bring new hope, life and light, it is clear why Yuletide was chosen to correspond to ‘the twelve days of Christmas’ and the feast of Sol Invictus on 25th December (Dies Natalis Invicti) as Christmas Day.
Time is an important aspect
The Yuletide feast has become much more than just the one time during the cold dark winter months that there was food in excess, Yuletide tradition was really about coping with the excessive darkness and warding off the evil and the nasty spirits it was thought to harbor.
As sure as some birds fly south in the winter, so come articles about the apparent continuity of certain Christmas traditions, like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and every festive dinner food on the Scandinavian table (though most of them are hardly a century old).
Time is an important aspect of ritual, and I have written this article with a varied audience in mind, for reconstructionists as well as perennialists, or for believers as well as agnostics or atheists. And even if most people don’t care about the origin of the traditions or their association with paganism, it’s just a part of a traditional celebration.
The origins of Yule
The origins of Yule are not 100% clear, but most believe it began as a Scandinavian tradition. Any other considerations of origin include countries of the same approximate latitude. This means that at the peak of winter the sun doesn’t peak over the horizon until close to 9:00 in the morning, and scurries back over the horizon around 3:00 in the afternoon. This leaves a whopping six hours of daylight. Wouldn’t it be only natural to celebrate the lengthening of days?
In addition to that, the Nordic area can be a dang cold and harsh place to live. It’s not exactly the fertile crescent. We’ll take all the sunshine we can have. The old idea that Viking Age Scandinavians celebrated jól on the winter solstice as a sort of solar adoration, is among the most prevalent yuletide claims you’ll see presented on the internet (or wherever) this year.
It would seem intuitive that Viking Age Scandinavians greatly missed the sun at winter, and if jól was celebrated around the solstice, close to Christmas, it seems to explain how Christianity could simply just walk into Scandinavia and appropriate the heck out of our gluttonous solar feast.
However, in Scandinavia it is still traditional to leave food out (usually porridge with butter) for the little red-capped tomte or nisse (household spirits or house elves).
Julenissen (Danish and Norwegian) or Jultomten (Swedish) is a mythological creature from Nordic folklore today typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. They are generally described as being short, having a long white beard, and wearing a conical or knit cap in gray, red or some other bright color. The nisse is one of the most familiar creatures of Scandinavian folklore, and he has appeared in many works of Scandinavian literature. With the romanticization and collection of folklore during the 19th century, the nisse gained popularity.
Evergreen trees and holly bushes were the wintertime symbol of life and hope. In the barren winter landscape, their lush green was evidence of life when life could not be seen. Holly bush branches were often used as practical decorations for doors and windows, their generally prickly nature was thought to keep out the bad spirits of winter time. These spirits were thought to bring with them illness or madness.
The Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg wrote, “Those who insist on referring to jól as the solstice, must be more interested in the solstice itself, than they are in sources for Norse religion.”
Another Scandinavian tradition is the Christmas goat, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. The Jul Bok (Yule goat) is nowadays usually made from straw, which indicates that it was probably once an offering from the last harvest (like the British corn dollies), but other traditions have a man dressing up as goat at Yuletide, which could be distant memory of a pagan fertility ritual, or even be connected to the two goats who pulled Thor’s chariot in Norse mythology.
His roots trace all the way back to the Mythological god, Thor. Julbock was once thought to be Thor’s carrier. So many Yule traditions are heavily steeped in Ancient folklore simply because the missionaries weren’t able to reach Norway or Scandinavia until the 10th century. By then, tradition had been well established.
The Winter Solstice
The oldest evidence we have for a possible Scandinavian yuletide feast, was described by the 6th century Byzantine chronicler Procopius, who mentioned that the inhabitants of Scandinavia (called “Thule”) celebrated a feast for the returning sun, sometime after the winter solstice. The earliest Old Norse reference to jól, however, comes from the 9th century Haraldskvæði, which is a praise poem composed in honor of Harold Fairhair’s victory at the battle of Hafrsfjorð, and the following unification of the kingdom of Norway.
The winter solstice was particularly inauspicious the night when Odin was said to ride through the skies with the Wild Hunt collecting the souls of the dead. So, everyone stayed indoors feasting, afraid to go outside lest they be caught out alone and abducted by the Wild Hunt.
Let’s not forget the Yule elf. He lives typically in attics and keeps the household running smoothly and everything in order. He is a very busy little guy, and all he asks in return is a bowl and rice delivered for Christmas Dinner.
In the saga of Olaf the holy, Snorre mentions a blót at midwinter (miðsvetrarblót), referring to it also as jólaboð and jólaveizla, both meaning Yule feast. Thereby he implies that the main pagan religious event of jól occured later than Christmas, several weeks after the solstice. The saga of Hervor goes so far as to place jól in February, further yet from the winter solstice.
The Modern English word Yule comes down to us via the Middle English yol from the Anglo-Saxon Geol, though nowadays it is more commonly known as Christmastide or the 12 Days of Christmas. In Scandinavia we still call it jul (pronounced yule) or jol. One of the many names of Odin recorded in the Icelandic sources is Jolnir, which means The Yule One. Though this name probably refers to his role as leader of the Wild Hunt at Yule, rather than to a jolly giver of gifts.
Iceland also contributed the legend of the Yule cat, which is apparently a remarkably large creature with a pension for devouring lazy people. Lazy people of the village were not only declined any type of Yule reward, but were in constant Yuletide danger of being gobbled up by the ferocious and sinister Yule cat. Naturally this threat made people a bit more motivated to be contributors to the well-being of their village. The typical Yuletide reward, other than being safe from the Yule cat’s clutches, was a new article of clothing.
Snorre states, in the Saga of Hákon the good, that jól was a three-day event starting at a night called Hǫkunótt, which he perceived as the midwinter night.
So how did Yule become Christmas? King Hakon of Norway, who was a Christian, passed a law that the Christian Christmas Day and the Pagan Yuletide celebrations were to be henceforth celebrated at the same time. While this only impacted the Norwegian territories it illustrates how these festivals were intentionally combined into one celebration.
The winter solstice, which occurs on December 21st or the 22nd in “our” Gregorian calendar, would actually have taken place on December 14th through 15th according to the Julian calendar, which is when the Latin calendar came to Scandinavia. However, according to Snorri Sturlusson, the astronomical winter solstice would have roughly coincided with the feast of St. Lucy, which would have occurred roughly a week before Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which was only replaced by our current, Gregorian calendar in the 18th century. In other words, Santa Lucia that was celebrated on the solstice, roughly ten days before Christmas until recently. This also explains why the eve of St. Lucy is still considered the longest and darkest night in Scandinavian folklore.
The twelve days of Christmas
The celebration of Yule hasn’t always been twelve days long. The Norse text ‘Heimskringla: The Saga of Hakon the Good’ talks about it lasting for three days, or as long as the ale continued. The night it began was known as slaughter night, where animals would be ritually slain and their blood collected in bowls to be splattered over the wooden idols of the gods and over the participants using a bunch of twigs. The animals’ meat was then consumed in a feast which was known at the julblot.
The slaughter of any animal, including fish, was strictly forbidden during the Yule celebrations, and this tradition is still carried out through most parts of the world that celebrate Yule. The Yule feast was prepared ahead of time in order to adhere to this rule. The wheels were not to turn on the winter solstice, as it would reflect impatience with the turning of the sun, applied as the arrival of springtime.
It was customary that no work was to be done during Yuletide. From Germanic sources we see stories of the Goddess Berchta visiting people’s houses and punishing those who had been spinning during Yule. In the Icelandic ‘Svarfdæla Saga’, we see a warrior who postpones a fight until after the Yuletide, and ‘The Saga of Hakon the Good’ also says that Yule was to be kept holy.
While there’s a time and place for everything, it seems solstice was not the time of the yuleblót. So far, all of the sources place the event between January and February, but we have no yet come to explain the flaky and inconsistent dating of jól itself. Why do the sources give varying dates for the festival, within such a discrepant timeframe as January through February? The pre-Christian calendar system gives us some clues.
Two months of yule
The Norse calendar, which contained no less than two months of Yule, called Ýlir and Jólmánuðr respectively. Yule is a common Germanic holiday, and the tradition of two Yule months are attested as far back as 4th century Gothic texts, as supported by by Anglo-Saxon sources, where the 8th century chronicler Bede writes that the pagan Angles followed a calendar based on the lunar cycles. Yet, he also states that this lunar year was determined on the terms of the solar year: It was lunisolar.
Other sources tell of the burning of a Yule log, the ashen remains of which were used to ward off evil spirits and other misfortunes, before being ignited again the following year to start the subsequent Yule fire. Also, there was the eating of a Yule boar in honor of Freyr, a god associated with the harvest and fertility, who in Christian times became associated with St Stephen and his feast day of 26th December.
Common Christmas traditions such as mistletoe and Christmas trees were part of Yule tradition as well. Although oddly enough, until the 13th century it seems, Christmas trees were suspended upside down. There is no documented reason for this, just the knowledge that it occurred. There is of course, ample speculation that nobody had yet devised a method to assist the cut tree to stand upright as they do today.
Nevertheless, all of the December holidays have one basic theme intact, regardless of ancient tradition or religious affiliation. They are a time of peace and joy, love and honor, and of course, merriment and sharing.
Norse Yuletide, written by Tor Kjolberg