Yule is a time for feasting, giving gifts, drinking, dancing, and decorating trees. A festive holiday that happens right by the end of the year. Sounds familiar? All those traditions that most Christians associate with Christmas are actually Yule traditions, and they predate Christianity by hundreds of years. All the fun part of Christmas, yes, even the "Old Bearded Man" giving gifts, were actually “incorporated” by Christianity fairly recently. But what exactly is Yule?
Yule celebration predates Christmas by hundreds of years, a tradition still kept by many people today. In the Dark Ages, the Roman church wanted to convert more "heathens" (literally, "from the heath," i.e., country folk who preferred the Old Ways) to Christianity.
The name Yule is derived from the Old Norse HJOL, meaning “wheel,” to identify the moment when the wheel of the year is at its lowest point, ready to rise again. The Yule celebration has no set date, but is traditionally 12 days long, with the start of the festivities beginning at sunset on the winter solstice (In the northern hemisphere, this date usually falls on or around December 21th).
The first night of Yule is called Mothernight, when Frigga and the Disir (female ancestral spirits) are especially honored. Mothernight represents the rebirth of the world from the darkness of winter. This is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. A traditional vigil from dusk to dawn is held on the Mothernight, to make sure that the sun will rise again – and give us more time for the festivities. During this night Thor once again battles the frost giants of Jotunheim with his mighty Mjölnir, to keep them from turning Midgard into a land of frost and bitter cold.
Yule is the season at which the Gods and Goddesses are closest to Midgard. It is also the season during which the dead return to earth and share the feasts of the living. Elves, trolls, and other magical beings roam freely, and must either be warded off, or invited to come in friendship and peace.
During Yule, Odin will lead the Wild Hunt through the sky, along with the spirits of humans, horses and dogs. This grand procession takes place during all twelve days of Yule, with the intent of reminding our deceased ancestors that they need to stay on their side of the veil, as it as at it thinnest during this period. Traditionally, gifts of food and drink are left out for Odin and his entourage, for they can also bring blessings and fruitfulness.
The Wild Hunt
When the first Christian missionaries began trying to force the Germanic peoples to Christianity, they found it easier to invent a Christian version for popular feasts such as Yule and allow the celebrations to go on largely unchanged, rather than trying to suppress them. Halloween and Easter have been likewise assimilated from northern European Heathen religious festivals.
Yule is a time for dancing, feasting and family. Sun wheels are sometimes burned as part of folk festivities. The swearing of oaths was also a common practice during Yule. Oaths were usually sworn invoking the Gods and, since the Gods are closer during Yule, it was easier to draw their attention to the oath. This practice gave origin to the “new year’s resolution” but, unlike the “resolutions”, the old oaths were actually taken seriously.
During Yule an evergreen tree is traditionally decorated with sun wheels, runes, items of food such as cranberries and popped corn and bright pretty things. The tree represents Yggdrasil, the World Tree. In Germany, those who kept the old custom hid it inside, so the church authorities wouldn’t notice, but in England and Scandinavia, the trees and various spirits received their gifts outside. In those latter countries, it was a candlelit and ribbon-bedecked wreath, the ring of which may have reflected the oath-ring or the Yule sun-wheel, that was traditionally brought in to decorate the home.
The Yule-log is also an old Heathen custom. This log was supposed to burn all night during the longest night of the year to symbolize life lasting even in the time of greatest darkness. The log’s fire symbolically rekindling the Sun in the morning. Its ashes or pieces were used as protective amulets during the rest of the year.
The 12 days of Yule is largely devoted to merriment, with unique decorations which beautify every Heathen home at this holiday season. There are, for example, intricate paper cutouts to make and put on the walls; stars, wooden toys, straw Goats and Wild Boars to hang on the Yule tree. The straw animals, which are still widely found throughout Sweden, are intimately related to ancient Norse Germanic mythology; originating in legends of the sacred animals of the gods; the Goats of Thor (Yule Goat - Julbock in Swedish), and the Wild Boar of Freyr (Yule Boar - Julgris or Julegris - also Swedish).
Boars were offered to Freyr, the Lord of Plenty. After the sacrifice, the meat of the animal would be shared in a feast for all participants – the very idea of burning or otherwise disposing the meat of a sacrificial animal is utterly preposterous. The boar is a sacred animal to Freyr, who has a golden boar called Gulinbursti. Freyr’s boar could run faster than a horse, through the air and over water. Darkness could not overtake him, for he was symbolized the sun, his golden bristles the sun's rays.
Santa Claus? Think Odin.
Odin was known for taking on many forms and had many names. But one of his favorite forms was that of an old, white-bearded traveler clad in a cloak and broad-brimmed hat or hood. Before the major reinvention of Santa by a famous soda company during the 1920's and 1930's, Santa was originally depicted as a tall, gaunt man with a fur-trimmed cloak and broad-brimmed hat or hood who traveled on horseback.
The Allfather is particularly active in Midgard during Yule, as he leads the Wild Hunt. During this period, those who provoked the ire of the gods could find themselves caught in bad luck, while those whom Odin favored would receive good fortune and gifts. In fact, giving gifts was something Odin did often in Sagas. Odin would sometimes show up and provide a worthy person with some special item they needed. For example, in the Volsunga Saga, Odin arrives in his now-familiar disguise to give the hero, Sigmund, the gift of a magic sword. In the Saga of Hrolf Kraki (Hrolf the Tall), King Hrolf refuses a gift of hospitality, armor and weapons from an old, bearded man with a missing eye – only to later realize the gift-giver was Odin in disguise. Hrolf later dies as a result of not having these weapons.
Even the modern version of Santa still carries the Norse tradition. The name of two of his reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, translate to "Thunder" and "Lightning" - a callback to Odin's son Thor.
Lastly, One of Odin's most popular titles is Allfather. He is also called Jólfaðr, translating to Yule Father. That is the same as Father Christmas, the old name for Santa Claus.
May you and yours have a Happy Yule!
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Simek, Rudolf (2007) translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer ISBN 0-85991-513-1