Yule was a traditional Germanic winter festival that was celebrated on the Winter Solstice, and Yuletide (also known as the Yule Time or the Yule Season) ran for about two months. In more modern times, Yule was rebranded and reformulated by Christians and renamed Christmastide.
Most of the traditions of this holiday were then absorbed into Christmas traditions. These traditions include lighting trees, giving gifts, and hanging up holly and/or mistletoe.
Although there was a point in time when Yule seemed to have been absorbed by Christmas, modern neopagans and Wiccans have resurrected the holiday. It’s now a holiday that seems to be growing in popularity every single year.
The History Of Yule
Yule is a pagan holiday that goes back thousands of years and was celebrated by the Germanic peoples of Germany and Scandinavia. No one knows how old this holiday is because it wasn’t written about until about the 4th century.
The word Yule is the modern version of the Old English words ġēol or ġēohol. The time before the Yule Festival was known as ǣrra ġēola, and the time after was called æftera ġēola. It’s believed that Yuletide was celebrated for about 12 days.
Customs, Traditions & Observances Of Yule
The main component of any Yule celebration was the Yule log. This tree would be cut down on the Winter Solstice and fed into the fireplace—and this was done without chopping it into pieces! No, the top of the tree would be fed into the fireplace, and over the next two months, more and more would be pushed in as the winter progressed.
This would become the basis of the Yule log or Christmas block as it is known today. Another tradition of Yule was bringing in various plants to “guard” their life essence. This was a form of sympathetic magic in which practitioners believed they could harness this life force for themselves.
Some of the plants that were brought into the home included evergreen boughs, holly, ivy, birch boughs, and mistletoe. Sonargöltr was another aspect of ancient Yule customs. It featured a wild boar that was sacrificed and eaten.
It is the basis of many of the Christmas feasts practiced today, except instead of a wild boar, a ham is served today. Modern neopagan feasts often incorporate foods such as pork, turkey, eggnog, fruits, nuts, and cider-soaked cakes into their feasts.
The Traditions That Christmas Borrowed From Yule
As we said in the introduction to this holiday, Christmas borrowed many traditions from Yuletide celebrations. Although to be fair, Christmas also borrowed from other traditions, including Saturnalia—a holiday that was celebrated by the ancient Romans, but that’s a discussion for another day.
In this section, we’re going to talk about some of the traditions that come from Yuletide and that we’re still using to this day.
Yuletide Relied Heavily On Evergreen Plants
One of the main things that Christmas borrowed from Yuletide is the placement and decoration of evergreen trees. Ancient Vikings used to decorate evergreen trees with carvings, food, and ornaments, just like we decorate our Christmas trees.
Another use for trees in Yuletide celebrations was the Yule Log. The Yule Log was a giant log that was meant to burn in the hearth for 12 days—the length of the festival.
The 12-Days Of Yuletide
As you probably have already guessed, Yuletide also inspired the 12 days of Christmas. The Yule Festival was observed for 12 days, and so is Christmas.
Leaving Out Treats
Another custom that comes from Yule is children leaving out sweets for some mythical creature. The only difference is who it was left out for. For Viking children, sugar and hay would be left out for Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, and for Christian children, cookies would be left out for Santa Claus.
The Use Of Mistletoe
Mistletoe was used by Germanic peoples during Yuletide, just like it is used by Christians for Christmas. For the Germanic peoples of northern Europe, mistletoe was believed to possess supernatural qualities and could be used to heal people.
The Celtic people also believed that mistletoe had mystical qualities. They believed that it could ward off evil spirits. Nowadays, mistletoe is something that people kiss under.
Old Man Winter
The last thing that we want to talk about is how the figure of Old Man Winter came from Yule traditions. In Norse tradition, the god Odin would wander the earth during Yuletide and visit people’s homes. He was described in some of these myths as being an old man with a long white beard.
This would be the same depiction that Father Christmas would acquire during the 15th century. Father Christmas would then become known by a variety of other names including Saint Nicholas, St. Nick, Santa Claus, and Kris Kringle.