Today, on December 21st, we celebrate the beginning of winter, otherwise known as the Winter Solstice. In Scandinavia and other European countries like Germany, Yule, or Yuletide, is the name of the Winter Solstice festival – a celebration in connection with the Wild Hunt, Odin, and the sun goddess. Over time, the Yule celebration was Christianized and adopted by other countries through Europe and other parts of the world.
The Etymology of the Word Yule
Yule derives from the Old English ġéol or ġéohol. However, its etymology can also be compared to the Old Norse jól, referring to the 12-day Yule festival – the time between the Winter Solstice and the Jólablót, the “Yule Sacrifice.” Variations of the word jól are connected to the festival’s origins. For instance, the Norse god Odin is referred to as jólfaðr (Old Norse for “Yule father”) and jólnir (“the Yule one”). So does that make Odin the first “Father Christmas”?
Another word commonly used in association with the Christmas holiday is “jolly.” The Old Norse jól plus the Old French joli and jolif give us the modern equivalent of jolly. So not only was Odin the Yule Father, but he was a jolly one at that!
As aforementioned, the Yule celebration is rooted in the supernatural. The Wild Hunt, also called Odensjakt, “Odin’s Hunt,” swept through the forests. Folklore also refers to this as the Oskoreia, a gathering of Yule Riders, who consist of various creatures of the Underworld and souls of the dead that roam the earth during the Winter Solstice – the coldest, darkest part of the year, which was usually close to Christmastime. And because it was the darkest day of the year, many believed the borders between the world of the living and the world of the dead were blurred. Crossing the path of the Yule Riders was considered a bad omen.
Though there is much focus on the night and the darkness, the Winter Solstice also signals the rebirth of the sun goddess. The sun goddess was important, as the gods depended on her to retain their immortality and strength. Yule began on the Solstice – the darkest day – and as the days grew longer, it symbolized the sun goddess’ rebirth.
Honoring and placating the gods, as well as the dead, was an integral part of the Yule celebration, so much so that it was oftentimes referred to as “drinking jól.” Drinking to and toasting the gods would last for several days until January 12th – the day of Jólablót at which time they would make a sacrifice to the gods.
In the 10th century during the reign of King Hákon the Good, who was a Christian, the date of Jólablót changed to December 25th to align with the Christmas celebrations celebrated on the continent. At this point, Yuletide began to reflect Christmastide. However, though Yule traditions changed over the years, many of the Yule customs were adopted by other countries and cultures. Take the Yule Log for instance!
The Yule Log Tradition
The Yule log dates back to before medieval times. Originally, the Yule log was a Nordic tradition, but it was quickly disseminated to other cultures throughout Europe. Before it became a televised phenomenon in the 1960s and a delicious dessert, the Yule Log was originally an entire tree, that was brought into the house with great ceremony.
How it worked was they would put the largest end of the log into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room! Nowadays, we would probably consider this a big fire hazard! Then, however, it was an important tradition. They would light the log with the remains from the previous year’s log. The remains were carefully stored for the whole year and could only be handled by someone with pure hands. After lighting it, the log would be slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. I wonder why the yule log isn’t part of that Christmas song!
The custom of the Yule Log spread all over Europe and different kinds of wood are used in different countries. In England, oak is traditional; in Scotland, it is Birch; while in France, it’s Cherry. Also, in France, the log is sprinkled with wine, before it is burnt. This makes the log smell nice when it is lit. In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people burn Ash twigs instead of the log. This originates from a myth that the shepherds gathered twigs to burn to keep Joseph, Mary, and Jesus warm. As for Ireland, they ditch the log entirely. Instead, they merely light a large candle, which is only lit on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night.