What Is Yule?
(Written by Catherine Boeckmann)
Today, “Yule” and “Yuletide” are largely synonymous with “Christmas” and “Christmastide,” but the meaning behind them is quite different from that of the Christian holiday.
“Yule” comes from Old English geol, which shares a history with the equivalent word from Old Norse, jól. Both these words referred to a midwinter festival centered around the winter solstice, which traditionally marked the halfway point of the winter season. After the solstice—the shortest day of the year—the days again begin to grow longer, so it’s thought that Yule was a celebration of the re-appearance of the Sun and the fertile land’s rebirth.
The celebration of Yule is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a significant part in their lives. The customs and traditions associated with it vary widely. Most commonly, the celebration consisted of a hearty feast and general revelry, which included wassailing (caroling), drinking, and dancing.
Later, when Christianity came to the British Isles, Christians adopted aspects of the pagan festival into a celebration of the birth of Christ. As Christianity began to spread in the 4th century, the Christmas feast day was set on December 25 by Pope Julius I to align with the Roman pagan holiday Dies natalis solis invicti, “the birthday of the invincible Sun.” The rest is history.
The candles and lights associated with Christmas, meant to symbolize guiding beacons for the Christ child, may have evolved from the Yule log, which was lit to entice the Sun to return as part of the jól (Yule) festival in Scandinavia.
Interestingly, the Yule log was originally an entire tree! Families would bring the trunk of the Yule tree inside and stick the big end of it into the fireplace. The log would feed the fire through the 12 Days of Christmas (from Christmas Day through the evening of the 5th of January—known as Twelfth Night).