“Yule” is an oft-used word during this festive season. The classic Christmas tune “Deck the Halls” gushes about “yuletide carols.” YouTube Yule logs bring crackling joy to those without fireplaces. And many companies are on the real Yule log train with their own weird twists to the holiday staple. But what does Yule mean? How did it become associated with Christmas? The history behind the word Yule, what it celebrates, and how people enjoy Yule today is a trip worth taking. Let’s dive into Yule’s interesting past.
The Word “Yule” and its Origin Story
Newer idioms ( like “LOL”) are easier to trace back to a specific time period; however, Yule has been around for thousands of years. Therefore, its creation and evolution has a murkier background. According to Dictionary.com, Yule derives from the Old English word “gēol,” which itself likely comes from older Germanic languages like Old Norse that predate Christianity. In Old Norse, the word “jól” was used in poetry to refer to a large celebratory feast. These words eventually evolved into Yule (also known as “ Juul” or “Jul” in Scandinavian languages) in reference to midwinter pagan festivals near the winter solstice.
The phrase “ yuletide” to describe the festive season first became documented around 1475. In this context, the word “tide” means a season or period that includes and follows an anniversary or festival. So yuletide is the season in which people celebrate Yule festivals and traditions.
What Is Yule?
We now know a little bit more about the word’s origins. But what does Yule actually observe? History.com says Yule is the celebration of the winter solstice (midwinter), a.k.a. the longest night of the year. It signifies our joy about literal longer and brighter days ahead. In the distant past (and today for many people), men would bring large logs home (Yule logs) and set them on fire. Women would decorate their homes with evergreens and candles to welcome in more light.
People came together to feast, drink, and make sacrifices until the log burned out, which could take around 12 days. This would often lead to some very happy (and perhaps inebriated) people gallivanting around and signing joyful songs. In the framework of our current calendar, Yule ran from around December 21 or 22 until January 1. Pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people would call the celebration the Feast of Juul and it was their way of having faith that the next season would be fruitful.
“The idea of Yule is to bring a light to dark times,” metaphysical teacher and author Courtney Weber tells Nerdist. The Portland-based tarot adviser and Wiccan priestess stresses that her expertise and breakdown of Yule practices come from a European framework. So her statements may not encompass the past nor present experience of people from other parts of the world.
“Three thousand years, or more, ago, it’s a very scary and cold time [near the Winter Solstice],” Weber continues. “The days are short and the harvest is pretty much over. So you have to hang on until springtime when the sheep and cows start producing more or you can grow fresh crops. Because of that, a lot of different practices came about to chase darkness away or bring some joy and merriment…Yule would have taken place over several weeks in order for people to have something to hold onto during these dark and scary times. And, to be truthful, winter solstice celebrations have been a part of human existence since the beginning of time. Our earliest ancestors around the world would notice that there was one specific day when days would start to grow longer again.”
Ancient Romans had the festival of Saturnalia, which honored the agricultural god Saturn. They would exchange gifts, eat, and make sacrifices to various gods during the winter’s sowing season. School and work would stop, even for enslaved people. Romans would decorate their homes with wreaths and other greenery, much like a Yule celebration.
The Inca Empire celebrated their sun god Inti by fasting for three days before the solstice, which takes place in June for the Southern hemisphere. Then, they would make offerings to Inti at sunrise. Some people also believe that Stonehenge may have been the site of ancient winter solstice festivals; celebrations happen there today. So, the concept of festivals at this time of year is indeed global with some similarities.
There’s undoubtedly a correlation between Yule and Christmas. Many Christmas traditions like trees, Yule logs, caroling (which stems from wassailing), and mistletoe were from earlier pagan practices. This isn’t surprising considering how people began to spread out, explore, and colonize different areas. Locations that were not predominately Christian adapted the religion by either choice or force.
As Christianity began to spread in the 1st century AD, many pagan traditions were often seen as gluttonous and ungodly. However, Roman Catholic Church leaders aligned the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 in 336—the same date as Saturnalia. Interestingly, many Biblical scholars believe that Jesus’ actual birth would have been in the springtime. So why did they choose a winter date?
It’s speculated that choosing December 25 was a strategic political move by Roman emperor Constantine to weaken pagan celebrations and push people towards the Christian faith. Christmas “borrowed” from established winter solstice celebrations and traditions like Saturnalia and Yule and combined them with the commemoration of Jesus birth. Many people feel like Christmas is the Grinch who stole from paganism; however, Weber offers a different perspective.
“So, I don’t really feel like Christmas is stolen from paganism,” she affirms. “If you look at Christmas celebrations around the world, you’ll see pre-Christian customs kind of folded in. And this is where I say Yule is cultural and Christmas is much more of a cultural thing than most Christians would admit.”
Modern Yule Observances
Despite their blended practices, some people may see Christmas and Yule as two mutually exclusive celebrations. They might see Christmas as a Christian holiday and Yule for those who are pagan, polytheistic, or atheist/agnostic. In reality, a Christian person can celebrate both because Yule isn’t “anti-Christian,” but rather a celebration of nature and seasonal change.
Many pagans, like writer Talia Franks, celebrate Yule and Christmas culturally and not religiously. They grew up celebrating Christmas without being raised under a specific religious structure. Talia’s natural attraction to witchy things and Greek mythology shaped their spiritual path towards paganism and witchcraft. They speak further about how they have previously celebrated Yule with friends.
“Almost every year I have a general holiday party for the solstice,” Talia says. “It’s a party where friends who celebrate other holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa would come together and have fun. Last year we did a small ritual where everyone would take a slip of paper and write down things they wanted to release from the past year. Then we put those papers in a bowl and light them on fire. Everyone had the opportunity to say this specific phrase, ‘I release these to the return of the light.’ It was really a great time to process the year…For me, Yule is very much a time of renewal, letting things go, and moving into brighter days.”
On a more personal level, Talia has their own set of personal rituals to commune with spirit and the gods. They also use this time to craft a plan for the upcoming year, go deep within themselves, and recharge their energy. The Massachusetts native views Christmas as more of a general fun American holiday complete with time off work, fun songs, quirky clothes, and a chance to spend time with family.
“I don’t have any problems celebrating Christmas and Yule because Christmas is an excuse to hang out with my family,” says Talia. “We exchange meaningful gifts and it’s nice to pick out things for them. I also give out solstice presents too.”
Weber and her husband, who is also pagan, combine Yule and other cultural and regional traditions for a weeks’ long celebration. Even in the initial year of COVID, they started cranking up the Christmas tunes in mid-November and will continue to honor the refreshing spirit of the season through the New Year. The North Carolina native and Portland transplant blends Southern New Year’s cooking traditions—like black eyed peas and collards for luck and money, respectively—along with her husband’s Italian roots. They also dine on Christmas Eve seafood and pork on Christmas Day.
“It is weeks of celebration for me,” Weber says. “So, on a more secular level, we do a lot of winter-themed Christmas lights and put up a tree. We don’t put up a nativity scene or cross but we do have a giant, glowing snowflake. We basically celebrate the beautiful things about winter. I have also started embracing more cultural things related to this time of year. We’ve been putting up a lot of La Befana [decorations] in our house. She is the Christmas witch in Italy who is kind of like Santa Claus in that she shows up and brings presents, but also cleans the house, which is why I love her. I will normally get up before dawn on the day of the winter solstice for the sunrise and honor it through rituals as well as encouraging the light to come and purge our home of anything that is negative, harmful, or hurtful. To purge us of any sorrows that we’ve had over the past year.”
In terms of wider events, some places may do public celebrations. For example, Virginia-based university William & Mary holds an annual Yule Log event where attendees cast their cares into a fire and look towards a hopeful future. Unlike other years, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into Talia and Courtney’s celebration plans. Talia spent that year going within for self-care.
They were admittedly upset about not gathering with others, but thankful for maintaining connections online. Weber and her husband leaned deeper into their rituals as well and set their sights on a smaller family gathering with those who were strictly quarantining.
A Yule Celebration Guide
Some people may be curious about Yule and perhaps want to start a celebration of their own. Google is always an option but the information can often be overwhelming. So, what should you do? Weber suggests looking into the simple things that your parents or grandparents do that are rooted in mysterious tradition. She gives an example about an Appalachian custom that was passed down in her home.
“I learned recently that in Appalachia you never leave a candlewick unburned,” Weber says. “So, if you get a new candle, you burn the wick right away a little bit, even if you don’t plan on fully burning the candle. My mom used to say she did it because ‘white wicks are tacky,’ but it’s actually an old Appalachian custom of keeping good luck in the house. My mom didn’t know that; she just did it because her mom taught her to do it. It’s those little pieces that may have lore behind it.”
She also encourages people to dig into their culture, if possible, and discover traditions there. Weber says the focus should be on doing fun and intentional activities. For those who may no longer go to a church, she suggests creating something like their own sunrise service on the winter solstice or staying up all night if they are a night owl. Taking time to enjoy the long night could be a spark of restorative and thoughtful joy. And, again, Yule isn’t just for people who are pagan or witches.
“The term Yule is much older than the term witch,” Weber affirms. “Yule and the idea of celebrating the return of lighter days is as old as human history. You may have to modify past traditions a bit for your modern life but there is something beautiful about embracing older practices.”
Talia, an avid bibliophile, shares a few recommendations that are both insightful and inclusive. “There’s a good series about all the Sabbats. Llewellyn has these cute books that aren’t expensive and sometimes go on sale for the holidays. There is one for Yule that talks about the old and new ways that Yule is celebrated, spells, divinations, recipes, crafts, and prayers. It’s a good primer book.”
Ultimately, your Yule celebration is what you make it. It can involve watching holiday movies that aren’t super religious or traditional (The Long Kiss Goodnight, anyone?). You can make a decorative Yule log or simply spend solstice in nature. No matter what, it’s never a bad time to start a new tradition, especially with a new understanding of Yule.
Originally published December 21, 2020.