Image obtained from http://www.pookapages.com/yulelog01.gif
What is Yule?
Yule, or Jól as it was spelled in Old Norse, was the Midwinter celebration of the Germanic peoples before Christianity had spread far into those regions. The Norse year was divided up into two season: Summer and Winter. Both of these seasons had half-way celebrations which were considered to be the most important festivals of the year, those being Midsummer and Midwinter, though Midsummer appears to have come about post-conversion rather than having been a pre-Christian festival. Between the two, Midwinter (Yule) has been the most important, so much so that even beyond Scandinavia and the other Germanic regions it persists to this day. Though through conversion Yule was gradually replaced by Christmas, many of its traditions remained as the people who were converted kept them alive in their new religion. Traditions such as the Yule log, Christmas tree and others have remained, and the name Yule even persists in Scandinavian countries; for instance, the Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish words for Christmas are “Jul”, pronounced exactly the same as Yule. If you want to wish someone a merry Christmas in Swedish, just say “God Jul!” (Go Yool). In addition to the Scandinavian languages, the term Yule is represented in works describing the ancient Continental Germanic months. The festival of Yule is believed to have lasted three or so nights. During those nights the return of Sol, the sun goddess, was celebrated as the darkest days of the year were over.
In addition to celebrating the return of the sun, this time of the year was seen as sacred to the gods Thor and Freyr. Freyr being a god of fertility and Thor a god of the weather, these two had a lot of influence over the birth and growth of new life in the coming year. Odin was also celebrated during this time of year as the leader of the Furious Host (often misinterpreted as the Wild Hunt), which in Anglo-Saxon areas was thought to occur on Modranicht (Mother Night); one of his many names was also Jólnir, which can be translated as “Yule figure”. He is also commonly thought to have been a large influence on the legend and original appearance of Santa Claus. While leading the Furious Host, he rode upon his eight-legged horse by the name of Sleipnir, which has been theorized by some scholars as possibly giving rise to Santa’s eight reindeer. When carrots or other food were placed out for Sleipnir to eat, Odin would record the names of the generous people and replace the food with gifts. It’s thought that when the Vikings conquered Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, their depiction of Odin in this time of year became the Father Christmas of the English.
Of course, while merriment was widespread at this time of year, there was also danger lurking in the cold dark of night. This time of the year was seen to give rise to an increase in spiritual activity. Trolls, draugr and other ill-spirits were seen to wander free more often during Yule, so it was not a good idea to be far out at night. While people would venture outdoors during the day and a little bit at night, they primarily stayed inside with company where it was considered to be safer.
The nisse, also known as tomten in Sweden, is recognized at this time of the year as well. Described as a very short, elderly looking, bearded man, much like the popular depiction of a gnome, the nisse were originally known to be the spirits of the first inhabitants of the land, and protected later families who inhabited the land from misfortune. Later on, in the 1800’s, the nisse came to be known as the bearers of gifts to families at yuletide. He has been commercialized to be more like the American version of Santa Claus, but even then his appearance has retained elements of its Scandinavian roots.
When is it celebrated?
The timeline of Yule has some variation depending on the tradition, but in modern times it often lasts for about twelve nights. Anglo-Saxon traditions begin the Yule celebration on Modranicht (Mother Night), which is usually the night of December 20th. As the Germanic peoples began their days at the setting of the sun rather than the rising, this would essentially be to them like celebrating at the beginning of December 21st. Because of that factor, it seems appropriate for the celebration to begin at that time, but Norse-focusing traditions will usually not address the night as Modranicht, since there is no record of it being called as such, and in that case it is sometimes just called Yule Night. The celebration then carries on through the next eleven nights until New Year’s Eve, after which it is finished.
According to Heimskringla, the original Yule observations actually occurred in mid-January before being moved into December to be closer to Christmas, and because of this there are many groups who will choose to time their Yule observances in-line with this fact. Those who do this usually are going consistently off of the Icelandic calendar for their celebrations, which hold Summer and Winter starting several weeks after they do by modern reckoning (by this I mean comparatively considering the timing of the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes, where many modern Heathens choose to observe the Summer/Winter halves beginning). The primary celebration may have only lasted for three days, but the Yule season appears to have lasted for at least two months, based on the Old Norse month names of Ýlir (Nov-Dec) and Jólmánuðr (Dec-Jan). While Jólmánuðr has an obvious connection to Jól, it should be noted that Ýlir comes from the same root linguistically.
How is it celebrated?
Modern reconstructionist religions such as Ásatrú, Forn Sed, Theodism, etc. have sought to produce a Yule festival as close as possible to the originals in their cultures of focus, with the limited amount of source material available. Common traditions include those which are present in Christmas such as decorating a tree, giving gifts, hanging mistletoe and wreaths, and many others as well as older traditions which we know of, such as wassailing the apple trees to ensure a good crop in the next year. Many kindreds who celebrate in December will skip the 24th and 25th of December because a lot of members celebrate Christmas with their families on those days, but the primary days that are observed are Mother Night (AS), High Feast of Yule and Twelfth Night. For these and other nights in-between, festivities are usually held at the home of a volunteer. One traditions which seems to be present in just about every record of Yule throughout the sagas is drinking, and lots of it. In Heimskringla it is also mentioned that when King Hákon the Good moved Yule to be closer to Christmas, he also required by law that all people brew a measure of ale and not cease celebrations until it was gone.
The celebration of Yule has also been adopted into the calendars of other contemporary pagan religions such as Wicca, but the changes made to it are often substantial enough that they can be considered to have their own distinct versions of it. While they often still celebrate the return of the sun, differences such as cosmology and individual practices as well as the length of the celebration make them very distinct from what is thought to be the original form. For the most part, the versions seen in religions such as Wicca will only last for a day or so, and they also factor in the birth of the God as well as the victory of the Oak King over the Holly King; neither of these events are observed in the traditional Yule celebrations.
Other traditional Yule and Scandinavian Christmas practices include:
The Julbok (Yule Goat), which can either be a large display or a small toy which is left in someone’s house as a prank and must be passed on to another. The figures are also commonly set at the base of the Christmas (or Yule) tree to await the arrival of Santa. This figure is reminiscent of pre-Christian customs, due to the goat being a sacred animal of Thor. Goats were often sacrificed at this time, and when the practice was outlawed after the conversion, the people kept the idea alive by fashioning representative figures out of straw and ribbon.
The Yule Log, which is decorated with holly, fir, and occasionally yew as well and then burned. Runes are often carved into it as well, and the burning of the log is seen as a petition to the gods for protection from misfortune. It is greatly advised that, rather than cutting down a living tree just to burn a section of it, one looks for an already fallen tree to cut the log from.
In Norway, children will sometimes go from house to house asking for treats.
In Sweden, one person in a house may dress as Tomten and hand out presents.
Norway and Denmark see the nisse as a mischievous elf who plays pranks on people, but will be friendly if rice pudding is left out for him.
Scandinavian Winter Food/Drink:
Glögg (Mulled wine): This is one of my favorites; a traditional Scandinavian holiday drink made with wine and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom. It also has a citrus flavor to it, and can be found in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, though there are many non-alcoholic mixes that can be mixed with liquor to be quite tasty (I prefer mixing with vodka).
Julmust: Another holiday drink, mostly consumed in Sweden. It was originally developed as an alternative to beer and contains water, sugar, hop extract, malt extract, spices, and a few other ingredients. It has a taste somewhat similar to root beer, but sweeter, and similar drinks are sold throughout the year, such as påskmust around Easter.
Gingerbread (Pepparkaka): Pretty self-explanatory for this one. It is common to make a gingerbread house (pepparkakshus) as well.
Rice Pudding: This is common between all three of the main Scandinavian countries, and is made in a somewhat different style in each of them.
Main course of duck, cod, pork or similar dish: Cod is most notable in Norway, duck or goose in Denmark, and Sweden usually has any of ham, fish, poultry, etc.
Ableskiver: A traditional Christmastime breakfast item in Denmark, essentially a Danish cupcake.
Lefse: A traditional Norwegian soft flatbread, often made with potato in addition to other usual ingredients. It is commonly eaten with butter and sugar, and possibly cinnamon.
Nisse Cookies: Much like gingerbread cookies, these traditional Swedish treats are shaped and decorated to look like the nisse.
Why celebrate Yule?
Why not? It’s the darkest time of the year, the days are getting colder and there is already a winter holiday which contains many of the same base elements anyway (at least in North America and Europe)! This is a great time to get together with friends and family and celebrate in warmth and merriment. Feasting with the gods and other powers also helps to build a relationship, and this festival was seen as the most important of them all, so if one is going to choose only one holiday to celebrate from the calendar, they would do well to make it this one!
Mapes, Terri. Christmas in Scandinavia. About.com. Web. 2012.
Rossel, Sven H.; Elbrönd-Bek, Bo (1996). Christmas in Scandinavia.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Wikipedia: Yule, Odin, Thor, Freyr, Santa Claus.
How We Inherited Christmas from The Viking Yule. Skandland. Web.
Hintz, Martin and Kate (1996). Christmas: Why We Celebrate It the Way We Do. Capstone.
Simek, Rudolf (2007) translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer.
Snorri Sturluson (1990) translated by A.H. Smith. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Mineola, NY: Dover.