Happy Yule everyone. Also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice, Yule has its roots in many cultures, including Roman Saturnalia, Christian Christmas and most importantly Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon Yule. It is the longest night and the day when the Sun is “reborn.” Since the summer, the days have been getting shorter and colder, but after Yule they begin to lengthen again as we approach spring. It is a time of light and hope in the depths of cold winter.
The first mention of a midwinter celebration is in the writings of a 4th century Christian who said that at this time pagans celebrated the birthday of the sun by kindling lights, giving presents, feasting and the closure of schools and shops. However this festival of Saturnalia only began in 274ad. By the 8th century there were 12 days of celebration at Christmas. There is little evidence of celebration in Ireland before the 12th century. However, Bede, writing in 730ad said that most important festival of the Anglo Saxons in England had been “Modranicht” or “Mothers Night” on 24th December. This was the night which opened the new year and “they kept watch during it with religious rites.” The word Yule came through Danish rule over England, however there is no mention of it in early Scandinavian literature. Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson says that there was a three day celebration at this time, including a sacrifice for a good crop. Historian Ronald Hutton says “the consensus between Bede and Snorri, that the winter solstice was a major feast of the ancient Scandinavian and Norse people’s, and opened their year, is still an impressive one.” There are many records from the 4th to 11th centuries of church leaders denouncing revelries, sorcery, divination, dressing in animal skins and feasting to excess at this time of the year. Across European society, it seems to have been a time for role reversal and the relaxation of norms. Hutton says that Welsh literature also shows good evidence for a midwinter “new year’s feast.” He further states that “it was the general custom in pagan Europe to decorate spaces with greenery and flowers at festivals, attested wherever records have survived.” These were often evergreens such as holly and ivy. Despite this, many of the traditional festivities we associate with Christmas now e.g. stockings, Christmas cards, paper decorations and crackers either were invented in the 19th century or came over from Germany at that time. Other traditional Christmas festivities such as the Christmas Tree (in the Rhineland), Yule Log and Wassailing the orchards can be traced back to Tudor times but no further (first mention of Christmas tree is in Strasbourg in 1605).
While the Celtic people’s didn’t celebrate at midwinter as far as we know, the pre-celtic people’s who built monuments such as stonehenge and newgrange to align with the Winter Solstice, probably did have some kind of festival at this time. Celtic Pagans do sometimes get involved with Wren Day on Dec 26th, guising, lighting candles for this the longest night, honouring the winter hag Cailleach, and the usual Christmas festivities. They also make Yule bannocks.
Norse and Anglo Saxon heathens celebrate Mothers Night (Modrinacht) as a time to honour the “Mothers”. In modern reconstructions, these “Mothers” are interpreted as goddesses and one’s female ancestors, however I think it is more likely the “Modra/ Matres” were the triple goddesses depicted on altars and votive offerings across northern and central Europe. They were linked with fate, prosperity, fertility and therefore probably similar to the Norse concept of the Norns.” Many modern heathens celebrate twelve days of Yule, a time of feasting with the burning of a yule log, meditating on the nine noble virtues, lighting candles, doing divinations and making oaths on New Years Eve.
If we look at the historical records in the Saga of Hakon the Good in Heimskringla, section 15 talks of a new Christian king who changed the date of Yule to be the same as the Christian festival of Christmas. It then says “Before him, the beginning of Yule, or the blot night, was the night of Midwinter, and Yule was kept for three nights after.” In section 16, it talks about the fact that they held a Blot (sacrifice) and a Sumble (ritual toasting) on the night. In the Hervarar Saga, it says that on Yule eve, a boar is brought in and oaths were sworn on it. The boar was sacrificed to Freyr/ Ing. In chapter 4 of the Lay of Helgi the son of Hjorvarth in the Poetic Edda, it talks of vows being taken on a boar on yule eve, and a “Kings toast” and a stay of “three nights.” When we then look at Bede, we see that the Anglo Saxons also celebrated an extra night – the 24th November, called Mother’s night, when they stayed up all night and did rituals. Their new year would therefore fall at this time. (They “… began the year on the 8th calends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, “mother’s night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night”.) The evidence from these texts suggest Yule should begin on the evening of 21st December with a ritual of sacrifice and toasting to the gods, as well as oaths (new years resolutions) being sworn. Then there are three days of festivities, followed by another ritual to the “Mothers” or fates (and probably Frige) to pray for a good fate and prosperity in the coming year, as well as staying up on the night of the 24th December. The saga’s also suggest that there was a minimum amount of alcohol that should be drunk, and that horse meat was eaten (horse sacrifice was important to many Indo-European cultures). Interestingly, this is also the time of the Celtic horse festival of Eponalia, and perhaps is a good time to honour the Anglo-Saxon horse deities/ heroes Hengist and Horsa.
Yule signifies the height of the Wild Hunt, when a ghostly procession led by the god Woden/ Odin, and sometimes Frau Holla, marches across the night sky. It may have been a time when the dead were permitted to leave their mounds and return to the land of the living. The host may have been thought to bring blessing, luck and good harvest in return for offering of food and drink. In southwest England where I am from, this myth has evolved into a belief that it is hell hounds (known as Yeth or Wisht hounds) chasing sinners or the unbaptised. Similarly, myths surrounding Woden/ Odin and Thunor/ Thor may have contributed to our modern Santa Claus. In Grimm’s mythology he talks of several goddesses – Herke, Berhta/ Peratha (or Perchte/ Berchte), and Holda, known to lead the Wild Hunt at this time, and specifically mentions their command that no spinning be done during the Yule period. Yule can be a time for honouring many of the gods – Woden who leads the wild hunt, Frige as the goddess of the home and hearth, Thunor for stopping the ice giants, Frey/ Ing for prosperity, Sunne and Baldur for the Suns rebirth and the winter deities Ullr and Skadhi.
Modern Neopagans like Wiccans celebrate this day with the myth of the mother goddess who gives birth to the sun god, while Druids tell of a battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, in which the Oak King overcomes the Holly King on this day and rules until Midsummer.
An interesting point made by Philip Shallcrass of the British Druid Order, is that the Sun’s “rebirth” is not actually 21st December/ the Solstice, rather, at the Solstice the Sun appears to stop in the sky for three days before actually being “reborn” or appearing to begin moving again on morning of the 25th December. Perhaps our Pagan celebrations of the rebirth of the Sun need to move to back to the 25th?
In the deepest depths of winter, it is traditional to celebrate Yule with gift giving, spending time with loved ones, decorating with evergreens and lights, having a yule tree and yule log, drinking and feasting. Wassailing is another tradition and in medieval times, villagers in southwest England would go to orchards and wassail the apple trees to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the Autumn. To celebrate the cycles of nature and connect with the world around us, we can go out and watch the Solstice sunrise, ringing it in with the sound of bells. We can also go for a walk in nature, toasting the trees, and putting out food for the birds and animals struggling to find something to eat in the cold winter. Boxing day (26th December) was traditionally a time when the rich would give their servants the day off and provide food/ drink for them. I think dedicating this day to helping others would also be a great practice for Pagans. In Scandinavian countries they sometimes decorate with a Yule Goat, thought to be associated with the goats of Thunor, and so I sometimes put a goat ornament on the tree. Being the Anglo-Saxon new year, its also a great time for divination. The house spirit is also often honoured with porridge.
My Yule feast usually includes a nut roast, sage & onion stuffing, mapled brussel sprouts with apple and walnuts, sweet & sour red cabbage, spiced swede mash, cranberry or redcurrant sauce and garlic & herb roast potatoes. I often make a yule log using holly, decorate a Yule tree with sacred animals and fruits, spend time with family and give presents. This year I will do my main ritual on Modraniht (24th December) to honour Frige and the Mothers, and a second ritual to Sunne on the morning of 25th December. I will eat a Yule breakfast of Gingerbread pancakes. On the actual solstice I will go for a walk in nature to leave an offering for the nature spirits and I will also wassail the apple tree on my allotment. If there is any snow, I may honour the Cailleach. I’m also considering doing an all-night vigil.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.