Christmas is, probably, the most well known holiday around the world in December. Even those who don’t celebrate it know of it. But, a lot of the traditions we see have evolved from older traditions from a midwinter festival known as Yule. Here, we’ll have a look at how the Yule celebration evolved into some of the traditions we see at Christmas.
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Yule is a Pagan holiday that is estimated to have been around since the 4th century, and was celebrated by the Germanic people. It is said to have lasted from the 21st of December (the Winter Solstice) and ended on January 1st. There are also links to Old Norse folk celebrating Yule, as in the Prose Edda, in chapter 55, Skáldskaparmál, one of the names of the gods stated is “Yule-beings”.
Some of the traditions people undertook during Yule were; the Yule log, Yule singing, the Yule goat, and the Yule boar.
The Yule log (also called a clog or block) is a specially selected log that is burnt through the night in a fireplace, usually on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. While this tradition’s origins are unclear, many believe it to have begun with the Germanic people. The burning of the log is believed to have been done widely across modern day Europe, but mostly in the United Kingdom.
The burning of the Yule log has been reported to be a representation or a celebration of various things, including; different gods, a celebration of life and prosperity, and as a way to welcome the return of the sun each year
Other believed uses for the Yule Log vary from country to country. In France, it was custom to bring a log, called a bûche de noël to the lord of the land, but they too would burn it on the hearth.
In Brittany and in Provence, the custom is still widely observed and called cacho fio (blessing of the log). They say prayers over the log, or branch, typically from a fruit-bearing tree, or large oak. It is first paraded three times around the house by the grandfather, or eldest male of the family, then blessed with wine; it is often set alight with the saved ashes of the previous year’s log.
Now, while we don’t typically select a specific log to burn, a burning fire is synonymous with Christmas (maybe not Christmas Eve night though, how else will Santa get in?). Another log can be found in the form of a chocolate cake typically called a swiss roll or roulade. Generally made from a génoise sponge, flavoured with chocolate and covered in brown buttercream (also usually chocolate) and designed to look like a miniature log.
This singing was also known as wassailing or Yulesinging. There were two forms of wassailing, one where you would visit a person’s house, the other would involve visiting an orchard.
The house-visiting wassailing involved people going door-to-door in their neighbourhood. They would sing songs, some which resemble modern day carols, offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts. It was also an exchange between the lord of the people in exchange for a gift. The Christmas carol “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” is a representation of this, when they ask for a figgy pudding.
As you can see, this Yule tradition still exists, but has largely been displaced by caroling. The wassail bowl has been discarded, and in place of gifts, a lot of carolers fundraise for charity.
The orchard wassailing refers to the custom of visiting orchards where cider would be manufactured. The people would recite incantations and/or sing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.
This is similar to the Samhain festival of Mumming or Guising, just without the costume.
The Yule goat is believed to be of Scandinavian origin. Some believe that it was a celebration of the Norse god Thor whose chariot was drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. For others, it is used to honor the sun god, Dažbog, who is sometimes depicted as a white goat.
The goat has appeared throughout Scandinavian history. One popular depiction is that it is the giver of gifts, another is that one would be left on a neighbour’s doorstep as a prank. Another believed that, like wassailing, people would go door to door with a goat and demand gifts.
Today, we can see that the goat is still seen in households around the globe, being made out of straw, or as a tree ornament. In Gävle, Sweden, they erect a a large straw version of the traditional goat, (see image above) every year in Slottstorget at the beginning of Advent.
Perhaps the biggest reminder of this Yule tradition is the Julebukking festival. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, people (Julebukkers) wear a costume, which traditionally used to be goatskin, and go door to door. Thier neighbours would attempt to identify who is under the disguise, and sweets are exchanged. Traditionally they would be carrying a goat’s head, but that practise has been left.
This is another tradition that we don’t know the origins of. It is said that eating ham during Christmas evolved from the Pagan ritual of sacrificing a wild boar, called the Sonargöltr, to the Norse god Freyr during harvest festivals, whose mount was the boar Gullinbursti. Gabriel Turville-Petre suggested that consumption of the sacrificed boar is tantamount to consumption of the god’s flesh and absorption of his power.
We can still see this Yule tradition being observed with the Christmas ham. Typically it is spiced with cloves, glazed with honey, or mustard, baked and served in slices. It is traditional to see this on the table at Christmas, along with turkey or goose.
Today, Yule is still celebrated in neopaganism. The people who participate in the festival try to celebrate it as close to how the Germanic people celebrated. Some of the ways they celebrate can be found here.
We can see a lot of similarities in the celebration of Yule, and the celebration of Christmas. While a lot of these have become more simple as time passed, it is nice to know that we have retained a version of some of the old traditions we used to celebrate.