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Yule, Paganism, and the Winter Solstice: How Ancient Celebrations Defined Modern-Day Christmas

Holiday celebrations come in all forms - some original and others "borrowed" from pagan religions of the past

Yule, paganism, and the winter solstice all helped to define how we celebrate modern-day Christmas. Read on to learn more.

Yule, paganism, and the winter solstice all helped to define how we celebrate modern-day Christmas. Read on to learn more.

The Origin of Christmas

Yule is an ancient pagan festival celebrating the rebirth of the Sun God and takes place on the winter solstice. The yule period begins with the Arra Geola moon, which grows full in late November or the first few weeks of December, and the season then continues for two lunar months. Yule is important for several reasons, but mostly because it marks the shortest day of the year (this is also when the days will start getting longer henceforth). It’s when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half; the Sun God will grow in strength every day from that point until the summer solstice.

The “rebirth” was celebrated with vigor. The sun’s rebirth was critical to survival among ancient populations. The name “Yule” has been researched, and several possible origins exist; however, none are definitive. The Old English word, geõla, the Old Norse word jõl (a pagan festival celebrated at the winter solstice), or the Anglo-Saxon word for the festival of the Winter Solstice, "Iul" (meaning "wheel"), are all strong candidates.

In This Article

  • Pagan Practices
  • Bringing in the Evergreens
  • The Yule Log
  • Christmas' Pagan Roots

Christianity and paganism

Christianity and paganism

Pagan Practices

As with many other pagan festivals, the fire was an integral part of the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun. Bonfires would be tended throughout the fields while the citizenry celebrated by offering toasts to the very trees and plants surrounding them. The solstice would be the first of 12 nights of revelry, which included wassailing, which included healthy imbibing of wassail, an alcoholic drink made from apples, oranges, cloves, and other spices.

Women would go door to door with huge bowls of wassail, offering drinks and singing songs to the homeowners. The men would head to the orchards and “wassail” the trees by splashing them with wassail and singing orchard songs that were supposed to encourage a good crop in the upcoming year. Of course, many variants of the details and celebratory techniques are used among different cultures. Wassailing is associated with about twenty-five songs, many of which evolved into modern-day Christmas carols.



Bringing in the Evergreens

A Roman festival called Saturnalia was celebrated around the winter solstice, the 17th through the 23rd of December. Almost all commerce stopped during Saturnalia and boughs of evergreens would be cut for decorating the home, and close friends would exchange gifts. Norse celebrations honoring Thor and Odin were also held on the solstice complete with huge bonfires.

Evergreens were revered by many ancient cultures because they didn’t die like other foliage or trees during the winter months. The Celts considered evergreen boughs sacred because of this “immortality.” Other ancient practices incorporated holly, ivy, and mistletoe as additional important decorations for the home. Holly represented good fortune while mistletoe was a representation of the “seeds of the divine.” By bringing these sacred plants into the home, practitioners were inviting the spirits of nature in to participate in the celebration.



The Yule Log

The Yule log was the most important part of the solstice festival. A traditional yule log should be ash wood and be harvested from the homeowner's land or can be received as a gift. Yule logs must not be purchased or brought back from foreign lands. As long as the log was acquired in a way in which no money changed hands, it was acceptable.

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These logs weren’t small by any respect, as they were expected to burn and smolder for 12 days before being ceremoniously extinguished by the family. The remaining bits of the log would be carefully preserved for the following year, whereupon that piece would be used to ignite the new yule log, thus preserving the cycle. The long log was decorated in evergreens and doused with ale and flour before being set alight, and as it burned, it would be pushed into the fire slowly over the duration. It was considered bad luck if the yule log burnt out or burned away completely.

The Yule Log Today

The modern yule log is quite different in appearance. It’s short and usually has been pre-drilled to hold three candles. Different combinations of candle colors can be red, green, and white (seasonal colors), green, gold, and black (representing the Sun God), or white, red, and black (representing the Great Goddess). Evergreens, pinecones, cloves, ribbons, and other seasonal items finish off the decorating; adding a pinch of flour to dust the creation off adds a final touch.

A traditional yule log with bands

A traditional yule log with bands

Christmas' Pagan Roots

The pagan yule log is one of many ancient pagan practices that modern Christianity has taken and altered to be part of the holiday now known as Christmas. Using evergreens, holly, mistletoe, and ivy to decorate was all part of the Yule celebration for more than a thousand years before Christianity. The “kiss under the mistletoe” is Druidic in origin; it symbolizes divine peace and love.

The tradition of gift exchange came from Saturnalia, as did a big feast on the holiday. Gifts of fruit and other tokens evolved into the overwhelming commercialism that is now part of modern-day Christmas. Many other items and practices associated with Christmas have also been shown to have pagan roots, including the timing of the holiday.

The Christian association with that day and the birth of their savior Jesus Christ is vague since no one actually knows the date of his birth. The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th is 336 AD, documented by the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine. Within a few years, the Pope made December 25th the official day.

It’s believed that in order to convert pagans to Christianity, the church incorporated many traditions of pagan festivals. Since the winter solstice was already a time of celebrating, it was easier for people to make the connection and hence solidify the timing in history.

Saturnalia celebration

Saturnalia celebration


Kitty Fields from Summerland on January 26, 2017:

Hi Ralph, as a pagan witch and fan of history, I always enjoy reading about the origins/roots of modern holidays. I too have written about these associations. I always found it funny that no one looks into the origins of our modern day a child I was always curious and have never stopped being curious as an adult. And I am thankful for that curiosity because it's led me to a path of spirituality that I believe many people miss out on. Anyway, I loved this article! I wonder too, did the people sing to the trees while wassailing? Because scientifically, plants react positively to music...just a thought. I think our ancestors were much smarter than we give them credit for these days. Blessings to you.

Ralph Schwartz (author) from Idaho Falls, Idaho on December 19, 2016:

If you remove all of the elements of the entire list of Christian holiday's that are rooted in pagan or pre-Christianity, there won't be much left. I agree that it is a challenge to communicate with Christians on the subject; it's almost like bursting their bubble in some ways. I'm sure plenty of people who are anti-religion would enjoy antagonizing those who follow Christianity, but in my opinion, it's totally unnecessary. Modern America and the commercialization of most holiday's have already stripped most of the religious connections away from Christmas, Easter, and other church-sponsored celebrations. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic as they are very relevant to the discussion seeing that you are a follower.

Readmikenow on December 19, 2016:

Everything you wrote is the absolute truth. I'm a Christian and I know it. My frustration is when this is explained to other Christians who are shocked. Even the Christmas tree is part of a pagan celebration. It doesn't change my views on Christmas. It puts the history of its celebration in perspective. I think all Christians need to know this and accept. Many of our celebrations have Pagan roots. Even Easter. Good work. Enjoyed reading it.

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