Yule, Paganism, and the Winter Solstice: How Ancient Celebrations Defined Modern-Day 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 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 the definitive one. 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.
As with many other pagan festivals, 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, there are many variants on the details and celebratory techniques 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 as 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 one harvested from the home owners 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 which no money changed hands, it was acceptable. 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, 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 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.
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 were all part of the Yule celebration for more than a thousand years before Christianity. The “kiss under the mistletoe,” is Druidic in origin; it symbolized 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 Christian, 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.