December 21 – Yule

Posted on December 21, 2014

Yule, or Yuletide, is a pagan religious festival that celebrates midwinter. It was celebrated by Germanic peoples way back in the Fourth Century and before.

Yuletide was more of a season than a day, but the festival lasts 12 days. Since today is Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) in the Northern Hemisphere, the biggest celebrations happen today!

We're talking burning a Yule log, Yule singing, roasting and eating a Yule boar, making Yule goat ornaments out of strawand more!

Who are the Germanic peoples?

I mentioned that Yule was a festival celebrated by Germanic peoples. This name comes from the time of the Roman Empire, when a group of people called the Celtic Gauls lived in what is now France. North and east and northeast of the Gauls lived people who were then considered less civilized and more physical (bigger, stronger, tougher): the Germanic tribes.

Nowadays, we typically think of Germanic peoples as those who speak German or languages that are related to German: Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Icelanders, Germans, Austrians, German Swiss, English, Dutch, Afrikaners, Flemish, Frisians, and Scots.

What is this pagan religion you speak of?

First off, let's get one thing straight: there is no one pagan religion!

The Latin word that pagan came from meant, roughly, “country bumpkin.” It had nothing to do with religion—but instead it hinted that someone lived far from the city, that someone wasn't very educated, that someone was a bit backwards, at least as far as culture went.
The Spirit of Yule, aka
The Green Man, aka
The Holly King

However, when Romans used the word to refer to unlearned folks, some later readers misunderstood it to identify the religion practiced by those unlearned folks. There was so much misunderstanding and then misuse of the word, that the word pagan eventually evolved to have a religious meaning. It now refers to a broad group of indigenous (native) religious traditions and beliefs, most of them polytheistic (having multiple gods and goddess).

For many people, the word pagan has a bad connotation. These days, it doesn't make people think, “Oh, wow, what an unsophisticated yokel!” But most people think of pagan religions as not nearly as respectable as the largest religions in the world (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism); some people even think of them as some sort of devil-worshipping cults (although they would be wrong!).

The particular pagan religion connected with Yule is the old Norse faith. Scholars say that the festival is associated with the Wild Hunt (a group of ghostlike hunters who presumably parade across the sky), the god Odin (who is the Norse Allfather, father of all the rest of the gods and goddesses), and the holiday Modraniht (Mother's Night, which celebrates women and fertility).

In the U.S., the Yule goat never caught on.
But in some places in the world, the goat
that used to be part of the pagan Yule is
now a part of Christmas. Witness this
decorative window (above) and ornament
Hey, wait, isn't Yuletide a Christmas thing?

When most of the people in a particular Germanic area converted to Christianity, they kept up their old Yule traditions, but tweaked them a bit here and there to fit into their new religion. To this day, many people talk about Yule, Yuletide, and Yule logs being associated with Christmas—and these things HAVE been associated with Christmas for hundreds of years! But they were originally part of the folk religions that existed in Northern Europe well before Christianity made inroads into the region.

For more Winter Solstice celebrations, including Yalda, check out this earlier post:

Winter Solstice, aka Yalda 

Also on this date:

Look on the Bright Side Day 

Plan ahead:

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