- History of Yule
- The Winter Solstice
- By Lady SpringWolf
- The Winter Solstice
- Every year the Sun traces out a circular path in a west-to-east
direction relative to the stars (this is in addition to the apparent
daily east-to-west rotation of the celestial sphere around the
Earth). The two points at which the ecliptic and the equatorial
plane intersect, known as the vernal and autumnal equinoxes,
and the two points of the ecliptic farthest north and south from
the equatorial plane, known as the summer and winter solstices,
divide the ecliptic into four equal parts. These cycles were
familiar to Greek astronomers, but it wasn't until Hipparchus
that a method of using the observed dates of two equinoxes and
a solstice to calculate the size and direction of the displacement
of the Sun’s orbit was established. Hipparchus (190BC –
120BC) was a Greek Astronomer and Mathematician. His writings
on this subject tell us that the Solstice was a known event not
just in his time, but before his time as well.
- The winter solstice
occurs on December 21 and marks the beginning of winter (this
is the shortest day of the year). The Winter Solstice has been
recognized and celebrated for eons by ancient people around the
- The Newgrange burial mound in Ireland's County Meath is surrounded
by megalithic stones set in what archeologists believe to be
astronomical position to the Winter Solstice. The Stone Age monument
dates to around 3200 B.C., making it 500 years older than the
Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and a thousand years older than
- Stonehenge itself has long been associated with the solstice
and equinox cycles. Once again, there is evidence of ancient
people recognizing these times of the year not just from an astronomical
perspective, but in terms of spiritual reverence as well.
- No one is really sure when the first festival or ritual celebration
for this time of the year occurred. But we do know that it has
long been recognized and honored in some of the worlds most reverent
monuments. It would be silly to think that a point in time so
important to ancient people would not have been celebrated or
honored until the 7th century AD. But we're jumping ahead in
- Etymology of Yule
- You can tell a lot about a word by reviewing it's origins
and usage at the time it was created and established in language
and literature. So we should start the discussion with the history
of the word "Yule".
- Etymology Online describes Yule as:
- Old English, coming from geol (Christmas Day) or geola
- A heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity and from
- The O.E. (Anglian) cognate giuli was the Anglo-Saxons'
name for a two-month midwinter season corresponding to Roman
December and January, a time of important feasts but not itself
- Wikipedea describes the etymology as:
- The modern English word Yule likely derives from the word
yoole, from 1450, which developed from the Old English
term geo-l and geo-la before 899. The term has been linked to
and may originate from the Old Norse Jo. The etymology of the
name of the feast of Yule (Old Norse jól, Anglo-Saxon
geohol and gehol) and the winter month (Anglo-Saxon giuli, geóla,
Gothic fruma jiuleis, Old Norse ýlir) has not yet been
completely explained, but the term may have originally meant
something similar to "magic" or "feast of entreaty".
This word is also the root of the English word "jolly."
- But the more significant perspective that seems to hold a
stronger connection to the historical evolution of Yule comes
from Old Norse. According to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary
- Yule is derived into modern English from Jól deriving
from Old Norse hjól, wheel, referring to the moment
when the wheel of the year is at its low point, ready to rise
again (compare to the Slavic karachun).
- Connecting the word to earlier language tells us where the
words came from, but not where the holidays began. We can find
some clues, such as the connection between Yule to hjól
in it's use as the wheel of life. The wheel or cycle of life
was something the early Norse pagans were very big on. So at
the very least we can the concept of Yule is much older than
the word itself.
- Early Influences Of Yule
- For the moment let's put aside the archeological evidence
of burial mounts, and 'henge' structures that were built in correspondence
to solstice astronomical observances.
- The Romans:
- Most scholars suggest that the first influence of this winter
festival began with Saturnalia in Rome. Saturnalia is the feast
with which the Romans commemorated the dedication of the temple
of the god Saturn. Saturn was a major Roman God and designated
as the God of agriculture and harvest. Another link to the "wheel"
- In early astrology, Saturn represents our limitations, our
restrictions,yet it is also our inner mentor and teacher. His
lessons are manifested only over time, after which we go through
inner rebirth and enjoy spiritual growth. Some suggest this is
the connection between the idea of the "rebirth" of
the God during the winter festival.
- Saturnalia was introduced around 217 BC and was originally
celebrated for a day, on December 17, it's popularity grew and
so did it's length of celebration from one day to a full week
ending on December 23rd. Caesar Augustus tried to shorten the
holiday to 3 days, and Caligula to five days, but both efforts
- Seneca the Younger wrote about Rome during Saturnalia around
AD 50 (Sen. epist. 18,1-2):
- It is now the month of December, when the greatest part
of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation;
everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if
there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn
and those for transacting business....Were you here, I would
willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether
we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both
take a better supper and throw off the toga.
- Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84 BC – ca. 54 BC) was
a Roman poet of the 1st century BC. He describes Saturnalia as:
- ..the best of
days (Cat. 14.15). It was a time of celebration, visits to friends,
and gift-giving, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware
- Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed
Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition,
members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of
Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It
was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock.
For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of
- In 354 AD, A Roman scholar wrote:
- "It was customary for pagans to celebrate the birth
of the sun...when the doctors of the Church perceived that the
Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel
and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that
day [December 25th]."
- These two early Roman holidays were certainly celebrated
by the soldiers of Ceaser as they traveled the world to conquer
other lands. And it could be from these early origins that the
first influences on pagan Europe began. But they're not the only
- The Norse:
- The pagan Celtic lands also saw invasions of the Norse. Some
would say the Norse had much more influence over early Celtic
pagans than the Romans did. Or at the very least a longer lasting
- Norse literature has many references to Yule or a Winter
Solstice celebration. Ynglinga saga, the first book of Heimskringla,
first mentions a Yule feast in 840.The Norse Prose Edda book
Skáldskaparmál, mentions Yule
- "Again we have produced Yule-being's feast [mead of
poetry], our rulers' eulogy, like a bridge of masonry."
- In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21,
the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return
of the sun. It is this influence that we can see most in European
Paganism. The Wheel of the Year divided into 4 parts was not
that far of a leap for early European Pagans. They were already
familiar with honoring the solstice periods as evidenced in The
Stone Age Newgrange tomb and Stonehenge.
- They recognized the Suns return and knew it meant fields
would once again be ready for tilling and planting. Warmth would
return to the world and darkness would fade. To the rural folk
who worked hard during the year, the end of a lean winter was
something to celebrate and the God of the Sun was something to
be honored. It bothers me that such significance it put on Germanic
celebrations from the 7th Century AD, when so much historical
evidence points to a much older acknowledgement and reverent
connection to the Wheel of The Year in early pagan Europe and
Norse history and mythology.
- Yule Today
- For all it's inputs and influences, Yule
is still an important time of the year to pagans around the world.
In the most direct terms it is still a festival that honors the
cycle of nature and the Wheel of the Year. It is not just about
the rebirth of the God figure in pagan lore.
- Yule is a 12 day holiday, it begins on "Mothers Night"
(December 21st) and ends 12 days later on "Yule Night"
(January 1st). It's the origin for the Christian "12 Days
- For Celtic pagans, Yule is the time when the Sun God Lugh
is reborn in human form to rejoin his beloved wife Eriu. She
is described as a hag, who transformed into a beautiful Goddess
by the marriage and personifies the land of Ireland in her every
feature and character. She becomes known in legend as the "Sovereignty
of Ireland". Yule is also the celebration of the cycle of
life through Eriu and all her incarnations as the Maiden, Mother
and Crone Goddess.
- In these legends, Lugh takes his bride in the form of the
Maiden Goddess, to look out upon their land and in seeing the
suffering of their people they grow worried and concerned. The
summer High Holy Day Lughnasadh
is celebrated by many traditions as the moment when Lugh, as
the Sacred King, sacrifices
his own life to save his suffering people. In doing so his blood
is spread across the fields to ensure the fertility of the fields
and a bountiful harvest of crop and herd.
- As the harvests are brought in, and winters covers the land,
the Great Mother (the Mother Goddess) resurrects Lugh from the
ground, rising him up into the dark sky and returns him (as the
Sun) to the universe. The effort to raise Lugh into the sky causes
Eriu to grow old as she shared her knowledge with the God to
teach him all he needed to know to govern over his people once
more. Bestowing her Old Crone wisdom upon Lugh brings the cycle
back to the beginning of the legend.
- To the Welsh pagans, Yule is seen as the time when the young
Oak King and the Old Holly King battle for supremacy just as
they do at the Midsummer festival.
At the Midsummer festival the Holly King battles the Oak King
and wins their campaign. The Holly King reigns until the start
of Winter (the beginning of Yule) when the Oak King is reborn
and prepares to battle the Holly King for rule over the land
- Both of these celebrations show how the Ancient pagans had
a strong tie with honoring the solstices through out the year.
The winter solstice bringing about the return of the sun and
longer days and a celebration of the survival of cold winter
- Over the evolution of paganism, these legends have developed
into various rituals and observations. One of the more detailed
or organized observations is closely related to the Celtic legend
of Lugh, Eriu and the 12 Days of Yule.
- Yule Symbology
- There is much to the symbology of Yule. Revolving around
harvest and livestock, this was a time of honoring the sun and
thankfulness for the bounty that is sustaining the family through
- The first direct reference to the Yule log can be found around
the 17th century. The Old Norse 'jol' seems to have been borrowed
in Old French as 'olif', which gave way to the Modern French
'joli'; "pretty, nice," originally "festive".
In Scandanavia, Old Norse pagan fathers and sons would bring
home large logs, which they would set on fire in the center of
their village. The people would feast until the log burned out,
which could take as many as 12 days. Some suggest this is the
significance or origination of the 12 Days of Yule.
- The colors of Yule,
red, white and green come from the Holly Tree and honoring the
- Wassailing is or to "wassail," is a word derived
from the Old Norse 'ves heil'. In Old English 'hál'
meaning "be in good health" or "be fortunate."
"Wassail" first appears in English literature as a
salute as early as the eighth-century in the poem Beowulf. It
is used in references such as "warriors' wassail and words
- Wassail also denoted the drink used for a toast. Rowena's
spiced wine resembled the ancient Roman hypocras, which survived
into the early Middle Ages as a libation for the wealthy. When
fine ales replaced the wine, more people could afford it and
recipes varied according to the means of each family. Though
usually prepared for immediate consumption, wassail sometimes
was bottled and allowed to ferment. By about the 1600s, the practice
of taking a wassail bowl about the streets had taken root. Instead
of consuming the punch-like concoction at home, wassailers went
house to house offering a warm drink and going Wassailing was
- In Europe, Pagans did not cut down evergreen trees, bring
them into their homes and decorate them. That would have been
far too destructive of nature. Instead, they would cut boughs
of evergreen trees, mistletoe and holly branches and bring them
into their home or temple. These cuttings would be decorated
and displayed as symbols of the season. They were also thought
to hold great magik as they remained green through the winter
months while other plants and trees turned brown and "died".
- Other pagans had similar traditions¹:
- Not having evergreen trees, the ancient Egyptians considered
the palm tree to symbolize resurrection. They decorated their
homes with its branches during the winter solstice.
- "The first decorating of an evergreen tree began with
the heathen Greeks and their worship of their god Adonia, who
allegedly was brought back to life by the serpent Aessulapius
after having been slain."
- The ancient Pagan Romans decorated their "trees with
bits of metal and replicas of their god, Bacchus [a fertility
god]. They also placed 12 candles on the tree in honor of their
sun god". Their mid-winter festival of Saturnalia started
on December 17th and often lasted until a few days after the
- In Northern Europe, the ancient Germanic people tied fruit
and attached candles to evergreen tree branches, in honor of
their god Woden. Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life.
This is the deity after which Wednesday was named. The trees
joined holly, mistletoe, the wassail bowl and the Yule log as
symbols of the season. All predated Christianity.
- The Christmas Tree
- The Christmas tree tradition for Christians does not come
from Pagans as many believe. It comes from the 16th century and
western Germany. In Christian Germany these trees were called
"Paradeisbaum" (paradise trees) and were brought into
homes to celebrate the annual Feast of Adam and Eve on December
24. They were first brought to America by German immigrants around
the 1700s. It took nearly 100 years for the Christmas tree to
became popular among the general population. In 1850s the first
signs of Christmas tree sales and lots began to appear around
- In the mid-1850s President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) established
the first Christmas tree at the White House. President Calvin
Coolidge (1885-1933) started the National Christmas Tree Lighting
Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.
- Source: 1, c1,
- Created: 12/07/2009 Updated:
- Additional Reading: