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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 globe.
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 England's Stonehenge.
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 our tale.
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 (Christmastide).
A heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity and from unknown origin.
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 a festival.
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 of Etymology,
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" concept.
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 failed.
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 figurines (sigillaria).
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 the year.
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 influence.
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 influence.
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 of Christmas".
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 once more.
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 months.
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.

    The festivals are observed from sunset to sunset -

  • Dec. 20 to Dec. 23. During the 1st 3 days -
    The virgin Maiden Goddess is honored as your guide for moving forward into the new year, to set you on the right and positive path.
  • Dec. 23 to Dec. 26. The 2nd set of 3 days -
    The Mother Goddess is honored for fertility and all your coming endeavors.
  • Dec. 26 to Dec 29. The 3rd set of 3 days -
    These 3 days are set aside for the rebirth of the God, and honoring his guidance through the physical world.
  • Dec. 29 to Jan. 1. -
    The last 3 days are set aside for the Old Crone Goddess who is honored for wisdom and as your teacher into the cosmic lessons of life and spirit. In modern times, under the solar calendar, she might also be honored as the waning year giving way to the new year.
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 cold.
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 Old King.
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 of power".
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 born.
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 traditionsš:
  • 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 Solstice.
  • 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 American towns.
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, c4, c7, c13, c20, c21
Created: 12/07/2009         Updated: 12/07/2009

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