The Festival of Yule

As part of their Christmas celebrations, many people will probably be tucking into a delicious chocolate cake called a “Yule Log”, or they might even recognise the name “Yuletide” for this time of year, which features in the odd Christmas song.  But what does that strange little word mean?  What was, or is, Yule?

In actual fact, it is an ancient Germanic pagan festival that was traditionally celebrated throughout Northern Europe and was brought to Britain by settlers from those lands.  The full period of Yule lasted for almost two months through December and January, centred on Midwinter’s Day (21st December in the modern calendar – when the days are at their shortest before they start to get longer again), which was followed by the main 12-day festival.

As Christianity started to spread through Western Europe, one of the ways that conversion and assimilation to the new religion were encouraged was to hold the new Christian festivals at times when people were accustomed to holding major feasts and celebrations.  In the case of Yule and the Midwinter celebrations, the new Christian festival was Christmas and the 12-day Yule celebrations gradually became the 12 Days of Christmas familiar to us even today, with Christmas itself at the beginning and Epiphany (6th January) at the end (Easter, All Saints’ Day and many more were deliberately timed to coincide with earlier festivals too).

Because of its associations with the nights starting to get shorter at midwinter, Yule was a festival linked to the cycle of the year and people’s belief in the rebirth of the sun and was one of the main pagan fertility festivals.  It is also a fire festival, with celebrations centring on people gathering around a fire.  However, while the midsummer festival was all about public and community celebrations, Yule was a quieter, more reflective time when families and loved ones would gather at home around the fire.  At the centrepiece of the ancient festival was the “Yule Log”.  This was a large oak log which was brought into the house with great ceremony and lit at dusk, using a small piece of wood from the previous year’s Yule Log.  According to tradition, the log would remain alight throughout the festive period (it was considered unlucky for it go out), and was generally burned away completely apart from the small piece saved for next year.  Ashes from the Yule Log were used to make charms to bring luck, or scattered over the fields to bring fertility.

While most of us don’t burn a big oak log at Christmas, the name has persisted in one of the things we eat.  But that’s not the only link between Yule and our Christmas traditions – in fact some of the things most associated with Christmas festivities can be traced back to the ancient celebrations.  Some of us might be lucky enough to get to kiss the one we love under a sprig of mistletoe at a party or at home in the coming days, but bringing mistletoe inside at this time of year was originally a Yule tradition.  It was a sacred plant in many forms of pagan religion, especially if it had been growing on oak trees.  Midwinter was traditionally when the high priest would cut the first mistletoe, after which people would take some of the plant into their homes for decoration during the festival and because it was thought to protect the house against lightning and fire.

Light was an important element of the festival and people would try to make sure their homes and buildings in their community were as well-lit as possible to mark the time of year – just like we do by putting lights on a tree, on our houses or even on ourselves.  When you sit down on Christmas Day for dinner, you might have a lovely decoration in the centre of the table, with flowers, holly and other plants surrounding a candle that will be lit during the meal.  If you have one of these, you are also following a Yule tradition.  The Yule Candle was surrounded by evergreen plants including holly and was lit on the first evening of the festival to light the festive meal, then  burned throughout the night and all the following day.  It was then put out and relit on each of the 12 days of celebration.  Like the Yule Log, it was considered unlucky for it to go out unless extinguished deliberately.  The candle was thought to bring light and good fortune to a household for the coming year.  Burning a candle through the 12 days of Christmas was a tradition that persisted long after pagan beliefs had been largely replaced by Christianity – in fact it was common until around 150 years ago.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing a knock at the door and opening it to be greeted by people regaling us with well-known carols.  But although most of the songs they sing tell the Christian Christmas story, they are actually continuing the ancient tradition of Wassail.  The word was a common Yuletide greeting meaning something like “Good health”.  It was used as a toast while passing the “Wassail bowl” around a gathering for everyone to drink from, and when meeting friends and strangers.  People would go from house to house singing traditional festive songs and bringing their good wishes to others in the community.

It’s actually quite amazing how many of the much older Yuletide traditions gradually became incorporated into Christmas over the years.  Although the name of the festival and what people were marking and thinking about at that time of year certainly changed, many of the things they did remained the same, and some of them are still around today.  When we gather with loved ones in the coming days, we should remember that we are doing what our ancestors have been doing in late December for many centuries, and we are sharing not only a modern Christmas and all that goes with it, but also some ancient winter traditions.

Thanks once again to my amazing husband, Blue badge Guide, Ian Braisby for writing this for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox    Summer Solstice

Krampusnacht

Krampus is a horned, demon-type creature, sometimes depicted as half man half goat. His name means “claw” and he’s possibly based on mythological creatures such as the satyrs.

Mostly known in Austria and Bavaria, he said to visit on 5th December, the day before St Nicholas. He carries a chain or a birch stick to wave around, and his job is to remind the naughty children to be good.

According to some stories he leaves lumps of coal for the children who haven’t been well behaved but in others he goes as far as carrying them off to eat!

St Lucia

St Lucia’s Day is celebrated in Sweden on the 13th of December. The name Lucy means light, and as the 13th of December used to be the Winter Solstice St Lucia’s day is now also celebrated as a festival of light.

St Lucy was a young girl who was martyred. Legend says that she used to carry food to Christians who are hiding in the catacombs under the city. She wore a crown of candles on her head to light the way so that she could keep her hands free to carry more food.

The story says that she had promised herself to Christ but her mother had betrothed her to another man. When she refused to marry the man her mother had chosen, in a rage he told the emperor that she was a Christian and that she should be killed. The emperor tried to have her dragged away but God gave her the strength to stand her ground, and even a herd of oxen could not move her. The emperor then ordered her to be burnt where she stood but the wood would not light. Furious, the emperor ordered her to be blinded, and then she was killed with a sword. She is now the patron saint of the blind.

In Sweden, St Lucia’s day is celebrated by choosing a young girl to be St Lucia. She dresses up in a white dress with a red sash and wears a crown of candles on her head – these days the candles tend to be battery-operated for safety! She joins in a procession through the streets, and hands out special cakes called St Lucia buns.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph is the most famous of Santa’s reindeer and the one who leads his sleigh. The other eight reindeer are: Dancer and Prancer, Donner and Blitzen, Comet and Cupid, Dasher and Vixen.

According to the story, Rudolph used to get bullied because of his bright red nose, until one day Santa found him and decided that his nose would be perfect way to light the way when he was delivering presents on Christmas Eve.

If you look up into the sky on Christmas Eve now you just might be lucky enough to see Rudolph flying overhead…..but make sure that as soon as you do see him you snuggle down in bed and go to sleep, because everybody knows that Santa and his reindeer won’t land on your roof and bring your presents inside until everybody in the house is fast asleep.

Who was Good King Wenceslaus?

This is another guest post from my fabulous husband, Ian. Ian is a German to English translator and a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Good King Wenceslaus – The Story Behind the Carol.

We all know the popular Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”.  It’s a lively, jaunty tune with words that, although not about the biblical Christmas story, are about the spirit of generosity and friendship that the season is supposed to be all about.

But did you know there is a real story behind the song?  Or that Good King Wenceslas was a real person?

The real “Good King Wenceslas” is generally thought to have been Wenceslaus I (or Vaclav I in Czech), Duke of Bohemia, and reigned from 921 to 935 AD.  He was called a king in the legend (and the modern carol) because the Holy Roman Emperor gave him a royal title after his death in recognition of his good works.

As the title of the song suggests, he was certainly known as a good ruler, and a good man.  From early in his life, he was known as a humble, intelligent and educated young man and also as a devout Christian.  Despite ruling at a very turbulent time in Central European history, with numerous wars and alliances between the many fragmented states in the region, Wenceslaus acquired a reputation as a peaceful and benevolent ruler.  He was keen to establish Christianity in his lands, and built a new church dedicated to St Vitus in his capital, Prague.  This church became St Vitus Cathedral, which remains one of the biggest visitor attractions in the Czech Capital’s castle district to this day, and houses the remains of Wenceslaus at the good king’s shrine.

Despite his reputation, Wenceslaus alienated other members of the Bohemian ruling classes through his political alliances, including members of his own family.  A plot was hatched to remove him from power, with his brother Boleslav and other nobles at the centre of it, and in 935 AD Wenceslaus was murdered on his way to church.  Boleslav then succeeded him as Duke of Bohemia.

After his death, Wenceslaus soon started to become venerated as a saint and martyr.  Several biographies of him were produced, all of them emphasising his benevolent nature and his murder by a power-hungry court faction led by his own brother.  Stories of his good works were exaggerated to become legends.  And that is where the story immortalised in the carol comes in.

Later Christian chroniclers wrote of how Wenceslaus would rise every night from his bed and, accompanied by only one of his retainers, would walk barefoot – regardless of weather conditions, and I know from experience it can be brutally cold in Prague in the autumn and winter – to local churches, where he would give money, food, clothing and other kinds of assistance to widows, the poor, prisoners and others of his subjects in need.  These legends were the basis for him becoming a saint.  The cult of Wenceslaus was, naturally, especially prevalent in his native Bohemia, but he was also a popular saint in England.

The modern carol was written by John Mason Neale in 1853.  His lyrics are said to be based on a Czech poem about the good deeds of Wenceslaus.  The familiar tune is based on a medieval spring hymn, which had totally different words.  The reference to the “feast of Stephen” (St Stephen’s Day, 26th December) has no real link to the life or legend of Wenceslaus, with the saint’s day falling on September 28th, although of course there are parallels between the Duke’s charitable actions and the generosity associated with Christmas.  My suspicion is that the author used that reference to make his song one that could be sung at Christmas time!  Neale’s work has been heavily criticised for its sentimentality and Victorian moralising, but the carol remains hugely popular to this day.

Giving alms to poor people is just one of the legends associated with Wenceslaus in the Czech Republic, where his former Dukedom of Bohemia is now located.  In actual fact he is a kind of King Arthur figure for the Czech people, a medieval monarch with mythical status.  Legend maintains that an army of knights lies sleeping under a mountain in the country and, when the Czech people are in greatest need, they will rise up led by Wenceslaus and ride to save the nation.

Whether or not Wenceslaus was as generous and selfless as the legends and the carol suggest, there is no doubt that he is a key figure in Czech history.  If you ever go to Prague, you can find plenty of evidence of him.  A statue of him on horseback stands on the square that bears his name, one of the main squares in the centre of the modern Czech capital.  His armour and helmet are on display in Prague Castle, and his shrine can be visited in St Vitus Cathedral.  Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has its national public holiday on St Wenceslaus Day, September 28th.

So next time you are at a carol service and hear the famous melody, and join in with John Mason Neale’s words, remember that the man you’re singing about was a real person whose life and works have been celebrated for over a thousand years.

Related posts:  Who was St Nicholas?  Who was Babushka?  Who was La Befana?