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.