Yule falls approximately on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. After Yule the period of daylight begins to wax, until it reaches the longest day on June 21, the Summer Solstice. For folks in Northern climes, the Winter Solstice was a most welcome day to anticipate at the dark end of the year, and although months of darkness lay ahead, folk could rest assured Sunna’s might was on the increase and darkness was waning. Yule is actually a span of thirteen days, usually counted from the night before the solstice (19 or 20 December, as it varies from year to year ), to the thirteenth night, (usually January 6 called “Twelfth Night” later by Christians). Bede called Yule eve “Mother Night”, and it is thought this night was devoted to honouring the Idises (or Disir, female ancestral spirits) the family protectors. The Solstice itself, either 20, 21 or 22 December, is the most important of the days, when the dead and other beings of the dark fare most freely, Winter arrives, and humans are closest to the spirit worlds.
Jölföðr (Yule-father) and Jölnir (Yule) are names of Odin. Some think Odin was the original “Alf” or gift-giving “Elf” ( Julesvenn in Denmark, Jultomten in Sweden, and Julenissen in Norway). Before Santa Claus was popularised in the Victorian era as a fat jolly Elf, he was seen as tall and lean, wearing a dark cloak, not a red and white tunic. Earlier legends describe “Santa” as riding a white horse, not driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer. This reminds us of Odin’s steed Sleipner. The elder “Yule Elf” was a bit stern also, and could be quite a terrifying figure, especially to rude or ill-willed folk. This forbidding Yule Father probably arose from ancient legends of the Odensjakt or Wild Host who during Yule tide ride the stormy Winter skies, led by Odin as Oskoreidi. Sometimes people would be taken to join the Wild Host in tumultuous flight. In the Christian era folklore advised people to stay inside at night to avoid the furious Host, which was much feared. There are many accounts, especially from Germany, of wayfaring folks being picked up and transported from one place to the other by the throng of the dead, only to be left there lifeless. Other legends tell of those who could lie as dead (presumably in a trance state) while their souls fared aloft with the Wild Host. However, it is quite possible that fearful reputation of the Wild Host was especially encouraged by Christians, who claimed the Wild Huntsman was their devil. From a Heathen perspective it is likely that originally the Wild Host was made up of ecstatic human devotees of the God Wodan. He is the God of ecstasy, but also of death, so the dead probably always made up part of the Wild Host, which rode with great clamor upon skeletal horses and accompanied by ghostly hounds.
In contrast to the solely horrific nature of the Hunt as seen by Christians, there is a great deal of evidence that Heathens believed fertility and blessings were brought by the Wild Host . Oski, “Fulfiller of Desire,” or “Granter of Wishes,” is an aspect of Odin that could well be associated with the Yule Elf, for Oskoreidi, Leader of the Wild Host, was known to give gold or other boons to those who were courteous or clever. The greatest boon believed wrought by the Furious Host was that as they rode above the fields they ensured fertility and fruitful harvests. An interesting related custom survived in Germany of leaving the last sheaf of grain cut in the field for the Huntsman’s horse, eight-legged Sleipner, Odin’s magical steed. This fertility aspect of the Wild Hunt could be connected in some way with the return of the dead to their earthly homes at Yule, for it was thought they brought blessings with them and bestowed them upon their kin. These ‘evolved’ dead were considered to be Alfar (male Elves) or Disir (powerful female ancestral spirits), a higher soul state some benevolent humans were believed to achieve upon death. These holy Ancestors became guardian spirits of their kin’s land, much involved with the continued fertility of the land and its inhabitants. Folk would honour the ancestors by bringing gifts of food and drink to the family howe (burial mound). There also survives the custom of sitting out on a mound in order to get the highly valued advice of the Ancestor within. Indeed the kindred Dead were considered to still be an integral part of the family by Heathens, and were treated as such. The ghostly Wild Hunt is another manifestation of the pervasive Heathen beliefs of the eternal connection of the living with the dead, and the fertility bestowing powers of the Ancestors.
In Scandinavia it is the God Thor who is thought to be the origin of the Yule Elf.
The Julbock or Julbukk, the Yule Goat, who to this day plays a big part in Norse Yule festivities, is thought to derive from Thor’s magical goats Tannginost and Tanngrisnir who draw His chariot through the sky. There are many legends that tell of Thor’s benevolent protectiveness of human kind, and of his jolly, fun-loving nature (at least when He is not in a Troll-slaying mood). This seems more in line with modern conceptions of jolly Saint Nick than grim Oden the Wild Huntsman. The Yule goats carry the Yule Elf as he visits the folk, bestows gifts, and gets his traditional offering of porridge. Modern Yule decorations of straw formed into goats, straw-goat ornamented wreaths, and a (mock) Yule goat head bourne about on a stick are all memories of Thor’s animals. When the Yule log burns on the hearth, some scholars say, it is an offering on Thor’s altar. Thus we have the legend of Santa “coming down the chimney”.
In Germany Frau Holda, Perchta, or Oskoreidi, and in Scandinavia and England The Wild Huntsman, come at Yule, leading hosts of the dead. The Perchtenlauf and other ritual perambulations are folk memories of earlier pagan processions at Yuletide. Either beautiful or monstrous, the masked Perchten, like the season itself, can be boonful or terrifying, and have their origins in very ancient Heathen beliefs. Winter Solstice is the time when the veils between the worlds are thin, and the dead may most easily manifest to the living. But it is not usually the human dead who were considered the most fearsome wights. At Yuletide spirits of all kinds are abroad; similar beliefs are held by Celtic Pagans of Samhain (Halloween). In Norse lands Trolls of many types are roaming; draugr (rare and evil human ghosts of enormous strength) accost mortals, and the Alfar (Elves) — both malicious and benevolent — may drop by the homes of men. Many Yule customs that survive to this day have their origins in practices either meant to ward the home from evil wandering spirits at Yule, or conversely, to welcome good spirits into the home and show them thanks for the blessings they bestow. House wights (tutelary spirits of the home) and the respected dead of the family were welcomed gladly to the Yule feast. Food would be left out on the table for them after all had gone to bed. At Yuletide hosts of dead could be seen (by those so gifted) feasting with great revelry in their mounds, and paying each other friendly visits in each other’s howes. Clearly Yule has a dual nature: it is the time of Death and darkness, when trolls, ghosts and alfs fare about, but it is also the time of return of the waxing Sun and celebration of Her promise of Life and light renewed.
The central celebration and rite of Yule is the holy feast. It is thought very important to spare nothing in providing for the guests–both living and dead, human and wight. All good wights shared in the Yule feast; dogs and cats ate the same food as humans, and were brought into the house. Offerings of cream, beer, and bread were left out for the house-wights. If the feast were being held by a chieftain (or a wealthy community leader), many people would be invited and it would last many days, with presents being given to the guests upon their departure. For less wealthy folk, there would be as good a feast as could be provided, and of course the Yule ale would be shared in frith between family members and friends. Sumble (ritual toasts) would be drunk to the Ancestors at this time as well, for Yule was the season for the recognition of the continuance of human life. The Ancestors would naturally be most welcome at the family celebration. Savoury foods such as mutton or leg of lamb, goose, pork, and beef, special Yule breads, porridge, apples, sweets and nuts are traditional. But most important is the Yule ale, brewed stronger than other ales, and considered holy. Oaths were sworn on the bragarfull (holy cup). Sumbles held during the days of Yule, and especially on Mother’s Night, the Solstice, and Thirteenth Night are considered to be especially potent, being spoken in the presence of the Gods and wights at the most holy time of year. In Heathen times the sonargöltr (hallowed Yule boar) was led in and the holiest of oaths were sworn upon it, as is recorded in Helgakviða Hjorvarþssonar (The First Lay of Helgi Hjorvarthsson):
“In the evening (Yule-eve) vows were made: the sacrificial boar was led in, men laid their hands on him and swore dear oaths as they drank from the hallowed cup.”
Then it was taken and slaughtered (not in a state of fear, but quickly) for the Yule feast. It was believed the soul of the animal went straight to the Gods, while its flesh provided the holy feast. In later times or among those too poor to own pigs, a special boar-shaped bread would take the place of the Yule boar.
Drinking Wassail at Yule is an English custom from Heathen times. ‘Wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon Wes Hal, meaning “to your health”. The beverage is made from ale, wine, and/or cider with fruits and spices added. Traditionally it was used in part as an offering to apple trees in thanks and for their continued fruitfulness. Bits of toast were floated in the wassail bowl, then placed in the branches of the tree, and libations poured over the roots. This is the origin of our term “to toast” someone.
As well as fruit trees, evergreens have long been part of Winter Solstice celebrations. The evergreen tree, which keeps its leaves throughout the year, is an obvious symbol of the endurance of life through the cold and dark Winter months. Beer, bread, and table scraps were offered to trees in Scandinavia. In South Germany arose the custom of a branch or small tree brought inside and decorated with offerings to the spirit of the tree. This Yule tree was considered to represent the luck of the family (as the old Bairnstock did) as well as being honoured as a powerful wight in its own right, capable of bestowing fertility in the coming year. The cosmic tree, Yggdrasil is an evergreen yew in some traditions, and an ash (rowan = European mountain ash ) in others. Both trees have bright red berries; possibly this is one origin of decorating the modern Yule tree with berries. The cosmic tree (the Axis mundi) bears all nine worlds of the Norse cosmos in its branches and among its roots, so perhaps tree ornaments in part represent the nine worlds. Trees are sacred to Germanic and Celtic peoples, and there are many ancient traditions of offerings tied onto trees as gifts to them, this practice is the most probable origin for the custom of decorating Yule trees with gifts. In Heathen times offerings were made to the Alfar (wights who govern growth and fertility in nature) in gratitude for harvest yields. The evergreen boughs brought inside to “deck the halls” represent the ever-renewed life force and serve to welcome good Alfar into the house. Not surprisingly, these holy boughs also served to protect the home from evil wights. Yew, rowan, and holly boughs are traditional Heathen choices for hall-decking.
Another Yule tradition that survives from Heathen times is the burning of a Yule Log. This was a specially chosen tree that was to burn for at least twelve hours, but possibly it originally burned for all twelve days of Yule. In some legends the log was offered to Thor. Oak would be the most appropriate choice, but any hardwood considered holy from the locality is suitable. English lore holds that Yule logs should not be bought, they should be gotten from one’s own property, or a neighbour’s. The log of course must be massive, and must be handled with care and clean hands, out of respect. In some places a whole tree trunk was brought in, and one end was placed in hearth. Then it was gradually fed in as it burned, to be finally consumed on the final night. The tradition is that the presence of the remnants or ashes of the Yule log in the house would protect it all year from lightning and would bring good luck. The new Yule log should be started with some splinters of the previous year’s. Holly and other winter greenery is often used to decorate the Yule log. Today Heathens at need substitute a large candle (or series of candles) for it, and burn them starting on Mother’s Night, all through the thirteen nights of the holy tide. This is done to honour and aid Sunna through the darkest time of the year, to ward off ill wights of darkness that might be about at Yule, and to symbolise the lengthening of daylight after Solstice.
Although it falls during the darkest time of year, Yuletide is holy and a time of peace. Frith is held between everyone, and all are focused on celebration, family, feasting,honouring the Ancestors, making holy oaths, and peace.