Monday, December 7, 2015

Yule, History and Lore

Yule, History and Lore

Can you hear it? Yule is in the air, filling stores, homes, cars, and the world with beautiful music and twinkling lights. Growing up, Samhain was always my favorite holiday, but as I have gotten older, Yule has taken its place in the spotlight. Why? Because I love giving, and this is the time of year for giving. It is a great excuse to lavish gifts on not just my friends and family, but those less fortunate as well. It brings me great joy to help others. But where did all this gift giving, decorating trees, and Santa Claus come from?

Almost all religions have a holiday this time of year and almost all of them are celebrations of light. There are Christmas lights, menorahs, Kwanzaa candles, and Yule logs lighting up homes across the world. Yule is no exception with it's aforementioned Yule log. Yule takes place on the winter solstice which falls on or around December 21st each year. On this solstice, the earth tilts away from the sun in the Northern Hemisphere, putting the sun at its greatest distance of the year.

Celebrations date back millennia to the Norse, who viewed this time of year as a time for feasting and merriment; the Celts, who gathered mistletoe and sacrificed a white bull; and the Romans, who held Saturnalia by giving gifts, feasting, and allowing the slaves special liberties. All of these traditions were well established by the time Christianity began popping up across Europe. They had an incredibly hard time converting Pagans who wanted to continue celebrating their holidays. They began building churches on Pagan worship sites, converting Pagan symbols into Christian ones, and before you knew it, they had everyone celebrating Christmas on December 25th.

The idea of decorating a tree with ornaments and lights is actually quite an old tradition that predates Christianity. During Saturnalia, celebrants often decorated their homes with shrub clippings and hung ornaments in trees around their homes. The Egyptians decorated with palm fronds, their symbol of resurrection and rebirth, while early Germanic tribes (where the tradition of the Christmas tree very likely originates from) decorated evergreens with fruit and candles in honor of Odin. It is also the early Germanic tribes who provided us Pagans with the word Yule and the tradition of the Yule Log. Common ornament ideas include suns, stars, pentacles, acorns, feathers, dried oranges, cranberries, holly, pine cones, cinnamon sticks, antlers, eggs, horns, colored balls (red, green, gold, and white) and of course lights, lots of lights.

And Santa Claus? Well, he comes from a mix of traditions, both Christian and Pagan. He is primarily based on St. Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop from modern day Turkey. He was known for giving gifts to the poor and even paying the dowries for a man with three daughters to save them from prostitution. However, the idea of reindeer and hanging stockings by the fire comes from a Norse tradition. Odin was often shown riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, which later became reindeer. During the winter months, children would place boots near their chimney filled with food for Sleipnir, and Odin would leave gifts in return. The name Santa Claus, however, originates from the Dutch word Sinterklaas. Santa is based on dozens of traditions, which I will cover later (See Ms. Misantropia's comment below). However, for many Pagans, Yule is the celebration of the Holly King who reaches his peak only to be defeated by the Oak King the following spring.

Today we hang stockings by the fire, leave reindeer food on our lawns and decks, decorate evergreen trees, cover our houses in lights, and make sure we are good all year to encourage Santa to bring us gifts instead of coal.

I love this time of year, even if Christmas is the predominate holiday here in the States. I smile at every Merry Christmas and wish them the same right back. In the end, it doesn't matter if they hijacked our holiday. It doesn't matter if they wish me a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. All that matters is that we give to one another, especially those in need, and we spend the month of December with a smile on our face celebrating one of the most amazing astronomical events of the year. This is the time of year to come together, no matter what faith you come from and celebrate together.

To learn more, please read the Yule Correspondences post.


  1. This was a nice post, but you may not know that Santa Claus also comes from the same old Nordic tradition that gives us Krampus - the Yule goat = Julbocken.
    Back in the day, young men used to dress up in a goat och sheep skin, horns and a beard, visit village houses on Yule Eve, singing songs, playing pranks and bringing gifts. They were often rewarded with something in return, and we still leave out porridge for Santa :)

    1. Very true. I focused on two of the most common myths for simplicity. I mention the Holly King is also a myth that led to Santa in a post I am currently writing. There are dozens of myths and legends that ultimately led to our modern day Santa. Next year I will probably dedicate an entire post to him, but for this I was just covering some of the basics. So much to talk about and not enough time. Haha!

      Thank you for reading and I've made sure to direct people to your comment.


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