Humanity has long sought solace and celebration in the face of the darkest and coldest days of the year. Rooted in ancient traditions, the history of Yule and the Winter Solstice unveils a rich tapestry of cultural rituals, spiritual significance, and the enduring human quest to find light in the midst of darkness.
Dating back thousands of years, the Winter Solstice has been a pivotal moment in the annual cycle, marking the shortest day and longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. This celestial event has been celebrated across the globe by many cultures throughout history; from ancient Norse traditions to Roman Saturnalia, Celtic festivities to modern-day interpretations, the celebration of light during the darkest days serves as a universal thread. You can listen to our episode on the history of this pagan holiday here.
Yule is typically celebrated on the 21st of December, the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In the southern Hemisphere, you will be celebrating around June 20th- 23rd. This day is seen as the day the pendulum swings back, going forward every day will be lighter for a bit longer. It’s the perfect transition between the dark and light half of the year. Spiritually, Yule represents catharsis and new beginnings. The return of the sun, the return of light and the return of heat.
For those who celebrate the Wiccan Tradition, this is the time when the Holly King gives up his throne to the Oak King. It’s believed that at this time the Holly King and Oak King fight, and the Holly king gives up his throne so the Oak King can reign during the light half of the year.
The first mentions of Yule that we see are tied to the Germanic calendar dating back to the 4th century AD. Yule was a roughly two month period of time that fell between what is now November and January. The deepest parts of winter. There are also many early references to similar words, describing a similar time of year in early Norse texts. The Old Norse King’s Sagas are a collection of poems about Swedish and Norwegian Kings written by an Icelandic Poet around 1230. In the most notable of these texts we learn that King Haakan the 1st of Norway, who ruled between 934 and 961, is credited with bringing Christianity to the country and realigning Yule to coincide with Christian Celebrations. Because Norway was so rooted in its Pagan culture, the King actually allowed for Pagan Yule and Christian celebrations to happen together. Jul is still the word for Christmas in modern Norway. It’s believed that the word Jolly is actually derived from the French word for Yule. In the proto-germanic sense, the earliest version of the word, Yule, is derived from the meaning of Festivity or Celebration.
In the darkest and coldest time of the year, the ancient Germanic people would take to their temples to honor this holiday. It isn’t surprising that they would turn to the Gods during such a harsh season. People would gather around a warm hearth and toast the Gods with mead and feasts.
Sacrifice was also a major part of this tradition. Very similar to Samhain. Livestock and horses would be brought inside the temple and slaughtered. The blood from the animal would be collected on sacrificial twigs and sprinkled on the walls of the temple, the idols of the Gods and the men in attendance. However the sacrifice was only complete when the meat was consumed. A specific type of sacrifice we see in ancient accounts is that of the Yule Boar. The animal would be brought in to the king, but before it was slaughtered, the community would lay their hands on the animal and make sacred vows and oaths.
And here, we see the tradition of individuals making oaths to uphold for the next year, much like our New Year's Resolutions. The Boar has heavy connections to the God Fray, also meaning ‘fight’ in Danish. When the community feasted on the sacrificed boar, they were praying to Fray to be favorable in the coming year. And here you may recognize the tradition of eating Ham on Christmas.
Similar to Sahmain, the ancient Germanic people believed that with the shorter, darker days - the veil between the living and the dead was thin. It was believed that spirits were more abundant during the time of year. Especially outside in the harsh elements. There are even reports of a group of ghostly hunters that would ride through the night, visible only during this time of year. We see this tradition survive through the 12th century. Where it is also reported that a pack of huntsmen on black horses, bucks, and demonlike hounds with haunted eyes raced through the night. Those who kept watch at night for this group would claim to see 20 or 30 huntsmen on the prowl. The leader of this hunt shifts and changes over time, sometimes local folklore legends taking the helm. But we often see Oden depicted in this scene. In England it’s known as Walton’s hunt, in Scandinavia it’s known as Oden’s hunt and in Germany as Oden’s army. In the old Germanic times, Oden’s role was God of the Dead. And he led the hunt across the sky on his 8 legged horse. It’s almost mind blowing to think that this brutal hunt, led by a Death God is what has turned into the modern story of Santa Claus and his friendly reindeer. Of course, Santa is also based on St. Nicholas who was known for giving gifts to the less fortunate in ancient Anatolia (which is now Turkey.) In order to really understand the history of Santa Claus, we have to look at the intersection of Paganism and Christianity.
Santa pulls parts of his identity from both the Christian figure of St. Nicholas and the Pagan God Odin. To honor St. Nick after his death in 343 AD, an annual day of gift giving to children was instated. Originally the 6th of December (the day he died), which was moved to the 25th after the Protestant revolution.
And St. Nick was renamed Santa Claus. You can see the canvas that the pagan tradition of Odin presented, and that the Christian traditions were painted on top of to create the modern story that we know today.
While Christmas Elves were invented in the US in the 19th century, without any clear ties to pagan tradition or religious lore; the Nordic House Spirits or Nyssa are a huge part of the Yule celebration that hasn’t made its way over here to America. There are also connections between the Nordic House Spirits with the Celtic Fae and Pagan Fair Folk. The House Spirits came out at Yule time and sought offerings, mainly of porridge to keep them happy. If they are not satisfied they will punish the residents of the house where they dwelled with pranks and tricks. This is clearly tied to the theme of sacrifice from ancient traditions at this time of year.
In the 19th century, the Nyssa developed into gift givers. And they are often portrayed to be similar to Santa in that way, bringing holiday gifts to family members. Dating back before it was believed that Nyssa brought your holiday presents, the Nordics believed that the Yule Goat would deliver them. Going back even further, men used to dress up as the Yule Goat and walk through villages and towns singing and performing skits. Which of course has distinct ties to modern caroling.
Many believe that the Yule Goat is derived from either Thor, who was known for his Goat drawn chariot, or from the ancient harvest traditions. This lore is especially prominent in Sweden. There is a city in Sweden that builds a huge wooden Yule Goat in the town center each year. Since being instituted in 1966, it’s been burnt down 37 times.
Moving over to the United Kingdom, we find the tradition of the Yule Log. It’s a log that has been specially chosen to be burned for Yule. The Yule Logs of tradition were so big, that it took several days, usually 12, for them to burn in entirety. Its purpose? To keep evil spirits and sickness at bay. There are a lot of connections to this tradition, and the Christmas Tree that decorates homes across the world to this day.
In Nordic regions, we have seen people bringing pine trees into their homes and decorating with candles or orb-like objects to represent the sun. This practice of bringing trees into your home also represented the perseverance of nature. Ancient practices of the Yule Log were even more poetic, with each spark representing a baby animal meant to be born in the spring. Even though the weather was not as difficult in Rome, they were also known for their December festivals. One week before the Winter Solstice, Romans would celebrate Saturnalia (named for the God Saturn) with celebrations of food and drink. A time meant to turn the social order on its head by celebrating the disorder of the universe.
The more wealthy Romans had far more serious celebrations. They would worship Mythra, known as the God of the Unconquerable sun. The Birthday of Mithra, December 25th, was the holiest day of the year.
He was believed to have been born out of a rock, onto a field. Shepherds had come to worship him. We see obvious ties here between this scene and the biblical origins of Jesus. At first, the resurrection of Jesus was actually much more important than his birthday. Because the bible doesn’t mention when he was born, there was an unclear time to honor this holiday. But there are some traces of historical texts that suggest he was actually born in the Spring. Because it was already practice to honor Mythra on the 25th, the Church felt it was the easiest transition to turn that into the birthday of Jesus Christ. This decision happened sometime around the 4th Century. There is an interesting connection between honoring the Sun and honoring the Son.