Just a few short days to the shortest day of all, the winter solstice. the beginning of Yule. During this darkest part of the year, the supernatural was known to manifest itself. Long before Charles Dickens’s tale of Scrooge and the spirits or the promulgation of ghost stories for Christmas by M.R. James, it was believed by the Germanic tribes to be the time of the Wild Hunt. This unworldly version of the hunt for wild game to put up for the winter season was in fact a procession of the dead through the night sky. It was said to be led by that self-same Odin.
The god Odin’s appearance during the Yuletide period has it’s legacy in the Santa Claus/St Nicholas figure, down to the long white beard and the grey horse he traveled on. Although reindeer are creatures of the Nordic countries, their use in the Christmas season narrative is quite modern and American, dating from a single mention by and an anonymous author in 1821. This was reinforced by the publication and popularity of the poem A Visit From St Nicholas in 1823, better known as The Night Before Christmas, in which eight flying reindeer and a sleigh have replaced the horse. Originally, Norse children left their shoes filled with hay and treats for Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, on the solstice night, in the hopes that Odin, the jólfaðr (Old Norse for Yule father), the original bearded gift giver, would reward their thoughtfulness. Today this has been replaced almost everywhere with the standardized, and rather boring, milk and cookies left for Santa Claus, Odin’s modern, commercialized stand in.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule and the hunt from December 21, the winter solstice, through to January and it was the original twelve day festival of northern Europe, beginning on the solstice. Now known more often as Christmastide than Yuletide the celebrations run from Christmas Eve until January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. While the dates have moved to fit the Christian calendar the feasting, toasting, and singing all remain from the old celebration. As part of the feasting that was traditional at Yule, a wild boar known as the sonargoltr was sacrificed. Wild boars were often the target in the winter hunt, as they were intelligent and dangerous and the sucessful killing of one was a testament to the hunter’s skill. They were also associated with Freyr, the Norse god of fair weather and prosperity and his equally important twin sister Freya. A boar was sacrificed to Freya at the Yule celebrations. The continuing theme of the boar or pig can be found in the pig shaped good luck candies in Germany or the Swedish custom of eating pig shaped cakes at Christmas, The Boar’s Head Carol is a 15th century English Christmas carol celebrating tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at the Yuletide feast. None other than Jacob Grimm of fairy tale fame believed the serving of the boar’s head and the procession and pageantry that accompany are a throwback to the Norse Yule boar-blot. The English festival version of today originated at Queen’s College, Oxford and has been celebrated there for over six centuries.
While singing and reciting were part of the ancient Yule celebration Christmas carols as we know them have only a tenuous connection to Yule. That connection has it’s origins in the custom of wassailing. Originally a toast at the feasting, the Old Norse “ves hail”, and the Old English “wes Hal” became the Middle English “waes hael” and thus wassail. The response to the toast was “Drinc hael.” The customs of both house to house and orchard to orchard wassailing are deeply rooted in English history. The songs we now know as carols were not originally strictly Christmas music but were just as common at harvest. They were the people’s response to sacred music sung only in Latin during the Middle Ages. Written record of carols named as such in English first appears in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who listed twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”. These would have been sung by wassailers, as it was much later that such music would have been used in church services.
As a celebration of the end of shortening days and the return of the sun, Yule was a fire festival also, but in the north the weather was to harsh and cold for the big outdoor bonfires and celebrations usual in milder months. This was remedied by moving the fire to the fireplace of the home., giving us another popular legacy of Yule, the Yule log. Originally a whole tree was carefully selected and brought in to be burned over the course of the twelve days. This worked only for castles and great halls for obvious reasons. Those with smaller hearths might cut their log into section to burn. As time went on many elaborate customs and tradition rose up around it. Different places specified different wood or had a tradition the log must be a gift. Usually it is decorated with greens of the season such as holly or ivy and a remaining section is saved to start the fire for the following year. Also, tradition has it that the preserved section, if kept, will protect the house from lightening throughout the year.
This weekend I will be giving my fireplace a thorough cleaning and setting up my Yule log for the solstice night. My log is not a gift but a large section of a branch which fell from the big maple in my front yard. I will decorate it with greens and also bundles of herbs from the garden which will give a lovely scent to the fire. On the first Yule night I will make a wassail bowl with nights a traditional recipe but using my modern crock pot and keep it going throughout the holiday. As the fire burns each evening I will toast my Norse ancestors and the season with a hearty “Ves Hail!!” and enjoy my legacy of Yule.