Yule or Yuletide was and is a midwinter festival observed by the historical Germanic tribes. The earliest references to it are in the form of month names, where the Yule-tide period lasts somewhere around two months in length, falling between what is now mid-November and early January. After Christianity became the dominant religion this became Christmastide. Terms with an etymological equivalent to Yule are used in the Nordic countries for Christmas in both the religious sense and also for the secular holidays of this season. Today Yule is also used to a lesser extent in the English-speaking world as a synonym for Christmas. Present day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, and Yule singing are legacies of the old pagan.
The word is attested in an explicitly pre-Christian context primarily in Old Norse. Among many others, the long-bearded god Odin bears the names jólfaðr (Old Norse for “Yule father”) and jólnir (“the Yule one”). Scholars have also connected the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. In Scandinavia, the Wild Hunt is known as Oskoreia or Asgårdsreia which is in Norwegian: “noisy riders” and “The Ride of Asgard”. and in Swedish Odens jakt “Odin’s Hunt” and Vilda jakten “wild hunt”. Odin is the original midwinter man with a long beard and a far cry from the modern jolly Santa Claus. It’s no wonder St Nicholas eventually edged him out with the coming of Christianity. The traditions in the north were strong as is shown by the Icelandic sagas. In The Saga of Hákon góði (Haakon the Good) King Haakon I of Norway is credited with bringing Christianity to Norway as well as rescheduling the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. The saga relates that while he was king he could not simple order conversion but had to prepare and plan carefully. It states that when Haakon arrived in Norway he was already a Christian, but since the people retained their pagan practices, Haakon hid his Christianity. In time, Haakon had a law passed establishing that Yule celebrations were to take place at the same time as the Christians celebrated Christmas, “and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.” Yule had previously been celebrated for three nights from midwinter night, according to the saga. According to the saga, the result was that his popularity caused many to allow themselves to be baptised, and some people stopped making sacrifices. When he believed that he wielded enough power, he requested a bishop and other priests from England. On their arrival, “Haakon made it known that he would have the gospel preached in the whole country.” The saga the continues on to describe the different reactions of various regional things, the Norse assemblies.
I observe the winter solstice and Yule as part of a wider set of celebrations. In the cold and dark of winter any excuse for a warm fire or a warm libation is welcome, not to mention a feast. So many of the modern and enjoyable customs have roots in the old holidays, it helps me feel connected to my ancestors. It helps me feel in tune with the seasons and it is cheering and wards of the gloom. The smell of evergreens and spices in the house is invigorating and soothing at the same time as is the scent of all the food being prepared.