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Yule: Pre-Christmas Winter Solstice Festivals (Part 2)

Saturnalia was a blast. Now it's time to have a look at a more northern tradition. Christmas has long been associated with wintry scenes of snow-clad dwellings and warm fires. Santa himself wears a thick coat trimmed with white fur. Where do these frigid archetypes come from?

Obviously, Christmas started as a winter holiday in Europe. Colonialism spread the tradition across the globe. Southern nations, like South Africa, and Australia celebrate Christmas in the summer. The specter of the snowy Christmas lingers there, creating bizarre contradictions between the climate and the decorations in businesses. Mall Santas suffer under the southern sun while dressed in the full winter costume.


Yuletide is a Germanic festival celebrating the rebirth of the new year. The festival is celebrated on 21 December, the Winter Solstice. Farming in Northern Europe was a no-go, but if harvest were good, then food was plentiful at this time.

Ancient people paid close attention to the passage of the sun. The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night, after which the new year begins. Winter is halfway gone, and Spring will rise soon.

Yule originated in Scandinavia. It is one of the oldest winter solstice festivals to survive to the modern day (in several forms). Yule was originally celebrated by the Norse, several thousands of years ago.

The exact purpose of the original celebration, called Jol, is unknown. Scholars believe that the Norse festival had elements similar to those we celebrate in modern times. These include feasting, light, and of course big fires. According to the Norse sagas, it was also a time for sacrifices.

The Wild Hunt - Not Just a Plot Device in The Witcher

There are several ideas concerning which beliefs are associated with Yule. One of the strongest is the connection to Odin. He was the chief-deity of the Norse pantheon and ruled over the month of December.

Direct worship of Odin took place during the 12 days around the winter solstice, culminating in Yule itself. Odin, also named Wodan, is known as the Yule-Father. He also led the Wild Hunt.

There are many versions of the tale of the Wild Hunt told across the world. Depending on the teller of the tale, the details change. The Wild Hunt is a spectral procession of gods, demons, elves, fairies, disgraced undead, or a combination of them. They charge across the night sky, accompanied by their hunting hounds, and birds.

The Wild Hunt can herald good or bad things to come. They hunt with reckless abandon, and their prey could be anything, even you. Most often, they hunted mythical monsters.

Odin rode across the sky dressed in warm furs. His white beard and hair whipping wildly as he exclaims in glee. The chief of the gods rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Much like another holiday figure we know and love.

Christianity later demonized Odin and the Wild Hunt as a procession of evil beings who brought agonizing death on a mass scale to the innocent. When the Wild Hunt rides, according to Christian beliefs, there is sure to be war and plague soon.

Neopagan people interpret the Wild Hunt differently. They seek to reclaim their ancestral religion from under the heel of the Catholic Church.

Yuletide Traditions - Spot the Similarities

Gift-giving was a mainstay of Yule. People gave each other practical gifts like lamps, and waxed apples. Like most midwinter festivals, the giving of light and fire was seen as passing on the blessing of the light of life.

Feasting was also a huge part of the Yuletide tradition. Farmers would slaughter many of their animals that might not make it through the winter. Hunters would bring in summer-fattened boar and deer. Alcohol take a while to brew as well, and the stock started in Summer would be ready for the feasting.

The consumption of baked goods was seen as a magical boost to fertility. Wheat was therefore a staple of Germanic life. Beer, ale, bread, cookies, and cakes were symbols of continued sustenance and prosperity.

Evergreen trees were powerful magical symbols. Their ability to stay healthy and green throughout the bitter Winter was revered. Celebrating Yule involved hanging offerings to the gods and local spirits in the boughs of evergreen trees. That's where the decorating of the Christmas tree comes from.

During Yule, people also hung wreaths made of evergreen branches on their doors. Evergreen trees brought protection from decay and the promise of Spring's return. They remind us that although the world seems dead, life persists.

Sprigs of mistletoe, ivy and holly were used to decorate the home. These plants brought luck and protection to the people living within. Mistletoe was a powerful plant in druidic traditions.

People rang bells and sang traditional songs. They often went from door to door, the occupants of the houses where they sang would offer them small gifts and blessings. Through their songs and ringing bells, they drove off evil spirits.

Finally, there is the Yule-log. Ancient people kept a communal bonfire lit for the entire 12-day period. If they could keep the fire lit until the end of the longest night, on the winter solstice, they would be blessed with good luck. Afterwards, the ashes would be scattered through the fields to conjure prosperity.

Today, the Yule-log is a common, if poorly understood, practice. The log is to be burnt in the winter, but it cannot be bought or stolen. Yule-logs must be gifted, or come from your own land, to ensure they bring good luck.

The Holly King

Adorned in the three colors of Yule, green-white-red, we have the Holly King. Celtic people revered him during Yule.

This was the spiritual personification of the Holly tree. He, like Odin in Norse traditions, was said to be tied to the season of Yule and winter.

The Holly King had a summer counterpart called the Oak King. Modern traditions tell of a battle between these two that rages around the solstices. Each king gaining in power once a year.

Older traditions never mentioned a battle between them, They were, in fact, kindred spirits who were protective of humanity.

One can easily see the resemblance between the Celtic Holly King, Norse Odin, and modern Santa.

Happy Yule