The Real History of Yule

There’s a lot of talk about Yule within the pagan community. And sometimes history and modern customs are totally conflated. We need to keep in mind what is historically accurate and what is modern invention.

Here’s the problem: We know very little about what Viking-age people (let alone people further back in time) did during their Yule celebrations. Any tradition that we do today to celebrate a pagan Yule is just that: modern.

The Real Yule

While many modern pagans think Yule is just a Norse pagan’s Winter Solstice, that’s not really accurate. Pre-Viking and Viking peoples tracked time on a lunar calendar. As per Brute Norse’s article, Yule would be celebrated on the full moon in January.

That being said, the Yule feast was intended to be a midwinter feast. Most people in general, and certainly most pagans, consider the Winter Solstice to be midwinter. I think there is a valid argument for modern Heathens to celebrate Yule on the solstice or in January…or better yet, just celebrate twice!

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While we often associate Yule with the Twelve Days of Christmas, the whole twelve days things is a Christian concept (from the Council of Tours in 567 CE). As far as we can tell, Yule lasted three days at most. As Jackson Crawford puts it in his video: the Saga of Haakon the Good specifically says that Yule and Christmas celebrations had to last three days or until the allotted amount of ale was drunk.

Most broadly Germanic polytheist holidays consisted of animal sacrifices, feasting, and drinking. The historical Yule was no different. It seems that a horse sacrifice was involved during Yule celebrations. Jackson Crawford also says that the same King Haakon had to waft the fumes from the cooking horse meat (or in some years was forced to eat it).

Horse sacrifices were an important ritual in many Indo-European cultures. They were focused on the sovereignty of the land, the sacredness of the king, and promoting the next year’s crop to be bountiful. So we can certainly say that Yule had something to do with the land’s fertility and, ultimately, a bountiful harvest.

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Speaking of bounty, we also know that the boar was an important feature of Yule holidays. There are two sagas — The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek and The Saga of Helgi son of Hjovard — where men place their hands on the sacrificial boar to swear sacred oaths. Jackson Crawford mentions a few additional sagas where no boar is mentioned, but there were still oaths. So Yule was likely a time to make important oaths. (Just remember — you’re bound to an oath!)

In any case, boars are also the animal sacred to Freyr, a god of the abundance of the earth and animals. The Ygnlinga Saga says that there should be three annual blood-sacrifices, on of which should be in midwinter. The Midwinter sacrifice was to ensure a good crop. From these bits of information, we can gather that Yule celebrations were important for ensuring a good harvest.

Scholars still debate on the meaning of the Yule festival, however. Most interpretations are summed up as one of the three: Yule was about fertility, Yule was about the dead, or Yule was about the new year. While I like the arguments about the dead and the new year (see my Samhain article), there are scholars who disagree.

Ancestor Worship

Most who associate Yule with the dead do so because of one of Odin’s many bynames (Jolnir), the Wild Hunt, and rituals for the ancestors. While it’s fair to say that Scandinavians, as well as greater Germanic, polytheists may have associated the Yule season (which lasted two months) to the ancestors, it doesn’t mean the specific feast of Yule was associated with the ancestors.

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Relating Yule to an ancestor cult does get interesting. One of the best attested examples of this is from polytheists in Sweden, who celebrated a Disablot for the ancestors, generally in February. Patricia Lafayllve summarizes the disir in her book (see Sources), but the disir were probably female ancestors or the guardian spirits of a family line.

There is also a ritual called Mother’s Night, attested in Anglo-Saxon England. In Bede’s The Reckoning of Time, he states that the pagans of the past would celebrate Mother’s Night in January, which by his reckoning, would be celebrated the day before Christmas. (The confusion with the dates is because of the acceptance of new calendars over time, see my first source.) From this, it seems Mother’s Night was celebrated as part of midwinter celebrations in Anglo-Saxon England.

Can we really connect our knowledge of Disblots in Scandinavia and Mother’s Night in Anglo-Saxon England to a Viking-Age Yule? Scholars also argue for and against connections between Mother’s Night, Disablots, Yule, and even the Matronae. However, I would argue that this ritual was not part of the Yule feast itself, but a separate ritual during the Yule season or at least the wintertime.

The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is certainly another piece of evidence that ties the ancestors and the dead to the wintertime. However, I don’t want to get into this too much because the Wild Hunt has a complicated history of its own,

The short of it is: there is evidence of the Wild Hunt in folk traditions throughout Europe, from England to Italy to Slovakia. There have even been books written about similar Night Phantoms in the Alps. This is not a solely Germanic phenomenon.

The Wild Hunt from Wikipedia

All of this evidence is from the Middle Ages from Christianized cultures. Since the Wild Hunt often features Odin or Woden, Berchta or Holda, and many others, we can link the Wild Hunt to polytheistic Europeans. But we don’t have a clear idea of what the Wild Hunt actually meant to people in polytheistic cultures.

What we know is that the Wild Hunt was something to be feared. It was the ghostly haunting of the dead and ‘pagan’ gods associated with death during the bleakest storms in the coldest, darkest months.

I will digress here for a moment: there has been an utterly ridiculous myth floating around on the pagan internet that Odin is somehow related to Santa, partly due to the Wild Hunt. There is absolutely nothing that connects Odin to Santa Claus. Please stop.

The Return of the Sun?

There are pagans who say Yule is somehow related to the returning of the sun. While there is evidence for a sun cult in Scandinavia — and while it certainly makes sense from an Indo-European perspective — there is no actual evidence of this from the Viking Age.

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Yule did have harvest and fertility themes. Insofar as the sun is important to actually HAVE a harvest, then sure, Yule had something to do with the sun. But even still, this is a theory with little real evidence.

What’s A Modern Pagan To Do?

There’s nothing wrong with keeping to modern Christmas traditions, even if you’re pagan. I am a firm believer that modern pagans can form modern practices. I encourage pagans to celebrate Mother’s Night. I encourage pagans to have their Yule celebrations last twelve days. I encourage pagans to celebrate Sunwait.

But I do not like it when we pretend everything we do — or even most of what we do — is historical and “just like the Vikings did.” We don’t need to validate our beliefs with a false sense of historicity.

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We are inspired by the polytheists of long ago. We try to honor the old gods like they did, and celebrate like they did, to the best of our ability and our desire. You do not NEED to be strictly reconstructionist to “do paganism right.” But do not pretend that people from 1,000 years or more would celebrate the way many pagans celebrate today.

Sources

All websites accessed in December 2020.

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