By Isabella @TheWandCarver
Yule “tide” means Yule “time” and the word was possibly coined by the Germanic people as Yule was historically celebrated by them. Yule has also gone through a modernisation of spelling from the old English and Celtic words, ġéol or ġéohol and ġéola or ġéoli. Yule has always been a twelve-day celebration beginning on the 21st of December and ending on the 1st of January. Later, after Christianity came along, it became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas….and, of course, after the advent of Christian Christmas, the Germanic people embraced the “new” holiday and are, in time, the ones who gave us the Christmas tree as we know it today. Thanks to German-born Prince Albert in 1846 who presented his wife, Queen Victoria, with the palace’s first of many Christmas trees. What did the Pagans do for Yule, then? Oh lots!
There were feasts. And decoration. And a tree. Mind, the tree was burned in a fire [the Yule log], still, much greenery from evergreen trees such as Holly was used, and candles. During Yule, the early Pagans would bring together their beasts to be sacrificed to their Gods. After each were killed, the blood would be sprinkled upon the faithful and smeared upon the idols of their Gods. The meat of the animals would be cooked and used in the many feasts over the twelve-day period. And, as one might expect, there was much wine consumed.
Pagans along the coming decades and centuries trimmed the festivities to suit their needs and the times around them, particularly as Christianity had taken a great hold on most peoples around the world. It is true that Yule and its celebrations were born before Christianity. Still, it is up for debate as to “whom is copying whom?”. Well, there was a King of Norway, according to The Saga of Hákon the Good by Snorri Sturluson c.1230, by the name of King Haakon, 934 to 961. He is credited with the Christianisation of Norway as well as rescheduling the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. Previously, Yule had been celebrated for three nights from midwinter night, according to the saga. Haakon was a confirmed Christian upon his arrival in Norway although he hid his Christianity from the Pagan chieftains to gain their trust and help. Eventually, as much as the Pagan people loved him, they allowed themselves to be baptised into the Christian religion but not before King Haakon had changed the dates of Yule celebrations to coincide with those of the Christian Christmas.
No matter when the original Yuletide was celebrated, it is very much up for debate as to when Christ was born in the first place. According to many scientific boffins the North Star which guided the three Wise Men to the Christ child was not visually present during the time we now celebrate His birth, but instead was very much present in the sky during the period around February-March. No one really knows; however, it is most likely the latter. Therefore, if this is the case, Christians changed Christmas to mimic the Pagan timeline of tradition. Of this I have little doubt for in my studies and research on all things I have found many examples of how the Christians changed things, even making Gods and Goddesses into saints in order to bring Pagans round to Christianity. The Goddess Brigit, for one.
As mentioned, Pagan people have trimmed away many things over the years which are now no longer practised [I hope!] such as the sacrificing of animals and people. It must happen…civilisation does this to all generations. And, whilst our ways of celebrating still mimic the old traditions – decoration, feasting, gift-giving, Yule logs – we have subdued this in part as well. Once upon a time in England, the “bringing of the Yule [log]” was a magickal and holy time. The log often did not fit entirely in the huge fireplaces which were needed long ago to keep a room warm, still, it was lit in celebration and kept burning all twelve days. The lighting of it was helped along by the wine poured over it to welcome it “home” and it was said the huge log would bless and bring good luck to those dragging it home and the family living in the home. Traditionally the log was lit by a torch made with a leftover piece of the previous year’s Yule log and a piece of the new Yule log would be kept in order to do the same in the coming year. If the Yule log went out, terrible luck would befall the family in the coming year.
Decorations would always include Mistletoe, most likely found near the top of the Yule tree from which the Yule log came or from the tops of Apple trees. Mistletoe was reintroduced after a spell by the Victorians who loved chasing one another around for a peck [kiss] under the Mistletoe bough. Mistletoe was held in high regard by early Pagans as a plant of fertility. Of course, fertility can mean many other things than the fertility of one’s companion. It also meant the fertility of their planting grounds, the fertility of their animals, and the growth of their wealth. It was then, as it is now, also a bringer of love into ones’ life. A man must pick a berry from the Mistletoe bough whilst kissing his intended, before they stopped. This was the case for all couples who kissed under the bough. The Mistletoe must then be burned on the twelfth night to ensure that those who kissed under it would marry. The kissing custom was not a Pagan one, but a Christian invention.
Holly has been long used in Pagan Yule homes for protection and at Yuletide, it is no different. It was often the centrepiece for a feast and used along mantles for decoration and in neo-Paganism has been made into head wreathes intertwined with its female counterpart, Ivy, as well as being fashioned into door wreathes. This practise has also been used in the Christian home for some time as well. And, everyone is probably already familiar with the story of The Holly King and the Oak King. Holly is used not only for protection but for luck in the coming year. Like most plants [or trees] on this list, early Christians were aware of the Pagan origins of decorating with Holly. Pope Gregory the Great even encouraged the continuation of some Pagan traditions via a letter written in 601 CE.
Ivy is used as mentioned above and is also entwined around whatever you like to bring the outside in. Ivy is associated with fidelity and loyalty – use it in your Yule decorations to represent the powerful bonds of family and friendship.
Oak itself was normally used as the Yule log, but for decoration there have been many who use the lovely large acorns as decoration in wreaths and other ornamentation. Oaks and their acorns are not only a symbol of power, but the acorns particularly are a symbol of rebirth as they grow new Oak trees in future.
Pine cones and Pine boughs are used extensively in the neo-Pagan home for decoration and I would imagine that Pine boughs may have been featured in the Old One’s homes as well, for the scent would be wonderful to walk into from outdoors. Pine cones are very easy to decorate and hang onto your tree.
The “other” Yule tree – not the one to burn – but a so-called Yule tree for decoration – has never been written about to my knowledge. The German people were first amongst anyone’s recollection over the centuries to bring about the Christmas tree around 1520. And, as previously stated, Prince Albert brought the custom to Britain around 1846, and a few years later, the Americans latched on to the custom. It is decidedly a Christian invention, but who cares? Who doesn’t love a gorgeous, bauble-filled, lit up tree? I tend to prefer a more Pagan-esque theme, with decorations using acorns, cinnamon sticks, pine cones and the like, but of course, lights!
Gift-giving! This may surprise most of you, but the Pagans were gifting long before the Three Wise Men brought gifts of Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh to the little child in the manger. The Romans exchanged gifts at during Saturnalia [a winter holiday lasting the week of December 17-23], including toys and edible treats. For several centuries’ gifts were given not at Christmas or the Winter Solstice but on New Year’s Day. Queen Victoria didn’t start giving out Christmas presents until 1900, instead she followed the custom of New Year’s gifts.
I hope this offering will help some whom insist the Christians “stole” all of the Pagan holidays to understand that no one “stole” anything. It’s all an interweaving of history, belief systems, and in many cases, compromise. I like to think so anyway. It is, after all, a time of year for coming together in peace and understanding for our fellow Man and Woman. So, celebrate as Paganly or as Christianly as you like, but also celebrate love and peace. But don’t let’s stop at Yule / Christmas. Keep the love going all year long. So Mote It Be.
Many thanks for reading and I hope you will share via the social media buttons below. Warmest holiday blessings upon all who wander this way x
Note: This will be my last blog for 2018. I shall return on 3 January 2019. Have a very Happy Holiday season and a Happy New Year!