My Favorite Things of the Holidays
Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is a pagan religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas. Terms with an etymological equivalent to Yule are used in the Nordic countries for Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Yule is also used to a lesser extent in English-speaking countries to refer to Christmas. Customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule.
Yule is the modern English representation of Old English words indicating the 12-day festival of “Yule” (later: “Christmastide”. The words are thought to be derived from German, Gothic, Old Norse or Norwegian words like Jol or Jul. The noun Yuletide is first attested from around 1475.
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 ‘Yule father’) and jólnir (Old Norse ‘the Yule one’).
Yule begins on Mother Night, (about Dec. 20) the night before the shortest day and the longest night (winter solstices). We honor the beginning of the Sun’s return and the breaking of Winter, (which is most noticeable in five days) and is celebrated over a twelve day period.
It is a time of the year when our deceased Ancestors are closest to us. Yule is when Jólnir another name for Odinn leads the procession of the Wild Hunt through the sky’s with sprits of humans, horses and dogs. This procession occurs during all twelve days of Yule.
Twelfth Night (about Jan. 1) culminates the traditional twelve days of Yule. Our Ancestors at this time consecrated a boar to Frey, led it out so everyone present could lay their hand on the boar and swear a solemn Oath. This was to honor Frey for prosperity. Oaths sworn on the Oath-Boar are very binding during this time, than any other time of the year. Make a New Year’s resolution in the old way by swearing your oath on Frey’s boar or on your hammer.
Mistletoe is an evergreen displayed during the Yule season and symbolic of the eventual rebirth of vegetation that will occur in spring. But perhaps more than any other of the Yule evergreens, it is a plant of which we are conscious only during the holidays. One day we’re kissing under the mistletoe, and next day we’ve forgotten all about it (the plant, that is, not the kisses).
This ancient Scandinavian custom led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. But this tradition went hand-in-hand with one of the Norse myths, namely, the myth of Baldur. The story of Baldur’s death is one of the most fascinating Norse myths for those interested in the “kissing” plant, because it is central to the history of mistletoe.
Baldur’s mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal, and inanimate object promise not to harm him. Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant — and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight. Ever the prankster, Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear fashioned from mistletoe. Hermódr the Bold was appointed to ride to Hel in an attempt to bring Baldur back. Hel’s condition for returning Baldur was that absolutely every last thing in the world, living and dead, had to weep for him. Failing that, he would remain with Hel. When this condition was put to the test, all wept except for a certain giantess, believed to be Loki in disguise. Baldur’s resurrection was thus thwarted.
For example, some relate it was agreed, after the death of Baldur, that thenceforth mistletoe would bring love rather than death into the world, and that any two people passing under mistletoe would exchange a kiss in memory of Baldur. Others add that the tears Frigga shed over the slain Baldur became the mistletoe berries.
Holly (Ilex) and ivy (Hedera helix) have been used as winter decorations since ancient times. Adorning homes with these plants freshened the air and their greenery reminded occupants of the coming spring.
Additionally, holly trees and shrubs and the ornamental vine ivy were each believed to have magical properties. In many ancient cultures, the howling, icy winds in the dark nights of winter were believed to be ghosts and demons. Decorating with holly and ivy was thought to ward off these evil spirits. Early Europeans used holly as ornamentation during their winter solstice celebrations. In Norse mythology, holly was associated with Thor, god of thunder, and holly plants grown by the home were thought to prevent lightning strikes.
Holly’s symbolism of the new season made it an appropriate and colorful ornament for winter festivities.
The use of ivy during winter also goes back thousands of years. The fact that ivy, like some hollies, stayed green throughout the year led some to believe it had magical properties and led to its use as home decor in the winter months. It too, symbolized eternal life, rebirth and the spring season. In some cultures, ivy was a symbol of marriage and friendship, perhaps due to its tendency to cling. Over time, many customs from non-Christian celebrations were incorporated by Christians into religious holidays. For a period, ivy was banished as decor by Christians due to its ability to grow in shade, which led to its association with secrecy and debauchery. Nevertheless, the custom of decorating with holly and ivy during Christian holidays was eventually accepted. Religious meaning was later attributed to the physical properties of holly, in particular. Its sharp leaves were said to symbolize Christ’s crown of thorns and its red berries the blood he shed.
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.
To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce.
A yule log is a large wooden log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or modern Christmas celebrations in several European cultures. It may also be associated with the winter solstice festival or the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or Twelfth Night.
The expression yule log has also come to refer to log-shaped Christmas cakes, also known as chocolate logs or bûche de Noël. The yule log is related to other Christmas and Yuletide traditions such as the ashen faggot.
The Yule log was originally an entire tree, which was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony with the purpose being to provide maximum warmth and endurance. In some European traditions, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. While references are anecdotal, it seems to be a tradition that morphed into early European Christian tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Within 20th century Europe and North America, it was predominantly a reference to the burning of the largest log possible at or around Christmas.
Another Viking tradition was the Yule log, a large oak log decorated with sprigs of fir, holly or yew. They carved runes on it, asking the Gods to protect them from misfortune. A piece of the log was saved to protect the home during the coming year and light next year’s fire. Today, most know the Yule log as a cake or cheese log rolled in nuts.