Why do we do the things we do? In the context of Christmas, our traditions go back to the old Germanic festival of Yule - a celebration of the rebirth of the horned god. With roots in the natural world, our ancestor’s rituals and festivities are now deeply etched into the human psyche. So much so, they still soothe us (consciously or subconsciously) every midwinter…
The Origin of Yule Festival
In times of darkness, Yule rules. It ruled long before its ideas were absorbed by Christianity. Or more to the point - it misruled. The old Norse people had a 12-day blowout to mark the winter solstice - when long nights retreated and the real new year began. Carnival-like celebrations began on December 21st and the rituals that occurred still endure in ones that root us to this day.
Peculiar Traditions of Yule Festival
During Yule, early Europeans drank, feasted and had a merry midwinter. Sound familiar? You’ll recognise these symbols... all of which originated with our Pagan ancestors…
The Yule Log
Not chocolate cake - the original Yule log was a gigantic trunk or tree limb burnt on the hearth. Lighting the log marked the beginning of festivities. Burning for around 12 days, each spark represented a pig or cat that would be born in the spring.
The Yule Goat
So the story goes, Thor rode through the skies in a chariot drawn by two goats named Tanngnjóstr and Tanngrisnir. To honour the God of Thunder and ensure good harvest for the year ahead, early Europeans would take the last sheaf of the crop (where all the magic was) and preserve it in the shape of a goat.
The Yule Boar
It’s said the Yule ham tradition evolved from the Pagan ritual of sacrificing a wild boar to Freyr - Goddess of Harvest. Early Germanic peoples would slaughter all the cattle they couldn’t afford to feed through the colder, darker months. And, after a season or two of fermentation, the mead was also ready to be sloshed down with all that meat. One hell of a feast.
The Evergreen Tree
Evergreen trees remind us that the light will return once again. Old Germanic peoples believed that bringing evergreenery into the home would shelter trees and bushes until spring. The trees we put up to this day still symbolise the resilience of life.
The Dark Side of Yule
As well as making sacrifices to the Gods, old Germanic peoples stole from the ruling classes and told naughty children that winter demons would take them to the underworld. All of which have made their way into our current-day celebrations…
Half-goat, half-demon, Krampus originated from pre-Germanic paganism. His name comes from the German word krampen, meaning “claw”. This horned and gnarly monster carries bundles of birch branches called Ruten, which he uses to punish wicked children with. So the folklore goes, Krampus shows up before midwinter - on the night of December 5, known as Krampusnacht.
Odin, his Ravens and the Festival of the Hunt
Staying at home wasn’t just the best option to keep warm in midwinter - this could be a frightening time of the year. In old Norse tales, gods would often visit Earth from Asgard, disguised as humans. One was Odin - the one-eyed, long-bearded god associated with war, death, wisdom, poetry, runes and magic. When Odin was about, it made perfect sense to stay in. During Yule, he would disguise himself as Old Man Winter, who, through centuries of storytelling, eventually evolved into Santa Claus. Odin would travel the earth in one night on his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, with two helping spirits on his shoulders. These were Hugin and Munin - ravens who whispered all the news they could see and hear into his ear. During his Wild Hunt, Odin and his hunters would ride through the skies to snatch souls who left their homes, dragging them to the underworld.
Lords of Misrule
In the beginning, Yule was a big, rowdy, unholy affair in which social order was flipped on its head in a frenzy of drunkenness, cross-dressing and orgies. Peasants took power from ruling classes, banging on their doors and demanding entry. The lord of the manor had to give these groups - known as the Lords of Misrule - their very best food and beer. If they didn’t, the guests would break into homes and take what they wanted. One generous handout from the rich could ensure a very merry Yule for the poor - a custom still honoured today (without the looting), from charitable Christmas donations to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Connecting to the old world is what makes Yule magic. Take our quiz to find the perfect Yule gift this midwinter - reaching back to its natural origins and reclaiming the focus of the festive season.