mid-winter feast has been linked with the god Wóden and his Wild Hunt,
as well as with the fertility god Fréa Ing and the Thunder God Þunor.
with an etymological equivalent to Yule are used in the Nordic
countries for the Christmas season. Since the 18th century, Yule is also
used to some extent in English-speaking countries to refer to
is the modern English evolution of the Anglian Old English words géol
or géohol and géola or géoli, with the former indicating the 12-day
festival of "Yule" (later: "Crístesmæsse") and the latter indicating the
month of "Yule". Both words are thought to be derived from Common
Germanic *jehwlan, and are cognate to Gothic (fruma) jiuleis and Old
Norse jól, (Danish and Swedish jul and Norwegian jul or jol).
origins of the word remain controversial. Attempts have been made to
link it with ‘wheel’ (by way of the Old Norse hjól) but are
linguistically flawed. The most likely but rather unsatisfying etymology
is that ‘yule’ merely means ‘a time of revelry’. This is related to
gylian / giellan - to yell, shout. The uncommon Old English word gýlan,
actually means ‘to make merry, keep festival’.
The Pagan Mid-Winter Festival
was the midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples. It would
seem to have been quite distinct from the ancient Roman festival of
Saturnalia, which was held towards the end of December at around the time
of the Winter Solstice. Saturnalia involved gift-giving, partying and a
reversal of the social order, so that masters waited upon their slaves
at table. Saturnalia continued to be popular into the 4th century C.E.
The New Year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire as the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus,
the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun," on December 25. With the
advent of Christianity, some of these customs were absorbed into the
seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year. At that
time, under the Julian calendar, December 25th was also the winter
solstice. Now, of course, the solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd of
The events of the Anglo-Saxon Yule are
generally held to have centred around Midwinter. Feasting, drinking and
sacrifice were involved, as well as the swearing of oaths. Numerous
age-old customs, some probably dating back as far as the Bronze-Age,
were important and still feature in the Christmas festivities to this
day. The three main gods; Woden, Þunor and Ing
seem to have been strongly associated with Yuletide. It is likely that
the Early English Yule feast was still a time for the cult of the
honoured ancestral dead. Yule has been associated with the ancient
belief of the ‘Wild Hunt’ - a ghostly group of riders and hounds in a
mad pursuit through the winter sky, led by Woden himself. In a very real
way, the pagan Anglo-Saxons would have felt their honoured dead would
be present at the Yule feast with them, just like their distant
Stone-Age or Bronze-age ancestors, who might have brought the skulls of
their ancestors from their tombs for just this purpose. Thus, at the
Yule feat it was customary for an extra place to be laid at the table.
At Yule the spirits of the ancestors were thought to be permitted to
return to the land of the living. As such they were welcomed back into
the home to visit their kin and partake of the food and drink.
The Yule Log (géolstocc)
part of the symbolic magic of Yuletide, a special oak or ash tree was
selected, cut down and hauled into the hall by a group of men with great
ceremony. This Yule Log was to provide warmth throughout the 12 days of
Yule. As one end burned away, the remainder was moved into the fire.
The fire was always started with a remnant from the log that had been
burned in the previous year's festivities.
Holly and Ivy (holen and ifig)
Early English decorated their dwellings with evergreens at Yuletide, a
reminder that the Earth merely sleeps during the winter. Holly was
important because it retains its greenery through the winter months and
is thus a symbol of summer life during the sterility of winter. The red
berries had an apotropaic function. Prickly Holly was the male symbol of
this greenery whereas Ivy was the feminine, the two often placed
together as a symbol of fecundity at the dark end of the year.
magical protective evergreen plant was hung above doorways. The origin
of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe is obscure.
The Yule Boar
Wild Boar had been the most prestigious meat for the feast since the
Bronze Age. Among the Anglo-Saxons the boar was sacrificed (and then
eaten) in honour of Frea Ingwi
(to whom the Boar was sacred) as part of the celebration of Yule in
Germanic paganism. (This corresponded to Freyr among the Norse, where
the animal was termed the the sonargöltr or sónargöltr) Prior to being sacrificed, all would lay hands on bristles of the boar and swear solemn vows, a tradition known as heitstrenging among the Norse.
serving of a boar's head at modern banquets and particularly at Queen's
College, Oxford may also be a reminiscence of the Yule boar-blót.
Anglo-Saxon solemn feast would be complete without the drinking of
toasts and the swearing of oaths. A toast is a ritual in which alcoholic
drink is taken to express honour or goodwill to person mentioned in
the verbal accompaniment of the act. The drinking of toasts may have
developed from the earlier custom of 'libation', where the alcoholic drink
was poured onto the ground as an offering to the gods. The canny
North-European instead poured the strong drink down his throat. It must
be remembered that ale was seen as the gift of the fertility god Frea
Ing and that the Anglo-Saxon word for ale; ‘ealu’ in Old West Saxon and ‘alu’ in Mercian, are cognate with the early Germanic charm word alu,
composed of the runes Ansuz, Laguz, and Uruz. This probably means
‘God-Water-Strength’, which is self-evident. The word ‘ale’ is also very
similar to ‘hale’ and thus the Anglo-Saxon greeting / toast “Wes þu hál !”, meaning “Be well !”
The Old Norse word for a toast was ‘full’,
indicating that the horn or beaker was full before the drinking of the
toast and (presumably) empty at the end of it. This word relates to the
Old English ‘ful’, meaning a cup or beaker. At the Yule feast, the first toast to be drunk was the Óðinsfull; to Óðinn, “for victory”, the second was to the gods Njörðr and Freyr "for good harvests and for peace"
It was also customary for anyone who felt it needful, to call out ‘Bragi’s full’
and before drinking , make a solemn vow in front of his peers, to
accomplish a particular deed during the following year. This practice
bears similarities to, and may be the origin of modern "New Years
Resolutions". The last formal toast, called the minni
(meaning remembrance) was then called. All would then empty their horns
in memory of fallen comrades and deceased family members.
It is very likely that the pagan English had a similar ceremony, drinking to their ancestor-god Wóden for sige, to Eorþen Modor and Fréa Ing for gódes hærfestes and frið and for mynegung.
According to Bede, the new year began on Módraniht , “Mothers' Night”, the evening of the 25th of December. Many believe that the Anglo- Saxons honoured the Ídisi, female protective spirits, on this night. Bede is very reticent about the all night activities of Módraniht and it may well be that activities celebrating fertility occurred.
Æftera Geola, meaning ‘After Yule’ roughly corresponds with modern January. The first day of Æftera Geola
was midwinter day, which was also new year day (but is now the 25th
December). Midwinter day began at the fourth sunrise after the winter
solstice. Yule began from sunrise and brought an end to the old year and
a beginning to the first day of the new year. There followed twelve
days of celebration of the passing of midwinter and the return of the
sun and the renewal of life. This holiday lasted until the twelfth night
of Æftera Geola (now 6th January). Hence the Yule and New Year celebrations were once one and the same.
is amusing to note the perennial moans from the religious establishment
that the ‘true meaning of Christmas has been lost’. In fact, if the
original Yuletide involved little more than getting together with
friends and family and eating and drinking perhaps a bit more than usual
in an effort to deny the winter miseries, perhaps we in 21st century
England are closer to its true meaning than our god-fearing ancestors.