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loki

Yule

The time of Yule is upon us.

If you've ever heard the Christmas Carol "The 12 Days of Christmas" it's origins date back to the 12 days of Yule. I think by now most people realize that many of the so-called Christmas traditions out there such as Christmas trees, predate Christianity's celebrations with the date, and link directly back to the pagan past. While some Christians may say that Jesus is the reason for the season, I politely remind them that technically according to biblical scholars Jesus' birth is in the Spring.

The 12 days of Yule, stretch across the period of time of the Winter Solstice. Since ancient calendars followed a different method of time, this date varies in the ancient calendars because of differences in time's reckoning. Today, most pagans and heathens celebrate the yuletide as running from approximately December 20 - December 31.


So what precisely is Yule?

As most heathen tides are, the celebration directly relates back to the agricultural cycle, and the very basic necessities of pre-modern survival. By this time of year all crops have been harvested, and it'll be months yet before the soil can begin to be worked and new crops planted for next year's harvest. The first rounds of livestock have already been butchered to add to the winter lauder the couple of months previous.

Because of the nature of the winter season itself--especially in the climes of the ancient Northern European peoples--by now they'd be snowbound and be living an existence where they primarily just stay indoors. They lived in communal dwellings. This, especially in ancient times, would pose a number of health problems. With many people constantly under one roof if illness arrived among them it was quick to spread. (We've all seen how when a bug is going around work or school, many people end up catching it). Health of course is also impacted by the limited diet available of whatever food could be stored for the winter. This meant this time of year they were primarily living on a diet of meat, fish, and grains. This meant that once people got sick they had an even harder time overcoming the illness because they weren't receiving the type of nutrients that help boost immune defense that are so prevalent in fresh fruit. Afterall they didn't have a grocery store that imported strawberries from South America out-of-season.

Beyond this, if we think of the cycle of seasons there are classical understandings for the seasons. Spring is a time of new life and new growth, summer is a time of bounty and the peak of life, autumn is the time of harvest as life begins to decline, and winter is the time where the land lies fallow and classically is associated with death. While death did walk among people at all times, it was in winter that ancient people were the most susceptible. They had to contend with disease, a limited food supply, pests that could spoil the food supply and make it unfit for consumption. The cold itself was an enemy as well. Even in the modern era, when bad winter storms blow through and the power is knocked out those most susceptible, the old, the infirm, and the very young can still die from the cold.

The ancient people understood this, for it was an intimate companion of their lives, not cushioned by modern appliances and conveniences. Add to this the very real occurrence of the longest night of the year... they definitely noticed it. Some of the Northern people lived so close in latitude to the North Pole that the entirety of the 24 hour period of the Winter Solstice would be night, and perhaps just a scant half hour or hour where the sky hinted that a sunrise was nearby, but it never came. Just as in the Summer Solstice it could be called the night of the midnight sun, by winter it could be called the land of the noontime night sky. (Less poetic I know). It’s no surprise that there are many folk traditions revolving around light bringing… yule logs, the pre-Christian roots to the Swedish tradition of Saint Lucia (where women/girls act as light bringers warding against evil on the darkest of nights), the annual straw/wood yule goat burning, etc.

By now the meat slaughtered previously is running low so more animals are butchered. As is always the case whenever there was a key agriculturally related event (planting, harvesting, etc.) a feast was held so the community could come together to jointly give offerings to the Gods. In these Northern climates, it is a time of snow, and nothing is growing... but the rare exception to the white, gray and dead-seeming landscape that hints of the spring, and summer and harvest to come were evergreen plants. So people would trek out into the surrounding countryside at the beginning of Yule to grab greenery to decorate for the yuletide festival.

The spirit of Yule itself was to brave the cold and check on your friends, family and neighbors to see how they were doing, in addition to celebrating and honoring ours Gods during this time to ask for blessings of health. As such, while yes there are definitely religious aspects to the holiday, many aspects of it boil down to common sense (based on the struggles to live and survive in an era before modern conveniences and appliances), and being a good member of your community concerned for the well being of your neighbors.

In this day and age braving the cold isn't quite so daunting as what it was like in ancient Northern Europe where you got about on your own two feet and your nearest neighbors could be miles away. And snowdrifts could be 2-3 feet deep.

It became tradition to go 'a wassailing' (yes, that is also more commonly known today in the Christmas Carol), which means to go out and visit amongst your community. This evolved into caroling people (and in some places the orchards lying dormant where people sang to the trees and the vaettir so that there would be a good harvest in the coming year).

Gift giving became part of this holiday, because unlike during warmer times of the years, people are primarily indoors during waking hours instead of out in the fields. This meant that people would have time of ‘leisure’ to craft things. In some places a gift can be a cleverly composed poem, it may involve some sort of clothing or accessory. So it makes perfect sense that during a time of cheer, a time when you’re encourage to go out and visit with your community, that this would be a time welcome for gifts and merry-making. We can see from the Northern Europeans who celebrated Yules numerous examples of gift giving from the origins of Santa & his reindeer (which in some places derive from Odin with sleipnir his horse as a gift-giver, in other places it derived from a gift-giving Thor with his goats), the Scottish Yules or Hogmanay, the candy-filled/gift filled shoes found in Dutch and German folk traditions.

Since Yule traditions varied among geo-specific cultures in antiquity, modern day practices vary as well. Most heathen/asatru while they celebrate for the entire yuletide, tend to bookend the yuletide with the major celebration on their part.

Mother’s Night

Mother’s Night is celebrated among heathens/asatru as the first night of Yule. It honors the Disir, Idis, Matrons, the living mothers in our lives, as well as Goddesses who are mothers such as the Norse Goddess Frigg or the German Goddess Bertha/Perchta who is traditionally linked to hearth and home. To understand how the ancient communal buildings were utilized, the hearth was where people cooked, conversed, and slept by. It truly was the heart of the home. So the food you ate was cooked at the fire, the neighbors, family, or friends you visited sat by the fire and enjoyed the hospitality of the hearth. Folk traditions about sweeping out the old for a fresh start to the new year… are common.

Twelfth Night

Is the last and final night of Yule. Shakespeare even has a play called 12th Night. Most people recognize 12th Night today under a different name, that of New Year’s Eve. It’s the last big party to celebrate a new year, celebrate the passing of the darkest (and in theory coldest of times) and to look forward to the lengthening days and warming temperatures.

Misc.

Other deities commonly honored during this time are the skiing/hunting God Ullr and the Goddess Skadhi since they are deities intimately connected with winter, Odin, Thor, Berchta or Frau Holle, Frigga, Sunna, Mani, Saga.

My Practices

Generally speaking I celebrate Mother's Night and Twelth Night with fellow heathens in my area. Since my family and extended family celebrates Christmas, I will coincide my familial yuletide celebrations with their observance of Christmas. Many modern heathens will do this as it’s convenient with those of us with Christian family members. And then for the other 9 days of Yule I find times to visit with friends, pop in on the neighbors, and do something in my community.

Usually that includes some sort of community oriented service or volunteerism before Christmas because regardless of the name of the holiday celebrated there are people in need of everything from coats, to a bit of cheer to lighten a dark time in their life. And the so called “Christmas spirit” and “Yule Spirit” are at the core the same thing, even if they’re defined differently. To me the ancient spirit of Yuletide was yes in part religious, but also derived from the very practical notion that Winter was a rough time.

As mentioned previously disease was more rampant because people and animals and related pests were cooped up in doors, the weather was cold, food stuffs could be in short supply (even if properly stocked, food could be ruined by pests are spoilt in other ways). And the diet consisted of lots of grains and means, and not much in the way of fruit. And as we know there are vital nutrients in fruit that help our immune systems. So the holiday became a way of boosting the health as a means of avoiding death (which is to my mind why this is the time of the Wild Hunt) and checking on one's community, and if anyone was in need to then no doubt try to do something about it before things moved to a dire point. Let us not forget, scientists have linked increase rates of depression to those not getting sufficient sunlight. People in extreme Northern latitudes where daylight may only be around for an hour at times… are prone to such things.

Comments

Beautifully written!
I have been thinking lately how us modern-day city folk don't really understand the cycle of the seasons. Winter, summer, spring or autumn, they're basically the same for us. Rush rush rush (school, work, kids and all that) and we don't really have anything to do with the agricultural cycle. We do take all that for granted (from the grogery shops). This happens to the point where celebrating Yule like the ancients did and giving it the meaning they did seems awfully strange to me. And I am still somewhat familiar with the agricultural cycle because of the time I spent at the countryside as a child (by the way, did you know wheat is planted in late autumn?). I wish I had more time to do craft stuff but I have school work. You get the message. So like it or not, modern people do celebrate the winter holidays in a manner very different from that of the ancients.
some of the traditions may not translate 100%, but I think the core principle and spirit still applies. :)

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