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Myths about Yule debunked

by
18 December 2020

The ancient pagan rite is surprisingly modern, says Nick Page

istock

YULE is trendy. You can buy books on how to celebrate it. It’s become an alternative to Christmas, with all its Christian trappings. Yule was the pagan feast, wasn’t it? You get the yule-log and . . . er . . . well, the yule-log and that’s about it. But it’s definitely to do with the Vikings. Or Saxons. Or someone.

A BBC webpage gives more details: “The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. . .” it begins, before going on to state confidently that “the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale. . .” And: “It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log.”

Or you get the claim that Santa Claus is really Odin (he isn’t) and that Vikings decorated yule-trees (they didn’t).

Yule wasn’t celebrated at the winter solstice, it does not pre-date Christianity, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Druids, and the first ever mention of the yule-log comes from 1725.

Yule is an ancient word, though. Although, for the most part, whenever it is mentioned in ancient sources, it just means “Christmas”.

 

THE earliest detailed mention of Yule comes, in fact, from the Christian historian Bede, and occurs in Chapter 15 of his book The Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione), written in 725 or 726. It’s a scientific look at how the movements of the sun and the moon influence days and time.

He tells us that in “olden time” (i.e. a few hundred years before he was writing) the Anglo-Saxon tribes followed a lunar calendar. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli. December is also Giuli, the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January (25 December), when we celebrate the birth of the Lord.

These tribes moved into Britain in the aftermath of the Romans, some time during the fifth century AD. The Saxons came from north-west Germany. The Angles and the Jutes came from Jutland — the peninsular that later became part of Denmark. The traditional story is that they were invited over in 449 as mercenaries.

Having seen “the fertility of the island and the slackness of the Britons”, they turned on their former employers, invited a lot of heavily armed friends and relatives to come on over and join them, and took over the whole country.

Nowadays, the consensus is that the whole thing was a lot more gradual, and a lot less violent. Anyway, it’s clear from Bede’s account that Giuli (i.e. Yule) is not actually an event, or even a festival. It’s a two-month period — really a kind of Anglo-Saxon word for “winter”.

 

BEDE does mention a festival — one held on 25 December — which is called “by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, ‘mother’s night’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night . . .” But he doesn’t tell us any of the ceremonies. He just has “suspicions”. And, anyway, Modranecht is not Yule.

Bede, of course, mentions 25 December. But he just says it was the start of their New Year. Now, if the Germanic tribes chose 25 December for the start of their New Year, there is only one place they can have got that. It was the Roman solstice, and the Christian Christmas. Because we are not talking pre-history here. We know that, by the mid-fourth century, 25 December was Christmas in the Roman calendar.

So, if Bede is correct, it seems likely that the thing that Christians are often accused of was exactly what the northern pagans — some of the northern pagans — did. They adopted the Roman calendar and placed their own festival on one of the sacred days in the late Roman (and very Christian) calendar. For the next couple of centuries sources like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle don’t use the term. Where they mention Christmas, they call it midwinter, midwinter’s mass, or Nativited.

In about 900, a book called The Old English Martyrology mentions it, but, once again, it’s a two-month period for Yule, or geola as it appears in this manuscript. However, in 901, a law of Alfred the Great talks about the twelve days of gehhol — i.e. Yule.

So, by 901, yule is beginning to be a word that means “Christmas”. And it continued like that — so much so that the 1637 Book of Common Prayer could list the table proper of psalms for “Yule, or Christmas Day”.

 

SO, WHERE did the idea of Yule as a pagan festival come from? From the north. From a different set of pagans: the Vikings.

The only accounts that equate yule with a festival come from a different time and a different part of Europe. They occur from around 1200 onwards, and are almost all in a saga by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson. Born in 1179, he was an important member of one of the leading Icelandic families, and became the wealthiest man in the country.

Unfortunately, he fell out with another leading family, and was killed in a cellar by his own son-in-law. Snorri composed a history called Heimskringla, and it’s from there that we get most of our information about the Viking yule. And by “most”, I mean hardly any. But here’s what we know.

First, yule — or jól — still means winter. But there was within this period a festival also called jól at which large, hairy Scandinavian warriors would drikke jól, or “drink yule”. According to Snorri, it began on midwinter night (12 January), and continued for three nights.

You had to drink a lot of ale and raise toasts to victory, prosperity, and peace. Along with the drinking, you would also kill a lot of horses, eat their liver and spray their blood on the altars, walls, and people. Before the banquet there was the bloodbath: “the altars were to be reddened all over, and also the walls of the temple outside and inside and the people also were sprinkled, while the meat was to be cooked for a feast.”

And we know that Christian Viking kings tried to change this. The Heimskringla contains an account of the reign of King Hákon Haraldsson “the Good” (c.920–61), who was a Christian. Hákon actually moved the date of jól specifically to coincide with Christmas: “He made it law that observance of Yule should begin at the same time as Christian people observed Christmas, and then everyone was to have a measure of ale, or else pay a fine, and keep holiday as long as the ale lasted.”

King Hákon faced a lot of opposition. People didn’t like him turning his nose up at all their horseflesh. In the end, to the relief of the horses, the pagan feasts were abolished. The Ágrip is a brief history of the kings of Norway from the late 800s to the early 1100s. The text was written around 1190.

In the account of Olaf Trygvasson (King of Norway from 995 to 1000) it tells how he continued the Christianisation of Norway: “He first raised churches on his own estates and he abolished pagan feasts and sacrifices, in place of which, as a favour to the people, he ordained the holiday feasts of Yule and Easter, St John’s Mass ale and an autumn ale at Michaelmas.”

Interestingly, in this account, Yule is a Christian holiday, along with Easter and others.

But what about all those other customs? The yule-log? None of them date from anywhere near that time. All the first mentions of them come from a time when the pagan associations of Yule were way in the past. So, we have:
 

  • yule-candle (first mentioned 1808 in Scotland)
  • yule-game (first mentioned 1611)
  • yule-log (first mentioned 1725)
  • yule-tide (first mentioned 1572).
     

The yule-log, which so many books tell us is really an ancient pagan custom, dates from . . . er . . . 1725. There’s no mention of it before then. None of the pagan accounts say anything about burning logs. I’m not saying they didn’t — I mean, it’s sodding cold in Iceland; so of course you would put the heating on. And all that horsemeat doesn’t cook itself, you know. But it wasn’t to do with any ritual other than getting warm.

None of this is to decry modern neo-pagans who want to burn a log. It’s a free world. But you don’t need to claim it’s old to validate it. Lighting a yule-log links you to a tradition that dates back 300 years. And that’s fine. It doesn’t have to go back to the Vikings in order to be a valid tradition.

All I’m saying is that there’s no need to pretend it goes back to the Vikings. (The same, of course, goes for Christians, a lot of whom assume that the way we do things now is the way that Jesus did it.) That’s the issue with a lot of neo-pagan groups, whether Druids, Wiccans, or all-purpose heathens. They forget the “neo” bit. In the end, either be authentic and sacrifice a horse, or, preferably, admit that you are creating a modern construct and just warm your hands.

 

This is an edited extract from Christ­mas: Tradition, truth and total baubles by Nick Page, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99) (Books for Christmas, 27 November).

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