The Many Stories Behind the Origins of Yule

An illustration of an ancient Yule celebration, as seen in the German newspaper Die Gartenlaube in 1880.
An illustration of an ancient Yule celebration, as seen in the German newspaper Die Gartenlaube in 1880.
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Ah, Christmas. That time for caroling, hot chocolate, and yuletide cheer. Wait, what on Earth is a yule? And what do the tides have to do with Christmas?

Yule is an incredibly old word (for English, anyway) that may trace back to celebrations of the new year, Christmas, and may or may not involve a lot of drinking and eating, sacrifices, and making oaths. According to Old Norse expert Jackson Crawford, jól was a three-night festival starting on Midwinter (the winter solstice). Those are the basics.

Sadly, in the words of Göteborg University professor Britt-Mari Näsström, “the scarcity of the sources restricts our knowledge of the pre-Christian yule/jól.” But it’s still a fun puzzle to put together—even if world-class scholars are only able to agree on the basics.

Murky Origins

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 726, St. Bede, a monk and scholar, mentioned Giuli (an old spelling of Yule) as a name for both December and January. The picture gets murky when we learn from Bede that there was also a pre-Christian festival celebrated on December 25 called Modranecht, or "mother’s night." Some scholars propose that there’s a connection between Bede’s Giuli (December and January), mother’s night, and the Norse celebration jól, thought to have taken place around the same time.

To be clear, not everyone agrees. The Oxford Companion to the Year comments that, “Before the Norman Conquest this day [December 25] was normally called ‘Midwinter’ in Old English; it was not called ‘Yule’, which ... is more Scots than English.” And contrary to what you might think, the word Yule is thought to be from the same mysterious Germanic origin as jól, not that one name is descended from the other.

Popular tales of the Old Norse jól, which have less support, claim that it was a day when the veil between the living and dead was thin. Some even argue that Jólnir, one of Odin’s many names, indicates that Odin features prominently in the celebrations, which, since he also had a role as god of the dead, indicate that it was kind of a "day of the dead" celebration.

Not everyone agrees with this, either. In 2018, Bettina Sejbjerg Sommer of the University of Copenhagen wrote an article entitled “The Pre-Christian Jól: Not a Cult of the Dead, but the Norse New Year Festival.” She proposes that folkloric elements assumed to be related to a cult of the dead have other explanations, like a custom of leaving a table full of food out during the night might be for dead ancestors, or it might be for angels, trolls, or “other supernatural visitors.” And that some scholars now think that Odin might be connected to the day because of his roles with ritual drinking and the aristocracy.

Instead, as can be gleaned from the title, Sommer argues that jól was a pre-Christian New Year festival, saying (and using jól and Yule interchangeably) that the folkloric sources indicate that “in the Yule period the coming year is not predicted, it is created. In this period, the impending year comes into being and that is why the coming year is shaped by the Yule period: everything that happens in this period influences and creates the coming year [emphasis is original].”

Eat, drink, and be merry

Sommer argues that the season is full of divination and concern for the coming year. In Old Norse culture, there was a sense that divination actively affects the future, so abundant food and alcohol meant you were actively creating abundance for the coming year. "This is why drinking and eating to excess—gluttony, even—is not only the centerpiece and most striking characteristic of the feast, it is a sacred duty, as is evident in the widespread custom that a visitor must partake of food and drink, to refuse is not acceptable,” she writes. But she cautions that the festival likely had other meanings as well, and it’s a mistake to take a singular viewpoint.

Sommer’s view isn’t universal. One review says, “her argument, that Jól was not a cult of the dead or a fertility festival, as it is often portrayed in post-conversion Old Norse texts, is less convincing. It is not surprising that the dead would figure prominently in a ‘strong,' liminal time, or that fertility should be associated with a New Year celebration.”

By circa 900, Yule was being used as a word for Christmas, which it still is in Scottish and northern dialects (and as a “literary archaism” for the rest of us). So when Alfred the Great gave free-men 12 days at Yule in the late 9th century, he meant a Christmas vacay.

This was a time when the two holidays began blending together. According to the saga of King Hakon the Good (reigned c. 920-961, saga written down in the 13th century), Hakon, a Christian, demanded that people had to celebrate either Christmas or jól, both of which were to happen in late December. They were able to celebrate whichever one they chose, but each free man had to “have ale for the celebration from a measure of grain ... and had to keep the holidays while the ale lasted.” According to Crawford, this amounted to four gallons of ale. In three nights. The party also featured sacrifices (especially that of horses) and oaths (especially on boars).

The exact origins of Yule still leave many open questions—though at least modern Christmas celebrations don’t tend to feature over a gallon of beer a day.

two more Yule bits

Despite what you may hear, having a "Jolly Yuletide" is probably not a tautology. A popular folk-etymological origin for the word jolly relates to the Old Norse jól, either directly or via some cognate German word. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary this is “extremely doubtful.” The word comes to English from French, but beyond that, it’s unclear and “historical and phonetic difficulties” suggest against an Old Norse origin. Instead, the OED has the suggestion that it’s ultimately from the Latin gaudium, meaning joy.

And as for what the tides have to do with a mid-winter celebration, tide originally meant, “A portion, extent, or space of time; an age, a season, a time, a while,” according to the OED. That’s the meaning of the word as it appears in Beowulf and other Old English texts (and would give rise to similar constructions like New-Year’s tide or eventide). Etymologically, ocean tides might come from Middle Low German getide, meaning "fixed time" or from Middle Dutch or perhaps it just naturally developed in English. No matter what, it’s thought that it was originally "the time of high water" and naturally developed from that.

Queen Elizabeth II Keeps Her Holiday Decorations Up Through February—Here’s Why

John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images
John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

If your family and friends have been ribbing you lately because your lawn still looks like Santa’s satellite workshop, here’s a reasonable counterargument: Queen Elizabeth II Ieaves her holiday decorations up at least until February 6.

Travel + Leisure reports that the Queen and Prince Philip spend the holiday season at Sandringham House, a stately Norfolk country residence that Prince Philip is responsible for maintaining. Ownership passed to the Queen after her father, King George VI, died there on February 6, 1952. Since then, she has observed the anniversary of his death at Sandringham, letting the decorations remain until after she has returned to Buckingham Palace.

According to HELLO! magazine, Sandringham House’s seasonal trappings are supposedly a bit more subtle than the extravagant lights and towering evergreens of the Crown's more public estates like Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. At Sandringham, however, the royal family actually helps decorate; as mentioned on the official royal website, the Queen and members of her family “usually put the final touches on their Christmas tree.”

Long-lasting Christmas decorations aren’t the only way the Queen celebrates King George VI’s legacy during the holidays. Following the tradition set by her father (and his father before him), the Queen gifts a total of about 1500 Christmas puddings to her staff, including palace personnel, police, and Court Post Office workers. Each pudding—a spiced fruit cake, rather than the creamy, gelatinous dessert Americans think of when they hear the term pudding—comes with a holiday greeting card from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

18 Weird and Wonderful Holidays to Celebrate in the New Year

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you think some celebratory traditions are strange, you've clearly never experienced National Sleepyhead Day. This Finnish holiday, which is observed each year on July 27, might sound like a great excuse to spend the day napping—but sleeping is the last thing you want to be caught doing. If you're the last person in the house found snoozing on National Sleepyhead Day, prepare to be awoken in the rudest way possible: with a bucket of water to the face.

That's just one of the weird and wonderful holidays that Mental Floss Editor-in-Chief Erin McCarthy is celebrating in this all-new edition of The List Show.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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