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.
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.