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.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There's more than one Independence Day in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced enslaved people were now free. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth across the nation. Here's what you should know about the historic event and celebration.

1. Enslaved people had already been emancipated—they just didn’t know it.

The June 19 announcement came more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. So technically, from the Union's perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it, and no one was in a rush to inform them.

2. There are many theories as to why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t enforced in Texas.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

News traveled slowly back in those days—it took Confederate soldiers in western Texas more than two months to hear that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Still, some have struggled to explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the enslaved people’s freedom, leading to speculation that some Texans suppressed the announcement. Other theories include that the original messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being relayed or that the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to Texas to get one more cotton harvest out of the enslaved workers. But the real reason is probably that Lincoln's proclamation simply wasn't enforceable in the rebel states before the end of the war.

3. The announcement actually urged freedmen and freedwomen to stay with their former owners.

General Order No. 3, as read by General Granger, said:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

4. What followed was known as “the scatter.”


Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Most freedpeople weren't terribly interested in staying with the people who had enslaved them, even if pay was involved. In fact, some were leaving before Granger had finished making the announcement. What followed became known as "the scatter,," when droves of former enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.

5. Not all enslaved people were freed instantly.

Texas is a large state, and General Granger's order (and the troops needed to enforce it) were slow to spread. According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers deliberately suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867 there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one report of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.

6. Freedom created other problems.

Despite the announcement, Texas slave owners weren't too eager to part with what they felt was their property. When freedpeople tried to leave, many of them were beaten, lynched, or murdered. "They would catch [freed slaves] swimming across [the] Sabine River and shoot them," a former enslaved person named Susan Merritt recalled.

7. There were limited options for celebrating.

A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
2C2KPhotography, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When freedpeople tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement a year later, they were faced with a problem: Segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and there were no public places or parks they were permitted to use. So, in the 1870s, former enslaved people pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed "Emancipation Park." It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.

8. Juneteenth celebrations waned for several decades.

It wasn't because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom—but, as Slate so eloquently put it, "it's difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides." Juneteenth celebrations waned during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the Poor People's March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was purposely scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.

9. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

Texas deemed the holiday worthy of statewide recognition in 1980, becoming the first state to do so.

10. Juneteeth is still not a federal holiday.

Though most states now officially recognize Juneteenth, it's still not a national holiday. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, though it didn't pass then or while he was president. One supporter of the idea is 93-year-old Opal Lee—in 2016, when she was 90, Lee began walking from state to state to draw attention to the cause.

11. The Juneteenth flag is full of symbolism.

a mock-up of the Juneteenth flag
iStock

Juneteenth flag designer L.J. Graf packed lots of meaning into her design. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag to symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas, while the bursting "new star" on the "horizon" of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people.

12. Juneteenth traditions vary across the U.S.

As the tradition of Juneteenth spread across the U.S., different localities put different spins on celebrations. In southern states, the holiday is traditionally celebrated with oral histories and readings, "red soda water" or strawberry soda, and barbecues. Some states serve up Marcus Garvey salad with red, green, and black beans, in honor of the black nationalist. Rodeos have become part of the tradition in the southwest, while contests, concerts, and parades are a common theme across the country.