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.

10 of the Best Indoor and Outdoor Heaters on Amazon

Mr. Heater/Amazon
Mr. Heater/Amazon

With the colder months just around the corner, you might want to start thinking about investing in an indoor or outdoor heater. Indoor heaters not only provide a boost of heat for drafty spaces, but they can also be a money-saver, allowing you to actively control the heat based on the rooms you’re using. Outdoor heaters, meanwhile, can help you take advantage of cold-weather activities like camping or tailgating without having to call it quits because your extremities have gone numb. Check out this list of some of Amazon’s highest-rated indoor and outdoor heaters so you can spend less time shivering this winter and more time enjoying what the season has to offer.

Indoor Heaters

1. Lasko Ceramic Portable Heater; $20

Lasko/Amazon

This 1500-watt heater from Lasko may only be nine inches tall, but it can heat up to 300 square feet of space. With 11 temperature settings and three quiet settings—for high heat, low heat, and fan only—it’s a dynamic powerhouse that’ll keep you toasty all season long.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Alrocket Oscillating Space Heater; $25

Alrocket/Amazon

Alrocket’s oscillating space heater is an excellent addition to any desk or nightstand. Using energy-saving ceramic technology, this heater is made of fire-resistant material, and its special “tip-over” safety feature forces it to turn off if it falls over (making it a reliable choice for homes with kids or pets). It’s extremely quiet, too—at only 45 dB, it’s just a touch louder than a whisper. According to one reviewer, this an ideal option for a “very quiet but powerful” heater.

Buy it: Amazon

3. De’Longhi Oil-Filled Radiator Space Heather; $79

De’Longhi/Amazon

If you prefer a space heater with a more old-fashioned vibe, this radiator heater from De’Longhi gives you 2020 technology with a vintage feel. De’Longhi’s heater automatically turns itself on when the temperatures drops below 44°F, and it will also automatically turn itself off if it starts to overheat. Another smart safety feature? The oil system is permanently sealed, so you won’t have to worry about accidental spills.

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4. Aikoper Ceramic Tower Heater; $70

Aikoper/Amazon

Whether your room needs a little extra warmth or its own heat source, Aikoper’s incredibly precise space heater has got you covered. With a range of 40-95°F, it adjusts by one-degree intervals, giving you the specific level of heat you want. It also has an option for running on an eight-hour timer, ensuring that it will only run when you need it.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Isiler Space Heater; $37

Isiler/Amazon

For a space heater that adds a fun pop of color to any room, check out this yellow unit from Isiler. Made from fire-resistant ceramic, Isiler’s heater can start warming up a space within seconds. It’s positioned on a triangular stand that creates an optimal angle for hot air to start circulating, rendering it so effective that, as one reviewer put it, “This heater needs to say ‘mighty’ in its description.”

Buy it: Amazon

Outdoor Heaters

6. Mr. Heater Portable Buddy; $104

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Make outdoor activities like camping and grilling last longer with Mr. Heater’s indoor/outdoor portable heater. This heater can connect to a propane tank or to a disposable cylinder, allowing you to keep it in one place or take it on the go. With such a versatile range of uses, this heater will—true to its name—become your best buddy when the temperature starts to drop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiland Pyramid Patio Propane Heater; Various

Hiland/Amazon

The cold’s got nothing on this powerful outdoor heater. Hiland’s patio heater has a whopping 40,000 BTU output, which runs for eight to 10 hours on high heat. Simply open the heater’s bottom door to insert a propane tank, power it on, and sit back to let it warm up your backyard. The bright, contained flame from the propane doubles as an outdoor light.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Solo Stove Bonfire Pit; $345

Solo Stove/Amazon

This one is a slight cheat since it’s a bonfire pit and not a traditional outdoor heater, but the Solo Stove has a 4.7-star rating on Amazon for a reason. Everything about this portable fire pit is meticulously crafted to maximize airflow while it's lit, from its double-wall construction to its bottom air vents. These features all work together to help the logs burn more completely while emitting far less smoke than other pits. It’s the best choice for anyone who wants both warmth and ambiance on their patio.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Dr. Infrared Garage Shop Heater; $119

Dr. Infrared/Amazon

You’ll be able to use your garage or basement workshop all season long with this durable heater from Dr. Infrared. It’s unique in that it includes a built-in fan to keep warm air flowing—something that’s especially handy if you need to work without wearing gloves. The fan is overlaid with heat and finger-protectant grills, keeping you safe while it’s powered on.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Mr. Heater 540 Degree Tank Top; $86

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Mr. Heater’s clever propane tank top automatically connects to its fuel source, saving you from having to bring any extra attachments with you on the road. With three heat settings that can get up to 45,000 BTU, the top can rotate 360 degrees to give you the perfect angle of heat you need to stay cozy. According to a reviewer, for a no-fuss outdoor heater, “This baby is super easy to light, comes fully assembled … and man, does it put out the heat.”

Buy it: Amazon

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30 Offbeat Holidays to Celebrate In October

Photo by Brandon Griggs on Unsplash

October—the spookiest month of the year—is upon, and with it, a calendar full of offbeat holidays. Between your autumnal walks, horror movie marathons, and oh, National Cat Day on October 29 (which is basically the year's most important holiday here at Mental Floss), see if you can squeeze in a few of these unconventional celebrations.

1. October 1: World Vegetarian Day

It's easy enough to eat meat-free for a day, but this celebration is intended to kick off a month of vegetarian awareness and encourage more lasting change.

2. October 2: World Farm Animals Day

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This may seem at odds with World Vegetarian Day, until you consider that this is actually a day to protest the farm in farm animal and the cruel conditions it implies.

3. October 2: National Custodian Day

Because really, we should be celebrating them every day.

4. October 2: World Smile Day

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If the calendar says you have to do it, you have to do it.

5. October 4: Ten-Four Day

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The fourth day of the 10th month of the year is the day the world celebrates radio operators, to which we say, “Ten-Four.”

6. October 4: National Ships-In-Bottles Day

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Someone spent a lot of time making this art happen, so let's take a little time to appreciate it.

7. October 8: National Pierogi Day

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On this day in 1952, pierogies were first delivered to a grocery store in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and we’ve been devouring them ever since.

8. October 10: National Handbag Day

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We carry them around, but in many ways, it’s the handbags that carry us.

9. October 10: National Cake Decorating Day

Making a boxed cake recipe and applying the frosting with a butter knife definitely counts.

10. October 11: Southern Food Heritage Day

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Sorry, but if you're not eating a plate of chicken and waffles like the one above (or something equally Southern) on October 11, you're doing it wrong.

11. October 14: International Top Spinning Day

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A good day to head to the toy store and take a spin.

12. October 15: National Grouch Day

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For those who love one, and those who are one.

13. October 15: Get Smart About Credit Day

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This American Bankers Association holiday is all about educating the public on credit—and if that stresses you out, you should probably be observing this quirky commemoration.

14. October 16: Dictionary Day

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October 16th is Noah Webster’s birthday, so take a break from your lackadaisical use of the English language, k?

15. October 17: Sweetest Day

Traditionally celebrated in the Midwest and Northeastern United States, Sweetest Day is a lot like Valentine's Day, which—depending on your outlook—is either a very good thing or a very bad thing.

16. October 19: Evaluate Your Life Day

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It’s time.

17. October 21: Hagfish Day

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These eel-shaped, slime-producing fish are fairly disgusting (seriously), but they're also kind of awesome. They have four hearts, have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and can feed through their skin. So while it might not be beautiful, the humble hagfish does deserve a little love and respect.

18. October 22: Smart Is Cool Day

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This is one that holiday that Mental Floss HQ can really get behind.

19. October 23: National Mole Day

Neither a tribute to the animal, nor a skin feature, nor an undercover spy, Mole Day honors Avogadro's Number, which is a basic measuring unit in chemistry.

20. October 23: Canning Day

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Nicolas Appert—the inventor of hermetically sealed food preservation and the "father of canning"—was born around this time circa 1750, and this day celebrates all things that come in jars. So, you know, put a lid on it.

21. October 25: Mother-in-Law Day

Unfortunately, this comes after National Forgiveness Day, so if you forget to give her a call it might be a long year before she forgives you.

22. October 26: National Mule Day

Now that you’ve celebrated moles, give a tip of the hat to mules—literal ones this time. On October 26, 1785, a pair of Spanish mules arrived in the U.S. as a gift from King Charles III. They’re said to have been the first mules bred in this country, by George Washington himself.

23. October 27: Cranky Co-workers Day

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Not that you have any of those ...

24. October 29: National Cat Day

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We know you don’t need a date in the calendar for this, but it makes your cat-filled Instagram feeds all that much more justified.

25. October 30: National Candy Corn Day

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Feel free to debate the merits of a holiday for this highly controversial, tricolored confection.

26. October 30: Checklists Day

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Put this one on your to-do list!

27. October 30: Create A Great Funeral Day

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Much of October is spent focused on ghouls and goblins, but this day is all about confronting the scariest thing of all: mortality. Between your apple orchard outings and haunted house trips, make sure you and your loved ones have a plan for after you've shuffled off this mortal coil. Happy October?

28. October 30: Haunted Refrigerator Night

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This offbeat holi-night is about exploring the darker corners and containers of your fridge. After all, we've all got some metaphorical skeletons lurking in there.

29. October 31: National Magic Day

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Halloween, shmalloween. This holiday is fittingly held on the anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini.

30. October 31: National Knock-Knock Jokes Day

There's no better time than the spookiest day of the year to tell some good (or bad) knock-knock jokes.