Happy yule, everyone! The Yuletide was originally celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples including Celts and Vikings, and by others all around Europe, long before the Christian Holiday. In Scandanavia in particular, Yule celebrations predate the celebration of Christmas as we know it by thousands of years.
As Europeans converted to Christianity, solstice celebrations waned but many ancient yule traditions stuck around.
In Scandinavian mythology, Balder, the god of light and goodness, was slain by an arrow poisoned with misletoe. When his mother Frigga cried for him, her tears fell on red berries, turning them white. The white berries then became powerful enough to resurrect Balder. It was used a symbol of renewal and resurrection, fitting right in with the modern Christmas holiday.
During the Yule celebrated by Germanic people, many believed that ghost sightings and supernatural occurences happened much more often than during the rest of the year, such as during the Wild Hunt, which was a procession of ghosts through the sky led by Odin, who bore a long beard and brought gifts to those who deserved them. Sound familiar?
Christmas caroling is otherwise known as wassailing, which has Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon origins. Traditionally, peasants would visit their feudal lords and sing songs in exchange for gifts and treats. This gives new context to the line from the song We Wish You a Merry Christmas: “We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here.”
12 Days of Christmas
Traditionally, the midwinter feast lasted twelve days, which is where the modern twelve days of Christmas comes from.
Scandinavians used to decorate evergreen trees with statues, food, clothing, and runes as tribute to the gods. Additionally, it was believed that spirits living in the trees, but went away during the winter months, and could be coaxed back with household offerings.
The Vikings and other ancient Germanic cultures made many opportunities to honor their gods with feasting and rituals, one of which involved sacrificing a wild boar in hopes of a bountiful harvest the following season. If you eat ham at your Christmas feast, you join a long line, time honored tradition that began with the sacrificing of the boar.
Yule logs are large decorated logs that at one time traditionally held carved runes and symbols. The log would be burned, and part of it would be saved and kept to protect the home.
In honor of the winter solstice which marked the sun’s return and the beginning of longer days, Vikings created sunwheels, which very much resembled Christmas wreaths. After crafting the sunwheel, it would be burned and rolled down a hill to herald the coming of the sun.
Source: normandescendants.org, Wikipedia
Header image via Gilli Allan