Monday, December 20, 2010


Today when many in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and other English speaking countries think of Christmas, holly, mistletoe, evergreens, and bright lights are apt to come in mind. Indeed, the imagery of Christmas is intimately joined to the imagery of winter in Northern Europe and Great Britain: snow, sleighs, and cold weather. None of this has a thing to do with the birth of Jesus, who was more likely born in spring, summer, or autumn given biblical accounts (the shepherds are said to be out with their flocks). Indeed, European holly and mistletoe are not to be found in Israel. For that matter, even in winter, snow is very rare in Israel and almost never substantial. Why then is Christmas in the mind of English speakers so tied to holly, snow, bright lights, evergreens and snow? The reason is simply that these are survivals of a festival celebrated in late December among the various Germanic peoples (including the English, the Danes, the Swedes, the Germans, and so on) known by cognates of our modern word Yule (OE Geól), a word synonymous even today with Christmas.

The etymological origins of our modern word Yule remain unknown, although it appears in nearly every Germanic language, from Old English Geól to Old Norse Jól to Frisiian Giel to modern Danish Jul to modern English Yule. Indeed, our earliest attestation of a cognate to Yule is to be found in in a portion of the Codex Ambrosianus dating to the 4th Century CE in a fragment of a Gothic calendar. In the fragment Fruma Jiuleis ("Before Yule") is given as the native, Gothic name for November. This reflects native month names among the Angles and Saxons which will be discussed below). Indeed, given the Anglo-Saxon calendar, it seems likely the author was mistaken and Fruma Jiuleis actually  corresponded roughly to December. Sadly, there is little else in the Gothic language about Yule.

Fortunately, we have a few more sources about Yule to be found among the Angles and Saxons of early England. In his De Temporum Ratione Bede gives Giuli (a cognate of Geól) as the native, ancient, Angle and Saxon name of December. He states that ancient English peoples began the year on 25 December, the day now observed as Christmas, and its very night they called Módraniht ("Mothers' Night"), he suspected on account of ceremonies they observed that night. The Martyrology, written in Old English rather than Bede's Latin, gives two other, native month names that reference Geól. It gives Ærra Geóla "Before Yule" for December and Æftera Geóla "After Yule" for January, the former month name recalling the Gothic Fruma Jiuleis. The month name for December, Ærra Geóla, is also referenced in the Menologium. Elsewhere in Old English the word Geól is used as the word for the holiday Christians now call "Christmas" in English. Here it must be noted, that for the Angles and Saxons of Dark Ages England, Christmas was indeed twelve days long,  from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night or Epiphany.

Sadly, we know little of how the ancient English peoples might have celebrated Yule. From Bede's reference to Módraniht, we can guess that it might have involved some form of ancestor worship. Indeed, Bede suspected what is now called Christmas Eve was called Módraniht because of ceremonies performed on that night. It seems possible that the mummer's plays, pantomimes, and Morris dancing performed even today in England could go back to the Angles and Saxons of the Dark Ages. St. Augustine himself preached against those who dressed as a stag or a horse. In the sixth century the Council of Auxerre would not only condemn masquerading as a stag or a bull, but would give a date when such a thing was done: New Year's. While Auxerre is located in France, it seems that if pagan Franks dressed as animals at New Year's (which for Germanic peoples was Yule), then so too did the Angles and Saxons. Indeed, around 700 CE (a time when there were still heathen in England), Theodore Archbishop of Canterbury would prescribe a punishment of three years penance for anyone who dressed as a stag or old woman, dressed in the skins of animals, about the Calends of January--in other words, Yule. Although Morris dancing is mentioned no earlier than the 16th century, mummer's plays the 18th century, and pantomimes the 17th century, it seems possible that they had origins in customs that go back to before the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain in the 5th century, customs linked to Yule.

Just as Old English and Anglo-Saxon sources are richer in information on Yule than Gothic sources, so too are Old Norse and Icelandic sources richer than Old English sources. Indeed, in the poetry of the skalds (the poets of the Old Norse speakers), Jólnir is given as one of the names of Óðinn, god of wisdom, poetry, magic, aristocrats, and many other things. Writing in the 10th Century, the skald Eyvindr skáldaspillir uses a plural of Jólnir, Jólnar, of all the gods. Another name for Óðinn was Jólföðr, literally "Yule Father." It seems possible Óðinn, called among the Angles and Saxons  Wóden, was the original Father Christmas.

The holiday of Yule itself is mentioned in a prose portion of the "Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar" in the Poetic Edda, a poem dated by some to the 11th Century. It describes how on Yule Eve men laid their hands on the sacrificial boar and swore oaths upon him. It also makes mention of the king's toast. A more detailed account of Yule is to be found in "The Saga of Hakon the God," the fourth book of Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson. There it told how King Hakon the Good of Norway rescheduled the celebration of Yule to coincide with the Christian celebration. As to the heathen celebration of Yule, according to "The Saga of Hakon the Good," at Yuletide the farmers would come to the temple and bring all the good they would need for the length of the feast. At the feast there would be a good deal of drinking of alcohol. Livestock would be slaughtered as sacrifices to the gods. Their blood would be sprinkled upon the congregates there as a blessing upon them, while their flesh would be cooked served at the feast. It was the chieftain who made the feast, blessed the alcohol, and blessed the sacrificial meat. Toasts would then be drunk. First would be a toast to Óðinn for victory and power to the king. Second would be to the gods  Njörðr and Freyr for peace and good harvests. Third would be a toast to dead ancestors and kinsmen.

Further sagas tell a bit more about Yule among the Old Norse speakers and Icelanders. Indeed, Grettirs Saga had quite a bit more to say about Yule. It told how the mistress of the house decorated it and readied for the Yuletide. It also told how  it is also at Yule when ghosts are most powerful. Set not long after the Icelanders had converted Christianity, Grettirs Saga equates Yule with Christmas, much as the Angles and Saxons had. In Svarfdæla saga a berserk postpones a duel until three days after Yule has ended in order not to disturb the sanctity of the holiday. In The Grœnlendinga Saga there is even a reference to gift giving at Yule. Thorfinnur Karlsefni gave Eirikur Raudi malt with which to make ale at Yule.Among the Icelanders, at least, Yule apparently lasted thirteen days. Epiphany, Twelfth Night in English, was called Þrettándi in Old Icelandic, "the Thirteenth.

Looking at Yule (or Jól as they would have called it) celebrated among the Old Norse speakers and assuming the Angles and Saxons would have celebrated it similarly, one can see customs which have survived to this day in the celebration of Christmas. Feasting remains a part of Christmas to this day. Even today drinking is common place at Christmas, and the oaths and toasts made at the heathen Yule reflect the toasts and resolutions made today at New Year's. Even the sacrificial boar seems to have survived as a custom at Christmas, ham being a traditional holiday meal. As to giving gifts, it is still very much a part of Christmas.

Of course, the sad fact is that none of the sources describing Yule among the pagan Germanic peoples go into detail about how the holiday was celebrated beyond dressing as animals, feasting, drinking, oaths, toasts, and sacrifices. Certainly, the custom of wassailing--of drinking to the health of trees in order that they might live longer--could be a survival of heathen Yule as well. Indeed, the word wassail dates back to an Old English greeting "Wæs þú hal"--"May you be whole (as in healthy)." 

Sadly, we cannot be certain of other customs, although it is quite possible that they date back to pagan Yule. This could be particularly true of holly, often used in Christmas decoration whether in making wreaths from it or decking the halls with boughs of it. Both holly and ivy have been used in Christmas decorations since at least the 15th and 16th centuries, and the carol "The Holly and the Ivy" maybe nearly as old. While holly and ivy have a fairly long history as holiday decorations, mistletoe, much less the custom of kissing beneath it, is rarely mentioned prior to the 18th century. Still, it seems likely that it was a pagan survival  given the significance of mistletoe in myths and legends. Indeed, in the Prose Edda Snorri Sturluson states that it was with mistletoe that the god Baldr was slain. It was also a popular plant to use in herbal remedies.The Christmas tree also seems to be a recent tradition. Indeed, it is first referenced in 1510 in Riga, Latvia. In 1521 the German Princess Helene of Mecklembourg brought a Christmas tree to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. Afterwards, it is often referred to as a German custom.

While many of these Christmas decorations, such holly and Christmas trees, are referenced no earlier than the 15th or 16th century, and mistletoe even later, it does seem possible that they are heathen survivals. In Grettirs Saga we are told the lady of the house decorated it for Yule. In other holidays which survived from paganism, such as Midsummer, it was traditional to decorate the house with flowers. Flowers being unknown in December, at Yule the Germanic peoples may have used evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, as decorations instead. Indeed, they may have had a special significance. Yule was the beginning of the year, while evergreens were always green--they did not lose their foliage as other plants did. Evergreens could then be a symbol of birth and rebirth, as in the birth and rebirth of the year.

The Yule log could also be a survival of the pagan celebration.  Although not mentioned in Old English or Old Norse sources, the Yule log is burned in England, in Germany, and in France. While it is first mentioned in England only in the 17th century, in its first reference it already seems to be a well established custom among rural folk. The significance in the Yule log may be in providing light and warmth during the longest night of the year, Yule originally falling on the winter solstice (December 25 according to the Julian calendar).

Sadly, we can never be certain that these customs survived from the pagan Yule celebration or merely developed over time. It does seem that they have very little to do with the birth of Jesus or anything to be found in the Christian Bible. Given this, it seems likely that they are pagan in origin rather than Christian, and owe more to the pagan celebration of Yule than the Christian celebration of Christmas. What we do know for certain of the heathen Yule, however, points to the fact that much of it survived to this day. People still drink. People still make toasts. People still make resolutions. People even still eat ham and give gifts. Although many Christians would insist that it isn't Christmas without many of these things, the fact is that they are survivals of a festival celebrated long before Christianity came to Northern Europe, the festival of Yule.


QUB English Society said...

Very interesting post! I really enjoyed reading it-very 'thought-provoking'.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you! I'd like to do a companion piece on how pre-Christian Celtic beliefs influenced Christmas in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but I don't know enough about Welsh, Irish, or Scottish customs!