You’ve probably heard the term before, whether in reference to the Yule Log tradition, as a lyric of a “Yuletide Carol,” or the famous Hogwarts Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Many assume the word is simply synonymous with Christmas. In reality, the word predates not only the Christian holiday but Christianity itself. So what is Yule, where does it come from, and where did it go? Keep reading to learn more. And save the date for our virtual Yule Ball at Home celebration on Saturday, December 12 at 7 p.m.

Origins of Yule

The word “yule” comes from the Norse Celebration known as “Jól” or “Jul” (pronounced “yoh-l” or “yule”), meaning “wheel.” It is thought to refer to either the “wheel” of the sun or the “wheel” of the calendar year. The holiday itself is a celebration of the winter solstice. The winter solstice, usually around December 21, is sometimes known as the longest night. When it is over, the days start getting longer once more, and the nights shorter.

However, the traditions we associate with Yule are not from Scandinavia alone. For much of human history, people have celebrated the winter solstice in one form or another, especially throughout Europe. The records we have of the exact origin of each aspect are somewhat spotty, for many reasons. Some Pagan religions, such as the Celtic Druids of Ireland, relied completely on oral histories. Through trade routes, celebrations and customs spread, each influencing one another. As a result, there is a fair amount of ambiguity as to where exactly each tradition began. However, it is believed that Yule traditions spread from Scandinavia to the British Isles due to Viking raiding and occupation. The Celtic and Scottish holiday also called “Yule” supports this theory.

Yule and Christmas

As Christian missionaries began to spread across Europe, their journey was not without opposition. It is not an easy task to convince a group of people to abandon the traditions their ancestors held for centuries. It’s been theorized that Christmas purposely incorporated many pagan traditions in its celebration to soften the blow of conversion and make the young Christian religion seem more appealing and familiar to possible converts. It’s also believed this is why Christmas was placed on December 25, days within the winter solstice, despite many believing the birth of Jesus occurred in the spring. “You can still decorate a fir tree. We do that, too. But for Jesus.” And trees aren’t the only Yuletide tradition we see at Christmas. Here are a few of the most prominent:

1. Holly and Mistletoe

Celtic Druids believed mistletoe was a sacred plant because it is one of the rare few that blooms and thrives during the winter. It was seen as a symbol of life and rebirth and was believed to possess healing properties. The Celts would decorate their homes with mistletoe in order to ward off evil spirits that may roam around on the longest night.

The Romans saw mistletoe as a harbinger of peace and friendship. They believed that if enemies met under the mistletoe, they would cease their quarrel and make peace. It’s still a far cry from kissing, though. That particular Christmas tradition is believed to have come from Greece, where mistle was used not only in their solstice festival, Kronia, but also played a big part in weddings, where the bride and groom would kiss underneath it.

Rome took many of its cues from Greece, and during their nearly week-long festivities of the winter holiday Saturnalia, they would hang a “kissing bush” made of a variety of herbs from their ceilings. Sometimes this would include mistletoe, but since the plant was far less abundant in parts of Rome, it was often substituted with other plants like rosemary, bay or holly.

For a time, mistletoe was banned from Christian churches due to its pagan associations.

2. The Yule Log

As far as popular Christmas traditions, the Yule Log often takes a back seat to more popular icons like Christmas trees, stockings and Santa Claus. But for earlier pagan celebrations, especially in Scandinavia, the burning of the Yule Log takes center stage.

The exact type of wood used varies from region to region. England tended to use oak, while Scotland preferred birch, and France, cherry wood. In Scandinavia, they used ash wood, which was representative of life. Some sources even say that, since the wood was representative of life, that like life, it could not be bought. One superstition stated that the longer the Yule Log burned, the faster the sun would rise. After the holiday, the Yule log’s ashes were spread over the roof of the house.

Yule involved many fires. It was a festival of light, to drive out the darkness and welcome the rebirth of the sun. Earlier iterations of the festival, especially in Scotland and Scandinavia, held large central bonfires, as well as (or instead of) the burning of Yule Logs in the home. There was also an abundance of candles, which may have inspired today’s intricate Christmas light displays.

3. The Tree

Even one of the most popular symbols we associate with the Christmas season has its roots in pagan practice. Much like mistletoe and holly, evergreen trees were seen as symbols of life, because they kept their green color throughout the winter months.

Trees were decorated with a variety of trinkets: candles, coins, dried fruit, bells, pinecones, strung berries, and more. The exact reason and symbolism vary between accounts. Some claim that the decorations represent wishes for the upcoming year- coins for wealth, fruits for a good harvest, etc. Other accounts say that they are offerings.

One Yule tree story I find particularly enjoyable involves the spirit that lives in the evergreen. You take the tree inside and dress and care for it, and in exchange, the tree’s spirit will protect your home and possibly even leave little gifts beneath the tree. This is why for many modern pagan practitioners, it is important to have a real, living tree rather than an artificial one. Because a plastic tree has no spirit!

Posted on behalf of Kelsey Schaeflein, Adult and Teen Services Specialist