The Yule Festival is a pagan celebration of the return of the sun. Because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the Northern Hemisphere experiences shorter days and longer nights as the Winter Solstice approaches. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day and the longest night, but it also marks the point at which the days begin to grow longer again, and the nights shrink. The Yule Festival began before the use of the modern calendar, but it usually took place on December 21, right around the Winter Solstice. The word “Yule” could be related to the Germanic word for “wheel”, referring to the turning of the sun. As such, the festival was often one that included a lot of fire and light - the pagans were encouraging the return of the sun.
Many cultures had similar festivals for the same reason, but Yule specifically began in Northern Europe. Wiccans celebrate Yule as one of their sabbats, or sabbaths. They believe it is the time when the Goddess gives birth to the new Sun God, which coincides with the longer presence of the sun. They also believe it to be the time when the Holly King, the god of the dying year, gives way to the Oak King, the waxing year. The term “holidays” is derived from another pagan celebration of “holly days”, when the Holly King is crowned.
A boar was often sacrificed to Freyr, a Norse fertility god, whose symbols include a boar. He was gifted with a golden boar by the dwarves and it pulls his chariot. The best boar was brought into the hall and the men swore unbreakable oaths on it. It was believed that because the boar heard the oaths, Freyr heard them as well. After it was sacrificed, it was roasted and eaten.
A Yule log was also burned. The log was traditionally of Ash wood, because that it is the wood of Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse mythology, and it was lit with the remains of the previous year’s log. The Yule log was supposed to be burned for 12 hours, which brought good fortune for the coming year. The Yule log was later replaced with a Yule tree, both of which must be cut down or received as a gift, not purchased. The Yule tree was decorated with candles and after the festivities were over it was burned, which was the only appropriate way to dispose of something sacred.
To insure fertility and abundance, crops and trees were “wassailed” with spiced cider. The word “wassail” refers to a salutation or drinking during festivities and it derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon term wæs hæl: be whole/hale.
Yule was also the height of the Wild Hunt, a hunting party with Odin, the god of battle and the most prominent god in Norse mythology, at its head. The Wild Hunt began on October 31 and ended on April 30. The Hunt coincides with the beginning of the strong seasonal winds and it is said that the hunting party, complete with hounds and horses, dashes through the sky in pursuit of an unknown quarry.
When Christianity arrived, the
missionaries sought to ease the conversion of the pagans by
new Christian beliefs over the comfortable pagan ones. Christian
often planned to fall at the same time as pagan festivals, and Yule is
exception. Many of the ancient Yule traditions can be found in the
associated with the Christian holiday of Christmas. The serving of a
head is a less common practice in modern times but its is still a
image, and it comes from the sacrificing of the boar to Freyr. The Yule
became the Christmas tree, which is decorated with lights. Evergreen,
and even mistletoe, which were originally part of a Celtic Druid
were also present in the Yule Festival. The birth of the Sun God now
with the birth of the Christian Son of God.
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