I have been researching Christmas in Norway for class, and nobody has discovered the connection between our heathen ancestors and Yule. And I mean NOBODY. Maybe I’m selfish (I hope not), but I feel the need to correct them on their “research”.
So here goes.
December was known as Yule to our ancestors. On the longest night of the year, December 21st, the darkness of Winter is reborn as the start of the new year in which the Sun will again grow strong. This was accompanied by festivals of light to mark the rebirth. In the ancient lands of the North, this night of darkness grew from the stories of Frigga who sat at her spinning wheel weaving the clouds and fates, and the celebration was called Yule, from the Norse word Jul, meaning “wheel”, though elements of Yule celebrations go back to even before the wheel’s introduction to Scandinavia, making the current incarnation of Yule, the international holiday of Christmas, a truly ancient concept. The Christmas wreath, a symbol adapted from Frigga’s spinning wheel, reminds us of that cycle of the seasons and the continuity of life.
That the timing of the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ occurs in the Yule season is no coincidence. Christmas was once a movable feast, celebrated many different times during the year. It is now increasingly common knowledge that the decision to establish December 25 as the “official” date of Christ’s birth was made by Pope Julius I in the fourth century AD, hoping to replace the pagan celebration with the Christian one, since this date coincided with the pagan celebrations of Winter Solstice with the Return of the Sun Gods occurring throughout the world.
Numerous Christmas traditions derive from earlier pagan celebrations. Yule, celebrating the birth or rebirth of a god of light, made use of fire, both in candles and the burning of a Yule log.
The Christmas tree has its origins in the practice of bringing a live tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a place to keep warm during the cold winter months. Bells were hung in the limbs so you could tell when an appreciative spirit was present. Food and treats were hung on the branches for the spirits to eat and a five-pointed star, the pentagram, symbol of the five elements, was placed atop the tree.
The Winter Solstice, the year’s longest night, is called “Mother Night” for it was in darkness the goddess Frigga labored to bring the Light to birth once more. The Young Sun, Baldr, was born in a night of the longest and deepest darkness, and this is why the sun begins to return the day after Mother’s Night, as Baldr’s light begins to grow stronger.
The mistletoe’s association with the holidays come from the myths of the goddess Frigga. The plant’s white berries were formed from Frigga’s tears of mourning when her beloved son Baldur was killed by a dart made from mistletoe.
Some versions of the story of Baldur’s death end happily. Baldur is restored to life, and the goddess is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the baleful plant, making it a symbol of peace and love and promising a kiss to all who pass under it. However, this is not a story many heathens I have met hold to be true. Most tend to believe that Baldr will return during, and only during, the end of Ragnarok.
Another ancient tradition is the Yule log, a large oak log decorated with sprigs of fir, holly or yew. This was carved with runes asking the Gods to protect them from misfortune. Traditionally, the Yule log was a whole tree, brought in on Mothers’ Night, and then set ablaze and hoped to burn all Twelve Nights, with more being shoved into the pit as the tip burned up. Different areas had different customs concerning the Yule log. Everywhere the log was garlanded and decorated with ribbons prior to the procession to the longhouse. The procession was, as most procession during the holidays, a joyous one. Once burning no one could squint in the presence of the log, nor were barefooted women allowed around it.
Our ancestors would also dress someone to represent Old Man Winter, wrapped in a hooded fur coat with a long white beard. It is believed that he represented Odin and he traveled on Sleipnir, Odin’s great white horse. Old Man Winter was welcomed into homes and invited to join the festivities. When the Vikings conquered Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries, he was introduced there and became Father Christmas, eventually working his way along through history to become the modern notion of Santa Claus.
The Yule Goat is one of the oldest Christmas symbols. Its origin is the stories of mighty Thor, who rode through the sky in a wagon pulled by two magical goats. An old custom was for young people to dress up in goat skins and go from house to house to sing and perform simple plays. They were rewarded with food and drink, which we now celebrate in it’s modern form as Christmas Carolling.
While we all enjoy exchanging gifts (especially receiving a new iPod or Playstation from an overly generous grandparent!) and feasting with our friends and family at this time of year, we ought to extend this custom to include the other living creatures who share this earth with us. Put up bird feeders and keep them stocked with seed. You can make decorative wild bird treats by rolling pinecones in peanut butter and bird seed. This is also a wonderful time to donate funds, time or items to environmental organizations.
Whatever you choose, remember this: in our material age, we must learn once more to forget selfishness and learn to be honorable and mindful of our neighbors and community, as well as honor Frigga, our beneficial Mother, for giving us once more the gift of light as we now fast approach the Solstice. Forget the store displays and move past the swaddling clothes, and look to those who have been robbed of glory that was rightfully theirs to begin with.
Hail the Gods!