Yule as a twelve day celebration is a modern concept inspired by the Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. In fact, this midwinter celebration only spanned three nights, most likely during the three nights of the full moon, much like other ancient Scandinavian festivals such as Winter Nights.
The word Yule has Indo European roots that are still visible in northern Europe today. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden it is called Jul and in Iceland and the Faroe Islands it is Jol. The proto Germanic word for Yule was Jehwla and the old English word used by the Anglo Saxons was Giuli and the whole season which roughly corresponded to the months of December and January was called Geola. December, in Anglo Saxon England was referred to as aerra Geola meaning the time before Yule and January was called fterra Geola meaning the time following Yule. In Bede’s ‘The Reckoning of Time’, he wrote that Giuli was the day that the sun turned back before increasing in light again. The Anglo Saxons made this day the first of their new year and began their celebrations with Modranecht (Modraniht). Bede explained that these old festivities were celebrated at the same time as Christmas because back when the Julian calendar was used, the 25th of December was the time of the winter solstice. Bede, being a Christian monk, does not go into any details about how these rites were celebrated.
Modranecht took place on the eve of the midwinter festival. Mothers’ Night was spent honouring all mothers and also the disir (female spirits that looked over the family). Mothers, who through both their suffering and joy enabled their children to grow and thrive; life giving like the sun. There is a lot of evidence of there once being a Germanic Mother cult, but we are not sure whether this cult had anything to do with Mothers’ Night. There is no evidence of Modranecht ever being observed in Scandinavia, but that doesn’t mean that it never was.
The word Jol in Swedish means wheel; the seasonal wheel that turns and represents the cycle of life. Goddess Frigg, the wife of Odin while in her palace spun clouds that floated down to the human world of Midgard. Perhaps this wheel is reminiscent of Frigg’s own spinning wheel.
Yule is rarely mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas, but from what little is written we do know that this time of year was celebrated with much feasting, singing and drinking. However, nothing is said about the rituals or prayers that were performed, due mainly to the fact that the authors of these ancient texts were Christian.
In the Saga of Hakon the Good, the Norwegian Christian king Hakon passed a law that all Pagan and Christian festivities were to be celebrated at the same time. He also stipulated that during this period four gallons of ale were to be drunk by every man.This was known as ‘drinking jol’. King Hakon was extremely tolerant of his Pagan subjects and did not force his own faith upon them and they were very accepting of their Christian king too.
Animals would have been sacrificed for the Yule feasts and were also offerings to the Gods, especially horses. King Hakon was once invited to a pagan Yule feast where he refused to eat the horse meat that was being served because the act of doing so was pagan. In the end, to keep the peace, he compromised and just smelt the aromas of the cooked meat. At another Yule feast, things didn’t go as smoothly and it is said that Hakon was forced to eat some horse liver without being able to make the sign of the cross beforehand.
In Svarfdaela Saga, there is mention of a warrior who postpones a fight until after Yule and there is a detailed account of a Yule feast in Egil’s Saga Skallagrimssonar. In the Saga of Grettir, two Norwegian farmers drink ‘Yule’ together and in the Saga of the Greenlanders, Eric the Red is worried that he will not be ready to host a Yule feast. However, he is saved when Thorfinnar brings malt with him to make ale. Lastly there is a funny story about a farmer called Ingjaldur who pushes aside his dislike of foreigners so he can buy some decorative Yule evergreens for his feast from a Norwegian merchant. Being a good host was seen as extremely important, so the food, drink and even the décor was seriously undertaken.
The swearing of oaths was seen as extremely grave and important during the Viking age. Oaths were ironclad and if broken could be punished by death if they were not fulfilled. Oaths made at Yule were even more seriously undertaken and some appear to have been marriage related, such as in Hervarar saga ok Heidreks and Sturlaugs saga starfsama. The oaths were made by swearing on a boar’s head like Helgi did in Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar.
There used to be a ritual where men would toast to their future deeds; much like New Year’s resolutions, but more meaningful and serious. Again hands were laid on a boar’s head and the sacrificial animal was offered up to the Gods with the sworn oath. A sacred oath to Freyr perhaps because the boar was associated with him.
One of the oldest symbols of this time of year is the Yulebukk or the Yule Goat, which is believed to have its roots in Indo European folklore. In Scandinavia today the Yule Goat is an ornament made out of straw and decorated with red ribbon. It is traditional for some people to burn the straw Yulebukk as an offering to the Gods on their Yule fire. The Yulebukk has an ancient connection to the God Thor and his magical goats, Tanngrisni (Gap Tooth) and Tanngnost (Tooth Grinder) who pull his wagon across the sky. Large versions of the Yule Goat can be found in towns and cities all over Scandinavia at this time of year. The best known one is the Gavle Goat which is erected at the beginning of Advent.
It was traditional to sacrifice a goat as well as cattle and horses during the long dark winter months, but with the arrival of Christianity, animal sacrifice was forbidden. Pagans, therefore, began to dress themselves up in goat skins and wear masks, going from door to door, singing, dancing and offering blessings to the household in exchange for food, drink or money. Even today children in Scandinavia dress up in masks and go knocking on people’s doors, singing and receiving sweets.
In Finland children are visited by the Joulupukki, the Yule goat, and this is very similar to an ancient Finnish tradition where people called the Nuutipukkis used to dress up in goat hides and dance around singing.
The Joulupukki goes from house to house on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, knocking on doors and asking if there are any good children living there. If so, then presents are given and opened. The Joulupukki wears a red coat and walks with a wooden walking stick. His workshop is in Korvatunturi, Lapland and he is married to Joulumuori (Mother Yule).
Another Yule character was the Yule Cat and in the 19th century good children used to receive new clothes at Yule while naughty children were taken away by the Yule Cat.
One of the most ancient symbols of all is the sun cross that goes back as far as the Neolithic and Bronze age periods. The sun cross looks like a circle with a cross inside of it and can also resemble a wagon wheel with spokes. Also known as Odin’s wheel it was often made with evergreens and tree branches (like a wreath) and thrown onto the Yule fire to invoke the sun’s return. Other folk would set a large sun wheel on fire and roll it down a hill, with the same intention of invoking the sun that blessed the earth with life and abundance.
There was an old Scandinavian custom that used the last ear of corn reaped at the last harvest to bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a boar.
A tomte (Sweden), nisse (Norway and Denmark) or tonttu (Finland) is a little creature from Scandinavian folklore that is associated with Yule. He has a long white beard, a tall pointy red hat and is a mischievous gnome who looks after the farm and its inhabitants including the livestock. His name means ‘homestead man’.
A tomte doesn’t ask for much in return for his hard work, just a bowl of porridge at Yule/Christmas with plenty of butter on top. A well looked after farm is one that has a happy tomte living there. Tomten are even prepared to steal from neighbouring farms to keep things running smoothly. A solitary figure, the tomte does not take kindly to interference or foolery and can resort to nastiness if he isn’t pleased; from small pranks to killing livestock. In Sweden, the Yule Tomte accompanies the Yule Goat who pulls a sleigh full of gifts for all the children. The tomte was also known as the haugkall which translates to ‘mound farmer’. As the ancestors were buried in mounds and were believed to live there, it is more than likely that this figure from folklore has roots in an ancestral cult. If a farm was doing much better than its neighbours, then a farmer could be accused of having a tomte that was carrying out ungodly work and stealing from other farms. At the time this was seen to be as terrible as witchcraft.
If you know of any European folklore or customs that are associated with Yule then I would love to hear about them.
Lastly, I have had to anglicise some of the Scandinavian names as I am typing on an English keyboard.
Wishing you a beautiful Yuletide,