Yule (and much of the Christmas traditions) is based on an old pagan Germanic holiday celebrated somewhere between late December and early January, depending upon the Germanic lunar calendar. The word “Yule” stems from Old Norse (Icelandic) “jól”, Gothic “fruma jiuleis”, Danish and Swedish “jul”, Norwegian “jul/jol”, and “ýlir”.
This midwinter festival was called “midvinterblot”, “julblot”, “julofferfest”, and “jólablót”. In pre-Christian tradition, the Germanic peoples would celebrate Yule for a fertile and peaceful season. It was a festival of feasting, drinking ale and sacrifice. Animals would besacrificed, the blood collected then smeared on the bases of idols in the temple, sprinkled over the walls and the people with sprigs dipped into the blood and shook to release the blood (basically, sprinkled by an aspergil/asperger). The meat of the sacrifices would be boiled to be feasted upon, after the king would bless it. Toasts were to be made, firstly, to Odin (one of whom’s many names is “Jólnir”, which means “Yule-figure”) for victory and power to the king, then to Njördr and Freyr for abundant harvests and peace, then a third to the king. Additional toasts would be made to the dead, which are called “minni” (memorial-toast).
They would enjoy a Yule boar, a Yule lamb, making merry. You can see where our modern day customs of roasting a ham, the Yule log, singing, drinking and just having a lovely time stem from many of the old Germanic Yule practices.
In Roman practices, Saturnalia was held on the 17th of December in honour of, you guessed it, Saturn! Later, the festivities were held through to the 23rd of the month. The festival celebrated what was perceived as a golden age that came before, when humans could enjoy an abundant earth without having to do the labour whilst in a state of social egalitarianism. The celebrations would begin with a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn followed by a banquet. There would be much gift giving (not flashy things to show one’s status, but pottery and waxen figures as giving flashy gifts went against the spirit of the festival) , and a very Carnival like atmosphere ensued. It was also a celebration that allowed for things to become a little topsy-turvy with masters serving their slaves and gambling permitted (very much the precursor to the Feast of Fools celebrated in Medieval times). Saturnalia was also a festival of light, which represents knowledge and truth, represented by many lit candles, according to Macrobius’ Saturnalia.
In modern witchy traditions, like Wicca, we celebrate the rebirth of the Sun God, the Divine Child. The Sun begins its ascent into the sky. We enjoy the longest night of the year, and the hope of the light returning. Watching the sunrise on this day can be a beautiful way to usher in the Sun for the light half of the year, and hey! You don’t even have to get up ridiculously early (especially the more Northerly you are) because the Sun rises so much later! Gatherings of local pagan groups make for a night of beautiful ritual, feasting, celebration and gift giving.
May you all be blessed this Yule with friends, family, food and much merry making!