Many heathens regard Yule as our holiest festival; there is a lot of justification for this, since it’s the one that has survived most tenaciously, and our only multi-day celebration. Theodisc groups, especially, observe Yule frith, endeavoring to avoid all strife throughout Yule.
We do not know how the ancient heathens decorated their homes at Yule, but evergreen boughs, wreaths, holly berries, red ribbons, and a decorated tree (whether indoors or out) would probably not seem outlandish to them.
Yule lasts for twelve nights and days (the ancient heathens, like the Jews, started the new day at sunset). This persisted in Christian tradition: the last night before Epiphany (or the Feast of the Three Kings) is known as Twelfth Night and traditionally all Christmas decorations must be removed then, for fear of bad luck; the Germans, the source of the tradition of the Christmas tree, have always put it up on Christmas night (at the start of the twelve nights), so that it was only up for the twelve days of the ancient Yule. Think also of the Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” In German, Christmas is called Weihnachten, “hallowed nights.”
We have no records of the ancient heathens exchanging gifts at Yule. However, we know that leaders were judged in large part by what they gave their followers, and that Germanic people, especially women, wore their wealth on their persons in the form of jewelry and fine clothes. So the commercial side of the modern Christmas would not be as jarring to the ancient heathens as we might think. The argument has been made that “Santa Claus” or Father Christmas is a memory of Óðinn/Wóden/Wodan, or perhaps Thor/Thunor/Donar. Certainly in the earliest depictions of him on Victorian cards, he is not rotund and not very jolly, and he wears blue or green, rather than red. Some heathen parents tell their children Odin brings the presents, but it is not his usual style to be jolly. In some parts of Europe, the gifts come before Yule, on December 6, and some parents find this a good tradition in order to keep Yule sacred. (Or twelve small gifts can be given, on the model of the eight days of Jewish Hanukkah; or the gifts can be exchanged on December 25th, the fifth day of Yule, as a non-religious observance.)
In any case, to the ancient heathens, Yule was not “the most wonderful time of the year.” It was a time to seek out family and stay by the hearth while both the weather and the supernatural were at their most dangerous. The depths of winter are hostile to man and beast in the North; in German, the twelve nights are the Rauhnächte, “raw nights.” And in the long nights, the dead haunt us. The Wild Hunt rides, and although at its head is Óðinn/Wóden/Wodan, and with him ride other gods whom we know and love, they ride to the hunt. The rede regarding the Hunt is to avoid seeing it, to let it ride; to stay indoors, and if the hunt seems bound to ride through one’s house, to set the doors open front and back that it may do so without hindrance. Otherwise, a hellhound may be left behind under a seat, to torment the residents for the next year. Sometimes good things have come of seeing the Wild Hunt; but it is better not to get between the hunters and their prey.
The ancient Yule began on the longest night of the year, at the solstice, and this is when almost all heathens celebrate it today, so that the twelfth day is New Year’s Day.
This is what Bede says the heathen Anglo-Saxons did to celebrate the first day of Yule:
Incipiebant autem annum ab octavo calendarium Januariarum die, ubi nunc natalem domini celebramus, et ipsem noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctam, tunc gentili vocabulo Modraniht id est Matrum noctem appellabant ob causam, ut suspicamur, ceremoniarum, quas in ea pervigiles agebant.
They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term módraniht, that is, the mothers’ night – a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through. (De Temporum Ratione, ch. 13, tr. Charles W. Jones)
The “eighth day before the calends of January” (December 25) was the winter solstice under the Julian calendar then in effect, so Bede is saying Yule—and the year—began with an all-night vigil in honor of the “mothers.” Many heathens keep this tradition of Mothers’ Night and start the Yule celebration by honoring the dísir. For many, the whole of Yule is a time to be close to our dead ancestors as well as our living kin. Here is a poem by Groa that expresses this beautifully:
The gate of Hel stands open;
the wind blows from the North;
the Bridge of Dread is frozen;
the Host is riding forth.
Silently their hoofsteps
hasten down the Way,
for they have far to travel
before the break of day.
Boughs of fir and holly,
candles burning bright,
and bread and boar and apples
bless your hall tonight.
Warmth and joy and friendship
bind your guests and kin;
let meat be cleared away –
let horns be carried in!
Now drink to Hár for valor,
to Njörð and Frey for gold;
boast of deeds accomplished,
and tell the tales of old;
but save the finest vintage –
strong and golden-clear –
for those who travel farthest
to reach your hall this year.
In the darkest, coldest hour,
when all is still as stone,
your guests are sweetly dreaming,
but you must watch alone.
The fire sinks to embers;
you gaze into the past
and know not grief from gladness…
’til They are here at last!
Remember! Remember! How
they lived and loved and bled,
and drink a horn – the minni-horn –
give honor to the Dead!
©2000 by Ann Gróa Sheffield. All rights reserved.
We also have another winter solstice observance preserved, in Swedish folk custom. Sweden clung to the Gregorian calendar, in which the solstice fell on December 13, St. Lucy’s Day. This was marked with the symbol of a candle in the carved runic perpetual calendars that hung in farmhouses, and by ancient tradition, on the morning of St. Lucy’s Day, (Lussi or Luciadagen) the eldest daughter gets up, dresses in a white shift or nightgown, puts a crown of lighted candles in her hair, and brings her parents breakfast in bed. Traditionally she serves them coffee and Lussikats or Luciabullar, buns or sweet rolls flavored with cardamom and sultanas or with saffron.
Preheat Oven to 225 C.
50 grams of yeast;
150 grams of margarine / butter;
50 milliliters of milk
1 gram of saffron
0.5 cups of sugar
450 grams of flour
0.5 teaspoon of salt
Raisins (a hand full or two or as much as you want)
Enough milk for brushing the bread.
Put yeast into the bowl and melt the margarine / butter in a pan. Add 50 milliliters of milk to pan and bring to about 37 C. When warmed pour mixture of milk and margarine / butter into bowl with yeast, and stir until well mixed. Take the saffron with a teaspoon of sugar into a mortar and crush the saffron threads. Then mix with other ingredients in bowl. Add some flour but not so much that the dough becomes too firm. Knead the dough until smooth. When smooth cover it and let it rise until double the size of your hands. When ready bend the dough into an “S” shape and let sit on a plate then press a raisin on each end. Then brush with milk and whipped egg just before baking. Bake on middle rack until golden brown or done.
Fire is important in the Lussi ritual; it is likely that it got started not only because December 13 was the longest night, but because Lucia or Lussi sounded to a Swedish speaker like ljus, “light.”
In fact the two constants in heathen Yule traditions are being together with friends and especially family, and fire. These are both expressed in the English tradition of the Yule log. The extended family—or the village—would go out and cut a huge oak, drag it back, set it alight, and keep it burning through the twelve days and nights. Opinions vary as to where this custom originated, but there are traces of it all over Europe, including the French custom of making a chocolate-frosted log out of a Swiss roll as a Christmas cake, the bûche de noël. The superstitions about the Yule log indicate it was once sacred: men doffed their hats to it as it was brought back from the woods; it had to be lit using leftovers from the previous year’s fire, and had to catch fire on the first attempt; some families kept charcoal from the fire under their beds all year as protection against the house burning down, particularly by lightning strike; and in Scandinavia, it was bad luck for a person with a squint or a barefoot woman to enter the room where it burned. People sat convivially around the Yule log for the twelve nights, the fire keeping the dark and cold at bay. One imagines the ancient heathens feasted and sumbled throughout the time. Early Americans apparently sat around a Yule log for twelve hours on Christmas night, telling tales.
The Lussi candles may have been a way of christianizing this tradition of celebrating Yule with sacred fire; candles were acceptable in Christianity. Another form of sacred Yule fire that we know from folk tradition and that many heathens have adopted because it is much easier than the Yule log is the Julleuchter, Yule light(s), of Germany. This takes two or three forms. The “midnight mountain,” used for solstice or New Year’s vigils, has a light under it that is used at dawn to light a candle on top, symbolizing the victory of the sun. These are supposedly based on an original found in Halland, Sweden, but they were popularized by the Nazis. The Nazis also promoted pyramids of sticks and evergreen sprigs with seven candles at the points. The third form, which seems to be increasingly popular among modern heathens, is a many-branched candelabrum kept burning through the twelve nights that may be modeled on the menorahs Jews light to celebrate Hanukkah.
In all northerly latitudes worldwide, the re-emergence of the sun after the solstice is seen as a victory of light over darkness. Bede says the Anglo-Saxons stayed up all night performing rituals; some modern heathens likewise watch all night for Sól/Sunne/Sunna’s re-emergence on solstice morning, at Yule and also at Midsummer. Some refer to this night-long observance when they say “Yule.” Scandinavian folk traditions include flaming wheels on the winter solstice, although they are more common on the summer solstice, because the heathen Yule evidently focused on staying home with family, around the Yule log or the hearth fire.
Bede also said the heathen Anglo-Saxons began their year at Mothers’ Night. Yule was one of the three obligatory public blóts according to Ynglinga Saga, and sagas and the Eddic “Helgakviða Hundingsbana” are clear that a boar was blóted at Yule and that boasts and oaths on it were both traditional and extremely serious. This was called the sonargöltr or sónargöltr, which is traditionally taken to mean “atonement boar,” but a Church source interprets the related word in Lombard as “the one that fights and beats all the other boars in the herd.” This being “distinguished” by being the best sounds more heathen than being a “scapegoat” animal. In any event, since the boasts and oaths of the Yule blót are presumably the source of New Year’s resolutions and since the twelve nights of Yule traditionally come to a close on New Year’s, many heathen kindreds hold an end of Yule blót at which pork is served and which is an occasion for swearing solemn oaths. I think it likely that this echoes the original pattern: a twelve-day family festival capped by a public blót and sumble with a tradition of formal boasts and oaths for the coming year. Feasting on boar suggests a connection to Freyr, and KveldulfR suggested making a bread boar instead if feasting on pork is out of the question. There is also the Swedish tradition of the Julbock, a straw ram or goat ornament, which has similar associations of fertility and strength. But as Ingeborg has ably expounded, none of this means that Yule is about Freyr/Fréa/Frô or that he is a sun-god. The tradition of the boar feast has survived in England, particularly at Queen’s College, Cambridge; the Boar’s Head Carol sung at the college’s Christmas feast could easily be applied to Fréa, the Lord.
The other Yuletide tradition that has survived is wassailing. We know this as the Anglo-Saxon greeting wish, wes hál, “be well,” and the carol “Here We Come a-Wassailing” preserves the memory of men lurching from house to house offering to sing and drink good fortune to the households of the generous. And wassail toasts were drunk at Christmas and New Year’s feasts. But equally heathen in origin, particularly in the apple-growing areas of England, farmers used to wassail their trees. This was done toward the end of the twelve nights, after dark, with liquor (usually apple wassail, a mix of baked apple, hard cider, honey, and spices) and a song such as:
Wassail the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum, and many a pear:
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray the God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big.
Every bough, apples now.
Bud well, bear well
Spring well in April,
Every sprig and every spray
A bushel of apples next New Year Day.
Wassailing the trees is a Yule tradition I would like to see more heathens take up.