One of my favorite aspects of the holiday season are all the holiday lights: our decorated Christmas tree, the candles in the windows, and a fire in the fireplace. These lights brighten the long, dark, and cold days of December, and the fire is warm and comforting. At the same time, as an anthropologist, I find the history of these traditions equally interesting. They show how cultures adapt and evolve, blending the old with the new to create the celebrations we are so familiar with today.
The winter solstice is the longest night of the year.
This time of year, the nights are long and cold, and many cultures view it as a turning point marking the end of the old year and, with the following dawn, the beginnings of a new year. Historically, cattle, pigs, and other livestock were slaughtered rather than having to feed them through the winter when food supplies are limited.
As a result, many cultures and religions mark the longest day of the year with feasting and celebrations of light in the forms of bonfires and candles. This is particularly true for cultures in the far North, like parts of Scandinavia, where from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. So it is not surprising that for the people of Scandinavia, celebrations centering on light, including St. Lucia’s Day are particularly important. One of the most important celebrations in the northern lands is Yule.
For many of us in the English-speaking world, Yule is essentially synonymous with Christmas, but Yule’s roots are a pre-Christian holiday celebrated on the winter solstice, particularly by the Norse in Scandinavia. The word “Yule” comes from the Norse Jul, and was originally a feast celebrating Odin, the King of the Norse Gods. Odin, among other names, is sometimes called jólfaðr, or Yule Father, an association that later merged with St. Nicholas to become Father Christmas, or Santa Claus.
In the Pre-Christian Norse Yule was a feast that lasted three days, beginning on the Winter Solstice. The people would all gather together, bringing the food and ale needed for the feast. Many animals would be slaughtered as part of the celebration. The blood was used given as sacrifice to the Norse Gods and then the meat was cooked and eaten for the feast.
Yule in History and its impact on Christianity.
King Haakon I of Norway ruled from 934-961 CE and is attributed with bringing Christianity to Norway. Haakon is the person also credited with shifting Yule from the Solstice to coincide with Christmas, and as the nation converted to Christianity many of the pagan Yule practices were converted into Christian ones. In the process, Yule shifted from a 3-day feast into a celebration that lasted 12 days. The Twelve days of Yule is sometimes referred to as Yuletide or even Christmastide. Christmastide, better known as the 12 days of Christmas, starts either at dusk on Christmas Eve, December 24th, or early Christmas day depending on the denomination, rather than the winter solstice. Many holiday practices now associated with Christmas, including wassailing, burning the Yule log, the Christmas ham, and decorating an evergreen, came from the Norse Yule celebrations.
These ancient roots of much beloved traditions, are fascinating and a vital part to understanding our own traditions and customs today. They are valuable indications of how adaptive, interconnected, and creative humanity is.
Whatever your traditions are in your home, for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, may you have light and joy during the darkest time of the year.