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The Old Ways: Yule

by Doug and Sandy Kopf

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Try to imagine yourself in a very cold climate, where the Winter nights are very long, indeed. Firewood and food are both becoming very scarce and you have begun to fear for your own survival. As you keep a lonely vigil through this, the Longest Night, you feel as though the Darkness has taken over the Earth and the Light will never come again. Imagine your joy at that first spark of light and your hopes that, someday soon, the snow will melt and you will be warm and well fed! This is the way our ancestors must have felt about this time of celebration.

The celebration of the Winter Solstice, as often as not referred to as Yule, is common to almost every culture. For this reason, although the Christian Church has long since adopted it as the birthdate of Jesus, it has retained more of the ancient Pagan tradition then any other holiday or festival. In early times, December 25th (the date now recognized as Christmas) was commemorated as the Birth of the Sun God, Mithra, and January 6 (Old Christmas) was a Dionysian festival. In Egypt, a celebration dedicated to Osiris was held at this time.

The word Yule probably derives from the Norse "iul" or the Anglo-Saxon "hweol", both meaning "wheel". According to Webster's Dictionary, however, it originates in "geola" (Old English for "ice"), another name for the month during which it was celebrated. "Modronacht" (Mother's Night) is yet another Name for the Midwinter Festival.

Many customs have survived from Pre-Christian times that lend themselves quite nicely to our rituals today. Among them is the ever-popular Yule Log. Traditionally, the Yule Log has been of oak, ash or beech, ritually cut (often at Dawn) and ceremonially carried into the house. It was lit by the head of the family with much ado. Toasts were often drunk with wine, cider or brandy, in those early morning hours, giving the participants a good head-start on the festivities. A lesser known tradition is that of the Yule Clog. The Clog was a knobby block of wood, burnt in the kitchen hearth. Household servants were entitled to ale with their meals for as long as the Clog was kept burning. In many parts of Scandinavia, the object burnt was a fat wax candle, instead of a log. The candle was lit at Dawn and must burn until Midnight, or be considered an ill omen

The Yule Log was said to have many magickal properties Remnants of it, or its ashes, were kept in the house throughout the year for many purposes. Among these were protection from thunderstorms or lightning, protection from hail, preserving humans from chilblains and animals from various diseases. Mixed with fodder, the ashes would make the cows calve and brands were thrown into the soil to keep corn healthy. Women often kept fragments until Twelfth Night to ensure a thriving poultry flock in the coming year. It was customary to pour libations of wine or brandy upon the Log and to make offerings by scattering corn or bread crumbs over it. Even money was placed on the Log. Those charred "lucky coins" were then given to children or servants as gifts.

Wassailing is another happy survival of an old tradition. "Wassail" comes from the Anglo-Saxon "Waes Hael", which has been translated to "Be Well," "Be Whole" or "Be Healthy." The proper response to this toast is "Drink Hael", making it a shared blessing, a mutual well-wishing. Traditionally, carolers went from door to door, singing and bearing their "Wassail Cups", to be rewarded with the drink and fruited breads or other sweets.

Even with the Yule Log and the Wassail Bowl, no Yule celebration would be complete without a decorated tree. This custom is thought to originate in the Roman custom of decorating homes with laurel and evergreen trees at the Kalends of January (the Roman Winter Solstice celebration). It is interesting to note that, as with many other traditions adopted by the Church, the decorated evergreen (now called a "Christmas Tree") was originally condemned by Rome. An early Christian writer, Tertullian, spoke of the practice as follows:

"Let them" (the Pagans) "kindle lamps, they who have no light; let them fix upon their doorposts laurels which shall afterward be burnt, they for whom fire is so close at hand; meet for them are testimonies of darkness and auguries of punishment. But, thou" (the Christians) "art a light of the world and a tree that is ever green. If thou hast renounced temples, make not a temple of thine own house."

Even as late as the sixth century, Bishop Martin of Braga forbade the "adorning of houses with green trees." So obviously, the Christian adoption of the evergreen tree as a holiday symbol was another case of "If you can't beat'em, join'em!" In Winter, when all is brown and dead, the evergreens symbolize immortality. They are reminders of the survival of life in the plant world, a means of contact with the Spirit of Growth and Fertility, which has been threatened by the absence of Light. Especially good for this purpose are plants like Holly and Mistletoe, which actually bear fruit in Winter. (Mistletoe, the Golden Bough, the All-Healer, is traditional both at Winter and Summer Solstice.)

Music is a very important part of this joyous festival. Many of the "Christmas" carols are just as suited to Yule, with virtually no change. (It's a good guess that some of them were ours to start with!) "Joy to the World" and "Deck the Halls" are quite appropriate as is and you can have a lot of fun creating your own words for some of the others. In some cases, existing old lyrics prove that we are simply "reborrowing" what was "borrowed" from us, such as:






(to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas")


The King sent his Lady on the first Yule day
A papingo-aye. (i.e., parrot or peacock)
Who learns my carol and carries it away.
The King sent his lady on the second Yule day
Two partridges and a papingo-aye
etc. -------- circa 1870

Third day - Three plovers
Fourth day - A goose that was grey
Fifth day - Three starlings
Sixth day - Three gold spinks
Seventh day - A bull that was brown
Eighth day - Three ducks a-merry laying
Ninth day - Three swans a-merry swimming
Tenth day - an Arabian baboon
Eleventh day - Three hinds a-merry dancing
Twelfth day - Two maids a-merry dancing
and Thirteenth day - Three stalks of corn


Each followed by "Who learns my carol, etc."

Note the thirteen rather than twelve days and the variation of numbers in the verses. This was probably an instructional song , a riddle. We have discovered other references to thirteen days of Yule, as opposed to twelve days of Christmas. It was customary to burn the Yule Log for thirteen nights to promote Fertility. (There is, by the way, a version of "Twelve Days" with the standard lyrics, except that it begins "On the last day of Yule, my beloved sent to me", and ends with "Thirteen Queens a-courting"!

It was thus that our Ancestors greeted the Yule festival. Although Spring would not truly arrive for many weeks, they were assured of its arrival. They celebrated, daring to feast upon some of the remaining stored provisions, being certain that soon the Earth would begin to turn green and bear fruit. The traditional feast also contains carryovers from our Pagan ancestors. For example, the roasted pig with an apple in it’s mouth began with the Teutonic custom of sacrificing a pig to Frey at the Winter Solstice, to ensure fertility in the coming year.

So it is that the Log, the Tree, the Carol and the Feast are all parts of the Yule celebration with roots in The Old Ways! Waes Hael!

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