Thanksgiving is over, so I can legitimately put on the holiday music, pull out the garlands and set a date for getting a tree. (This weekend. Because why wait?) Yule (Jul) is the most important holiday of the Heathen calendar. It’s multi-day celebration that can last up to twelve days (“On the first day of Yuletide, my true love gave to meeeee…”). If Halloween is the Christianized/secularized Celtic holiday of Samhain, Christmas is the Christianized Norse/Germanic holiday of Yule.* It’s a lot of fun for us because we can celebrate according to our own custom and still blend in perfectly.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard to make a blanket statement about how the holiday was celebrated by our ancestors because Yule has been celebrated for centuries over a large swath of territory. So instead, I thought I’d talk a little more about some of the things modern Heathens do. (Which, again, can vary wildly depending on what is most important to the individual practitioner.)
Many Heathens celebrate Yule on the solstice to coincide with what the rest of Pagan-dom is doing. However, it’s unlikely that most Heathens celebrated Yule on that day. As I’ve also mentioned before (in the same article), we don’t celebrate things as much by an astrological calendar as by an experiential recognition of the seasons. I have met some Heathens who celebrate Yule on Christmas because it’s easier to “go with the flow” of everyone around them. Some people even wait until the new year (as we did last year) either to have time to dedicate to sharing Christmas traditions with the rest of the family or because there is evidence (I’m sorry Realm, I’m having a tough time digging this reference up. But as soon as I find it, I will add it. Bad Jax.) that in many places, the holiday was originally celebrated in what we now call January. Regardless of when we choose to celebrate, for us the celebration is more important than the day we celebrate it on!
We decorate the same as most people, with evergreen swag and a trimmed tree . The evergreens are a celebration of life in a season of death and the tree represents Yggdrasil, the world tree on which the universe hangs. We use a lot of candles, as the return of light is an important aspect of our holiday. For those with a fireplace, a Yule log is almost a necessity. This is a log that is burned the night the holiday is celebrated. For most of us, it represents the importance of keeping the light going in the dark of winter. When life gets dark, build a fire and keep going with hope.
For many of us, the Anglo-Saxon festival of Modraniht kicks off the holidays with a celebration of our mothers and our Dís (our female ancestors). On Yule itself (usually celebrated on the solstice), we invite family and friends over to “wait out the dark.” Ham is the traditional dinner (our ancestors liked their pork) and we toast a sumbel to link the community and celebrate the events of the past year. The next ten days are for gathering with family, reflecting on the year, celebrating ancestors, toasting the elves and making resolutions for the new year. On the final day we celebrate Perchta, goddess of the well-run home. I’m not totally sure how that came about, but for me it’s the annual New Year’s resolution of keeping a cleaner house this year!
Throughout the holiday Odin rides with the Wild Hunt, calling forth the wild wights to play. During this time, his name is changed to Jolnir (Yule One), and he courses across the sky in his sleigh bringing chaos in his wake. Like the winter, Odin (in this guise) is out of control and represents dangers and dark times we much watch out for by gathering with our loved ones and lighting a fire to represent our courage, our determination and our hope.
What I’ve described is not what every Heathen does, but a general picture of some of the more common elements of the holiday. How do you celebrate this season?
* I’m not suggesting that the event being celebrated, the birth of Christ, is taken from Germanic Paganism (it’s not). But, as you probably know, Christ wasn’t born in December, as you probably noticed, evergreen trees covered in tinsel, elves and ham dinners have nothing to do with first century Jerusalem or Jesus (who was Jewish and therefore wouldn’t eat pork). While the reason for celebrating has changed, the way we celebrate Christmas comes specifically from Northern European Yule celebrations.
+ Featured Image: A chocolate Yule log cake photographed by Jsh3d