Many researchers believe that in the early Middle Ages, people in northern EUROPE celebrated a midwinter festival called Yule, Juul, or Jol. Although the history of the word remains uncertain, some authorities believe it comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, geol, meaning “feast.” Others argue that it derives from an old Germanic word, either iol, iul, or guil, meaning “wheel.” Thus, the festival is thought by some to have celebrated the turning of the wheel of the year and the lengthening of days after the WINTER SOLSTICE. In medieval times, Yule became another term for “Christmas” or “CHRISTMAS SEASON.”
Some scholars believe that the ancient Celtic and Teutonic peoples of northern and central Europe observed a great autumn festival sometime in November. The customs connected with this festival highlighted the contrasting themes of death and abundance. With the coming of cold weather many plants withered and died, including the grass that fed domesticated animals. Consequently, the people adopted this season for the slaughter of the herds and the preparation of preserved meat for the winter. The slaughter also furnished the festival tables with a feast of fresh meat. Special autumn beers may also have been brewed for this festival, and used to toast the gods. At this time of the year people lit ceremonial fires and honored their dead ancestors. Some authorities claim that this feast venerated the Germanic god Odin, others that it venerated the Norse god Thor. This festival probably marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year.
At least one scholar has suggested November 11 or 12 as the date of this festival. In medieval times, November 11 became St. Martin’s Day, or MARTINMAS. Medieval Europeans celebrated Martinmas by feasting, commemorating the dead, slaughtering animals and preserving their meat, and enjoying the first taste of the year’s wines.
Did these November celebrations evolve out of the practices of ancient Mediterranean peoples or were they native to the North? One group of experts argues for Roman origins. They note that the Germanic peoples and the Romans came into close contact as they battled each other for land and rule during the last centuries of the Roman Empire. As a result of this exposure, the Teutonic peoples adopted some Roman customs, such as the celebration of the new year around the time of the winter solstice. The festivities that characterized Roman midwinter festivals, such as decorations of GREENERY, fortune-telling, processions of singers and masqueraders, and the exchange of GIFTS, also infiltrated northern celebrations (see also KALENDS; SATURNALIA). The northerners combined these customs with those of their autumn celebration and shifted the date of the new festival to midwinter, creating a new holiday called Yule.
Other authors disagree with this line of reasoning, however. They believe that the northerners must have waited anxiously for the winter solstice and the lengthening of days, since the midwinter days are even shorter and colder in northern Europe than they are in the Mediterranean. These writers contend that the pagan peoples of northern Europe always celebrated around the time of the winter solstice, rejoicing in the return of the sun and the lengthening of days. According to these authors, the customs associated with medieval Yule originated in the north.
YULE IN MEDIEVAL SCANDINAVIA
Since the pagan Scandinavian peoples left no documents of their own, it is impossible to confirm any theory of the holiday’s origin. Around the ninth century Christian missionaries introduced the art of writing with pen and paper to the region. The years from around 900 to 1300 A.D. produced a few additional records describing the customs, stories, and beliefs of the pagan Scandinavians. From these records, researchers have reconstructed a speculative picture of medieval Scandinavian Yule celebrations.
Some say the festival began on the longest night of the year (the winter solstice), a day that ushered in the month known as “Yule Month.” The Yule celebration lasted over a number of days and involved feasting, fires, and sacrifices. Bonfires blazed in honor of the sun’s struggle against, and eventual triumph over, the darkness and cold of winter. People gathered around the fires listening to ancient legends, singing songs, eating, drinking, and offering sacrifices to the gods. They might save a piece of the great logs used for the fires, called YULE LOGS, in order to start the next year’s bonfire. During the Yule festival those who had died during the year were remembered. Their ghosts were thought to rise from the grave and attend the festivities. The boar, a symbol of the god Frey, who represented sunlight, fertility, peace, and plenty, formed an important part of the Yule feast. The king offered the largest boar in the land in sacrifice. It was considered a holy object, and when it was brought into the king’s hall, men swore binding oaths before it (see also BOAR’S HEAD).
As Christianity gained momentum in Scandinavia, some Christian rulers attempted to mesh pagan and Christian observances. The tenth-century Norwegian king, Haakon the Good, ordered that Yule celebrations should be held around the time of Christmas. Nevertheless, he refused to participate in the full range of sacrifices that the pagan kings usually offered at this time. Eventually, customs compatible with the Christian seasonal observance, such as feasting and merrymaking, were absorbed into the celebration of Christmas. A trace of the old pagan festival lingers in the modern Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish word for Christmas: Jul.
YULE IN MEDIEVAL BRITAIN
Although the word “yule” eventually passed into the English lan-guage, some say that the Britons did not observe the festival in early medieval times. The earliest written use of the word “yule” in Britain occurs in a manuscript written by the scholarly English monk St. Bede (c. 672-735). Bede noted that the English people of his day (the Angles) used the word Giuli, an ancestor of the word “yule,” as a name for both December and January. He continued, “The months Giuli get their names from the turning round of the sun towards the increasing of the day, because one of them precedes and the other follows it.” Bede’s evidence suggests that the word “yule” may indeed have derived from an old word that referred in some way to the concept of turning.
But did the English celebrate a special festival at this time? Bede claims that they did. He wrote that the Angles “began their year from the eighth day before the Calends of January [Dec. 25], on which we now celebrate the birthday of our Lord. And they called that night Modranicht, i.e., night of the mothers, as I suppose, because of the ceremonies which they performed in it, keeping watch all night.” Bede speculates that this day was originally called “Giuli” and that the months of December and January derived their names from the festival, but he is not certain. No evidence exists to confirm this speculation. It is not until the eleventh century that we find other British manuscripts that refer to DECEMBER 25 as “Yule.” Before that time old English manuscripts referred to December 25 as “midwinter,” “midwinter’s mass,” or “Nativity.” From the eleventh century onwards, “Yule” gained gradual acceptance as another term for Christmas or the Christmas season.
Some argue that the Scandinavian Vikings brought the term and the festival with them when they conquered and settled in parts of ENGLAND in the ninth through eleventh centuries. Others claim that the Anglo-Saxon people of early medieval Britain, along with the Scandinavians and northern Germans, did celebrate a midwinter festive season, regardless of what it may have been called. They point out that the strategy of early Christian missionaries was to convert pagan populations by allowing them to practice most of their old customs, but attaching new, Christian meanings to their observances. They believe that many British customs associated with Christmas in later centuries, such as the burning of Yule logs, MUMMING, the WASSAILING OF FRUIT TREES, the hunting of small animals, and decorating with greenery, originated in this early winter festival.