Is Yule Cultural, Religious or Tribal?
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Do you have six minutes to read an independent researched argument based on a modern Scandinavian Heathen's perspective of the what Yule is?
One of the hardest parts of being a Norse Pagan Scandinavian is trying to find liberal information on modern traditions and proper history. Personally I feel like the 'keyboard warriors' are trying so hard to live in an ill-defined past that they are quick to attack a person for sharing modern cultural traditions. It is because of this I decided to answer some of the most common questions about Yule from a modern perspective, which will ultimately answer the popular question: Is Yule cultural, religious or tribal?:
1. What is Yule?
This is the million dollar question isn't it? The entire article will explain this, but the simple and vague definition is: Yule is a Swedish winter tradition built on the customs of our ancestor's mythology and religions.
2. Where does modern Yule traditions come from?
As a Scandinavian the answer is: Families. It came from the traditions passed down from generation-to-generation and century-to-century. This is very important to understand. Our traditions are VERY folk based. We rely heavily on what our parents pass down to us, and we nurture these traditions knowing how important they are. That said, family traditions evolve just like the times. Different influences will have different effects. So as a Norse pagan it is important to study the history and origins of traditions.
3. The Origins of Yule
Yule was a midwinter celebration held as early as the 4th Century. The Germanic-Saxons called it Jólaboði (Jól) and the Scandinavian's called it Jul. Yule means 'Wheel' which is typically represented by the sun, and it can also mean 'party'. Historians have gathered that Jul was a celebration of the coming of the new sun/wheel.
Most of our traditions were taken from the Medieval Scandinavian Era: The Viking Age (793 AD – 1066). During this time people relied on Norse mythology as a basis of culture.
Historians have deciphered that Yule starts during the longest and coldest time of the year. After this the days start to get longer again. The ancient ancestors would celebrate Yule because the sun was going to start making the days last longer, which meant: Earth was preparing to become fertile again; fields would soon be ready to sow; and, Earth and its creations will soon be reborn.
4. When is Yule?
This is a loaded question, so I am going to start backwards by introducing the conclusion first, and the details will follow:
Long story short:
- First Yule: Winter Solstice: December 21 every year
- Modern Cultural Yule: December 24 and/or 25th every year - Second Yule: Yule Sacrifice: January 28, 2021 this lunar year.
To help I created a visual representation of the Old Norse calendar (Yule would have occurred during the months called Jolmanuðr):
Typically the original date of Yule would have been somewhere between mid-December and mid-January. This is because the historic Heathen calendar was made up of the lunar calendar where each new moon was a new month. The Old Norse ancestors would have celebrated Yule three moons between the summer moon (Sigurblot) and winter moon (Winter Nights). This celebration would last three days and nights. The Lunar calendar sets itself back 11 days every year, so an extra month was added every three years - creating a leap year. Once this was enacted Heathen Yule began taking place over the course of two dates: - Winter Solstice - The shortest day of the year
- Yule Sacrifice - The first full moon after the new moon of the Winter Solstice
(To explain the full origins of Yule, check this out: https://jolablot.com/origin-of-yule/)
According to this, the Winter Solstice Yule would occur on December 21st every year. We still get varied dates for the Yule Sacrifice depending on the moon, but this year it would begin on January 28, 2021. In modern times, most Scandinavians celebrate Yule on December 24 every year. Why? Well thanks to the Saga of King Hákon the Good, we know he tried to convert (Heathen dominated) Norway into Christianity. To start he declared Yule was to be celebrated on the same day as Christmas and both would be called Yule.
During the 9th Century, Yule would have been celebrated on December 21 during the Julian Calendar. When the world changed to the Gregorian Calendar these celebrations moved from December 21st to December 24th.
5. The Twelve Days of Yuletide
Today people celebrate the 12-days of Yuletide as a countdown to their observed Yule. Historically it would have consisted of many festivities from the new moon of the Winter Solstice to the full moon of Yule Sacrifice (Jolblót). The party would not conclude until all the food and drinks were consumed.
6. Yule Celebrations from the Viking Age
We have records indicating the Old Norse pagans celebrated with four traditions:
A Sacrifice (blot) - The pagans would sacrifice farm animals and display them in front of their homes so people knew what animals were being sacrificed for the gods. The blood of the animals would be sprinkled on alters, walls and participants using magical twigs. Following this the sacrifice would be cooked over the Hearth's fire and served to the hall.
Feasting - There would be celebratory drinking of mead and feasting of the sacrificed animals. Cups would be raised in honor of gods and ancestors: Odin for victory and power, Niord and Freyja for peace and good season, and for departed friends and family buried in mounds.
Yule Oaths - Oaths sworn on this day were unbreakable by pagan law. You could promise anything you want, but there were heavy consequences if you broke it. In some cases breaking the ultimate oath could result in death.
Yule Gifts - Not much is said about what was gifted back in the historical heathen days, but from the sagas we have evidence of people offering Yule gifts to merchants and friends.
7. Yule in Sweden Today
Now that we know Yule has a variety of dates for different reasons, this question is easier to answer. Culturally, everyone (Heathens, Christians and everyone else) gathers to feast and drink to folk tunes and exchange gifts around candles, evergreen trees, straw decoration and star-shaped lanterns. Below is what makes each category unique:
Heathens following the old ways will celebrate Julblot by making a ritualistic sacrifice to their gods and ancestors and make oaths;
Christians celebrating Yule will attend a Christ Mass; and,
Most of Sweden will simply gather and celebrate December 24th as a cultural holiday
8. Origins of the Tree, Tomte and Straw Goats
The Yule/Christmas Tree: This tree was likely a cultural method of staying warm through the cold and dark months. To prepare for the winter, families would chop down a tree, bring it inside and cut logs from it whenever they needed more wood for the fire. During the coldest time, logs would need to be burned constantly to avoid death by hypothermia (some people would call this bad luck). The idea of decorating this tree comes from Germany in the 16th century (long after the Viking Age) when a town decorated a tree for its people. Soon after, families started decorating these trees with items readily available, like: paper and straw crafts, dried fruits and candles.
Christmas Gnomes/Jultomte: The Jultomte comes from a hybrid creation of a pre-Christian Tomte and the Christian Santa Claus. The pre-Christian Tomte are small spirit beings who live on a farm and help care for it while farmers are sleeping. It may leave gifts for the farmers as long as it and the animals are treated properly. The reconstructed Jultomte are said to drive around on a sled pulled by farm goats as they offer gifts to children.
The Straw Goat/Julbokken: Some people believe the straw goat is modelled after stories of the animals that drive Thor or Odin's chariots; others believe it is a symbol of the goats used to help the Tomte travel to and from the forest and farm or deliver gifts to children; and many others see it as something with little significance - like candy canes on a tree.
In the end each celebration or decoration was created from stories a culture tells its people. They could be stories of legends and myth, fictitious and iconic children's books, or a way of life people nurtured to help bring holiday tradition to their homes. Saying one or all these people are wrong is like dismissing Hunnukah or Kwanza. They are important holidays and celebrations that should be respected as their own customs. Yule just happens to have several types of celebrations layered onto each other. In conclusion the answer to the opening question is that Yule is a holiday comprised of three origins: Cultural, Religious and Tribal. How you celebrate is up to you.
- Origins of Yule: https://jolablot.com/origin-of-yule/
- Yule - A Pagan Traditions , Arith Harger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2D6sMH6BuM&t=305s&ab_channel=ArithH%C3%A4rger
- King Hakon Spread Christianity: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturlason, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/598/598-h/598-h.htm#link2H_4_0405
- Historical Heathen Traditions: https://www.aldsidu.com/post/historical-heathen-yule - Gifts at Yule: Snorrason, Oddr, and THEODORE M. ANDERSSON. The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2003. Accessed December 1, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctv1nhqzx. - Origins of the Swedish Christmas Tree - Christmas traditions in Sweden: https://web.archive.org/web/20130627150923/http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/traditions/sweden.htm