Is Yule Cultural, Religious or Tribal?
Do you have six minutes to read an independently researched argument based on a modern Scandinavian Heathen's perspective of what Yule is?
A problematic issue of being pagan Scandinavian is finding correct information on the history of modern traditions. Common is the 'keyboard warrior' living an ill-defined past. They are often quick to attack others for modern cultural traditions without proper understanding. This laziness spreads misinformation, confuses learners and frustrates others. Below we clarify what Yule is and what makes it cultural, Christian and Heathen.
1. What is Yule?
Simply put, Yule is a Swedish winter tradition built on the customs deriving from mythology and religions throughout the ages.
2. Where do modern Yule traditions come from?
The practices of Yule come from oral traditions shared by families throughout generations. These inherited traditions are folk-based and are carefully nurtured, so they aren't forgotten.
Given that, family traditions inevitably change. Different influences will have different effects. As Norse pagans or Heathens, it is important to study the history and origins of these traditions.
3. The Origins of Yule
Yule is a midwinter celebration held since the 4th century. Scandinavians have different names for Yule depending on the region:
Norway, Sweden and Denmark - Jul
Finland - Joulu
Iceland - Jól
*Germany - Jól and Julzeit
Note: Germany is not part of Scandinavia, but the Norse legends correlate with Germanic paganism, and sources of the origins of Yule can be found in it.
Linguists argue whether Yule means wheel or festivity. Mostly they agree Yule was historically a celebration of the new sun or 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 begin 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 would soon be reborn.
Yule is celebrated during the year's longest nights when the winter season is halfway over. In north arctic areas, the sun disappears entirely. It only appears again toward the end of winter - at the start of the new season. The return of the sunlight is important to a society of hunters and farmers because food won't be so scarce anymore.
Most Yule traditions are from the Medieval Scandinavian era: the Viking Age (793 AD to 1066), when people relied on Norse legends as a basis of culture.
4. When is Yule?
This is a loaded question. I am going to start backwards by introducing the conclusion first, and details will follow:
Long story short:
- Wheel of the Year Yule: Winter Solstice: December 21 (annually)
- Modern Cultural Yule: December 24 and/or 25th (annually)
- Second Yule: Yule Fest/Sacrifice: January 6-9, 2023 (this lunar year)
Each full moon represents the beginning of a new month. The oldest Yule would occur during the full moon of Jolmanuðr. To help, I created the visual representation of the Old Norse calendar below:
Typically the original date of Yule is somewhere between mid-December and mid-February, depending on the century. The date never remains the same.
The Old Norse 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 problem was the lunar calendar sets itself back 11 days every year. Because of this, an extra month was added every three years, creating a leap year. Once this was enacted, Yule began taking place on one of two dates:
Winter Solstice - The shortest day of the year
Yule Sacrifice - The full moon after 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 6, 2023.
Today, most Scandinavians celebrate Yule on December 24. Why? Because King Hákon the Good tried to convert Norway to Christianity by declaring Yule was to be celebrated on the same day as Christmas, and both would be called Yule.
During the 9th century, when the Julian calendar was observed, Yule was celebrated on December 21. 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:
An Offering (blót) - A farm animal would be sacrificed and displayed in front of their home, so people knew what animals were being honoured for the gods. The blood of the animals would be sprinkled on alters, walls and participants using magical twigs. The sacrifice would be cooked over a 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 honour of gods and ancestors: Odin for victory and power, Niord and Freyja for peace and a 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 wanted, 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 mention 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 decorations and star-shaped lanterns. Below is what makes each category unique:
Heathens following the old ways will celebrate Julfest/Jolót/Julzeit through ritualistic offerings to their gods and ancestors and making unbreakable 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 tiny 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 correctly. 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 goats used to help Tomte travel to and from the forest and farm or deliver gifts to children. Many others see the goat/Julbokken 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 myths, fictitious and iconic children's books, or a way of life people nurtured to keep their holiday traditions alive. Saying one or all these people are wrong is like dismissing Hunnukah or Kwanza. They are essential holidays and celebrations that should be respected as their own customs. Yule just happens to have several types of versions layered onto each other. In conclusion, the answer to the opening question is: Yule is a holiday comprised of three origins: Cultural, religious (Christian) and tribal (Heathen). How you celebrate is up to you.
- Heathen Calendar: https://www.academia.edu/1366945/Jul_disting_och_f%C3%B6rkyrklig_tider%C3%A4kning
- 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