There are all kinds of ways to celebrate the holidays of the year—and while you may be familiar with the more popular ones like Easter, the Autumn Equinox, and Christmas, you may not know as much about some of the other ones. In fact, a lot of the holidays we celebrate yearly are based on more ancient practices from the people of the distant past. When the weather gets colder and we start to journey into the darker part of the year, one of the more popular holidays to celebrate among modern day believers is the winter solstice, or the shortest day of the year.
If you’re wondering how to celebrate the winter solstice this year, you may want to read more about Yule, and how you can still see its influence on the modern celebrations of Christmas. But what’s the history behind this ancient tradition? Glad you asked because in today’s article, we’re delving deeper into:
What Yule is
How Yule was traditionally celebrated in the past
Ways you can celebrate Yule with loved ones this year
What is Yule?
Let’s learn a little more about this ancient celebration
People all over the world have celebrated in the midwinter for millennia, but the specific holiday we know today as Yule was first known as Jol to the Nors, and a lot of the customs we’re familiar with originated with the Germanic people of Europe. This celebration coincided with the time of year that the Earth’s axis tilts away from the sun (in the Northern Hemisphere), and the sun is at its furthest from the Earth all year. Because this is the longest night of the year, it also means that each day after the solstice ensures that more daylight is on the way until the summer solstice in June.
Yule is known as a time of rebirth and renewal, even though it may not seem as such in the cold, barren winter months. Yule may be based on the even older Roman tradition of Saturnalia, which also occurred during the winter solstice and lasted for a week. Saturn was an agricultural god, so it makes sense that this Roman, and later European, celebration centers around celebrating the return of the light, and thus the crops for the following year.
Seeing the sun at its farthest and with the weakest light it has all year caused early people like the Nors to mark this time of year with a variety of traditions and festivities.
How was Yule celebrated in the past?
How would the people of the past celebrate this important holiday?
Yule was regarded as one of the most important holidays of the calendar year, after all, it marked the return to the lighter half of the year. There are ancient Yule traditions that might even be familiar to you, but some are most definitely based on the needs of an agricultural society. Some of the most important Yule traditions celebrated at the winter solstice included:
Bonfires. The return of the light is one of the most essential parts of the Yule celebration. Northern Europe is cold and bleak during this part of the winter, owing to the fact that the sun is at its furthest from the Earth. The days are incredibly short, especially in the northernmost latitudes that are closest to the North Pole. Around the 21st of December, bonfires would be lit in villages in celebration of the return of the light and anticipation of the return of spring.
The Yule log. One of the most important parts of the Yule ceremony (which we still see today) is the Yule log. Tradition holds that a tree or a part of a tree was cut down each winter solstice to be burned, which goes along with the theme of sacrifice. The tree was burned in the hearth for the duration of the celebration. This could be from a week to up to 12 days, depending on the culture. Whatever part of the log that wasn’t burned was saved to light next year’s Yule log.
Sacrifices. As largely agricultural people, the Nors and Germanic tribes would sacrifice animals before the start of deep winter. They did this to not only feed themselves, but also so they did not need to worry about feeding the animals. Cows, pigs, boars, and chickens were slaughtered and preserved so the people could feed themselves through the cold European winter. We can still see traces of this sacrifice in the ham that is traditionally eaten at this time of year.
Feasting. Of course there was great feasting at Yule! After the animals were sacrificed, there were great feasts held and much merry making. Bonfires were lit to keep everyone warm as they enjoyed nights of fun and revelry to celebrate the return of the light after the shortest day of the year.
Decorating in greenery. Evergreen plants were also a part of the Yuletide celebration, since they are one of the few signs of life during the winter. Bringing the green of plants like yew, pine, holly, and ivy indoors was a way to celebrate the renewal, and persistence, of life.
Oaths, deals, and marriages. This was also a good time to renew oaths to leaders/chieftains, broker deals, and arrange marriages. Since it was a time of rebirth, the ancients thought that Yule was an auspicious time to start new alliances and reaffirm tribal and familial bonds.
Thanks to invasion and emigration, the Celts of the British Isles also put their own spin on Yule, while adopting most of the Germanic and Scandinavian Yule traditions. They also brought evergreen plants into the home for decoration, including mistletoe, which was very important to their priests, the Druids. Animals were sacrificed, and bonfires and feasting were an essential part of their Yule observances.
After Christianity started to spread in Britain and Ireland in the 6th century, slowly the older pagan religions started to decline. By the 9th century, what the Christians called Christmas started to supplant Yule. The Christmas story is another telling of the theme of rebirth, renewal, and the coming of the light—this time referring to Jesus.
Some of the traditions that the early Britons and Celts adopted from the Germanic and Nors people have carried through into what is now celebrated as Christmas.
How can you celebrate Yule?
Ways you and your loved ones can celebrate Yule and bring joy to the winter solstice!
The modern traditions of Christmas can seem exhausting and expensive at times, so not to worry, you don’t have to spend a lot to celebrate Yule! And the two holidays don’t have to be mutually exclusive, you can definitely partake in both versions. When you have the intention to celebrate light, life, and renewal at this time of year, there’s no wrong way to do it. Here are some ways you can celebrate Yule this year, and bring a little peace, joy, and comfort to your life in small but important ways.
Bring light to your space. This is one of the oldest Yule traditions, and it’s easy to incorporate into modern times! December is the darkest time of the year with the shortest amount of daylight, which is why it’s important to light up your space. Light candles that remind you of winter, with scents like pine, cinnamon, apples, and nutmeg. You can also add additional lights, either artificial candles or string lights for a soft glow.
Decorate in greenery. Step outside and gather some greenery! If you can, it's best to pick up discarded branches instead of snipping them. If you don’t have access to real greenery, head over to your local craft store and pick up artificial ivy, mistletoe, pine branches, and wreaths.
Opt for handmade gifts. Give your loved ones something from the heart. This is hard in our modern version of Christmas, but slowing down and creating something simple that they will use goes a lot further than another item to add to their home that they might not need.
Decorate a tree. The quintessential part of Yule and Christmas! Decorating a tree is a great way to celebrate Yule, whether your tree is real or artificial.
Take walks outside. Thinking about renewal and rebirth at this time of year is a nice way to set intentions for the coming year. Getting outside in nature allows you to slow down, observe, and appreciate the present. What better way to connect with the past than to look at the same sky, sun, stars, and moon that the ancients did?
What will you do to celebrate Yule this year?
Yule is an ancient celebration of the winter solstice, but it’s also a way to welcome the return of the light and the chance to begin again. How will you enjoy Yule this year?
Bridget Houlihan is a writer, poet, and cat mom living in Pittsburgh, PA.