Yule is a winter festival historically celebrated primarily in northern Europe but now celebrated in many other countries in various forms. Yule celebrations often coincide with Christmas. Modern Yule traditions include decorating a fir or spruce tree, burning a Yule log, hanging mistletoe and holly branches, giving gifts, and general celebration and merriment.

The Germanic peoples celebrated Yule from late December to early January on a date determined by the lunar Germanic calendar. When the Julian calendar was adopted in northern Europe, Yule was placed on December 25 to correspond with the date of Christmas. Colloquially the terms "Yule" and "Christmas" are often used interchangeably.

Also, Yule was the name of the original Father Christmas, as stated in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, during the Feast of the Innocents (around Yule time) "the 'riding', or procession, of Yule (the original Father Christmas) and his wife was a great event in sixteenth century York..."


The modern English word Yule likely derives from the word yoole, from 1450, which developed from the Old English term geōl and geōla before 899. The term has been linked to and may originate from the Old Norse Jōl, which refers to a Germanic pagan feast lasting 12 days that was later Christianized into Christmas.

In Old English geōla meant "December". The ancient Anglo-Saxon calendar had two "tides" of 60 day periods: "Litha Tide", roughly equivalent to modern June and July, and "Giuli Tide" to December and January. The remaining months were lunar 29-day periods—the New Year began with the second half of that tide, also known as "Wulfmonath".

A 12-day period between the two halves—or "monaths"—became the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. With the return to the Latin-based calendar through the invading Normans, the definition narrowed to mean Christmas day only in the combined Christian Norman and Anglo-Saxon England.

Jól may derive from Old Norse hjól, wheel, referring to the moment when the wheel of the year is at its low point, ready to rise again (compare to the Slavic karachun). This theory seems based more on similarities between the words jul and hjul (with a mute h) in modern Scandinavian languages, than on older cognates or historical sources. The Old English form Geohhol may connect to the word to Latin jocus.

In the Scandinavian Germanic languages, the term Jul covers both Yule and Christmas, and is occasionally used to denote other holidays in December, such as jødisk jul or judisk jul, meaning "Jewish Yule" for Hanukkah. Neighboring Finnic languages borrow the word to denote Christmas, Finnish as joulu and Estonian as jõul.


Yule celebrations at the winter solstice predate Christianity. Yule is a feast celebrated by sacrifice on mid winter night 12 January, according to Norwegian historian Olav Bø. There are many references to Yule in the Icelandic sagas but few accounts of how Yule was celebrated beyond the fact it was a time for feasting. According to Adam of Bremen, Swedish kings sacrificed male slaves every ninth year during the Yule sacrifices at the Temple at Uppsala. 'Yule-Joy' with dancing continued through the Middle Ages in Iceland but was frowned upon after the Reformation. The ritual of slaughtering a boar on Yule survives in the modern tradition of the Christmas ham and the Boar's Head Carol.
On Yule Eve the best boar in the herd was brought into the hall where the assembled company laid their hands upon the animal and made their unbreakable oaths. Heard by the boar these oaths were thought to go straight to the ears of Freyr himself. Once the oaths had been sworn the boar was sacrificed in the name of Freyr and the feast of boar flesh began. The most commonly recognised remnant of the sacred boar traditions once common at Yule has to be the serving of the boar's head at later Christmas feasts.

According to the medieval English writer the Venerable Bede, Christian missionaries sent to proselytize among the Germanic peoples of northern Europe were instructed to superimpose Christian themes upon existing local pagan holidays, to ease the conversion of the people to Christianity by allowing them to retain their traditional celebrations. Thus, Christmas was created by associating stories of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity, with the existing pagan Yule celebrations, similar to the formation of Halloween and All Saint's Day via Christianization of existing pagan traditions.

The confraternities of artisans of the 9th century, which developed into the medieval guilds, were denounced by Catholic clergy for their "conjurations" when they swore to support one another in coming adversity and in business ventures. The occasions were annual banquets on December 26,

"feast day of the pagan god Jul, when it was possible to couple with the spirits of the dead and with demons that returned to the surface of the earth... Many clerics denounced these conjurations as being not only a threat to public order but also, more serious in their eyes, satanic and immoral. Hincmar, in 858, sought in vain to Christianize them.

Contemporary traditions

Many symbols and motifs associated with the modern holiday of Christmas derive from traditional pagan northern European Yule celebrations. The burning of the Yule log, the decorating of Christmas trees, the eating of ham, the hanging of boughs, holly, mistletoe and others are all historically practices associated with Yule. When the Christianization of the Germanic peoples began, missionaries found it convenient to provide a Christian reinterpretation of popular pagan holidays such as Yule and allow the celebrations themselves to go on largely unchanged, versus trying to confront and suppress them. The Scandinavian tradition of slaughtering a pig at Christmas (see Christmas ham) is probably salient evidence of this. The tradition is thought to be derived from the sacrifice of boars to the god Freyr at the Yule celebrations. Halloween and aspects of Easter celebrations are likewise assimilated from northern European pagan festivals.

English historian Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum contains a letter from Pope Gregory I to Saint Mellitus, who was on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Pope Gregory suggested that converting heathens would go easier if they were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards the Christian God instead of to their pagan "devils": "to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God".


On the eve of the Finnish Joulu, children are visited by Joulupukki, a character similar to Santa Claus. The word Joulupukki means "Yule Goat" and probably derives from an old Finnish tradition where people called nuuttipukkis dressed in goat hides circulated in homes after Joulu, eating leftover food. Joulupukki visits people's homes and rides a sleigh pulled by a number of reindeer. He knocks on the front door during Jouluaatto, rather than sneaking in through the chimney at night. When he comes in, his first words are usually "Onkos täällä kilttejä lapsia?", "Are there (any) good (well-behaved) children here?". Presents are given and opened immediately. He usually wears red, warm clothes and often carries a wooden walking stick. His workshop is in Korvatunturi, Lapland, Finland, rather than at the North Pole like Santa Claus, or in Greenland. He is married to Joulumuori (tr. Mother Yule). Typical Finnish yule dishes include ham, various root vegetable casseroles, beetroot salad, gingerbread and star-shaped plum-filled pastries. Other traditions with a non-Christian yule background include joulukuusi ("Uule spruce") and joulusauna ("yule sauna").


The main Jul event for Norwegians is on Julaften (Tr:Yule Eve) on December 24th, when the main feast is served and gifts are exchanged. The family traditionally eat ribbe (pork ribs) or pinnekjøtt, with rice pudding for dessert, often with a scalded almond and a prize for the finder. Almost all Norwegian breweries produce traditional beer, juleøl (Yule Ale), and a special soda, julebrus (Tr: Yule Brew). Jul dishes are also served on Julebord (Tr:Yule Table), where people from work gather in early December to feast and drink alcoholic beverages. Traditionally, the mother of the house bakes seven types of cookies, julekaker. In the tradition called Julebukk or Nyttårsbukk, children dress up in costumes, visit neighbours, singing Christmas carols and receiving candy, nuts and clementines. They do this any day between Julaften and New Year's Eve. In older times in some areas, primarily Setesdalen, adults commonly went from house to house drinking, an event called Toftirus, "12-day high", during 12 days surrounding Christmas eve. Although it is now only practiced by a tiny minority and is unknown to most of Norway, this tradition apparently developed into today's Drammebukk, where adults dress up later in the evening, visit neighbors and receive drinks.


In Denmark, Jul is celebrated on December 24, which is called Juleaftensdag (Juleaften for Christmas Eve specifically). An elaborate dinner is eaten with the family, consisting of roast pork, roast duck or roast goose with potatoes, red cabbage and gravy. For dessert is rice pudding with a cherry sauce, traditionally with an almond hidden inside. The lucky finder of this almond is entitled to a small gift. After the meal is complete, the family gather around the Juletræ to sing Christmas carols and dance hand in hand around the tree. Then the children often hand out the presents which are opened immediately. This is followed by candy, chips, various nuts, clementines, and sometimes a mulled and spiced wine with almonds and raisins called Gløgg is served hot in small cups.


As in many other countries in northern Europe Jultomten brings presents on julafton ("Yule Eve"), 24 December, the day generally thought of as the main jul day. Many Swedes watch Kalle Anka och hans vänner(lit. Donald Duck and his friends), a compilation of Disney shorts, as well as Sagan om Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton by late Swedish poet, writer, filmmaker, playwright, and political satirist Tage Danielsson (with animation by Per Åhlin).

Almost all Swedish families celebrate with a julbord, which almost always includes julskinka (baked ham) and is served with beer, julmust, and snaps. The dishes vary throughout the country. Businesses invite staff to a julbord dinner or lunch in preceding weeks, and people go privately to restaurants offering julbord during December. Swedes also enjoy glögg. A widespread modern tradition is to watch cartoons ('Kalle Anka', the Swedish name for Donald Duck) broadcasted by the Swedish public service television every Christmas eve at 3 pm. Gifts are distributed either by Jultomten (usually from a sack) or from under the Christmas tree. In older days a julbock (yule goat, still used in Finland called Joulupukki) was an alternative to Jultomten; now it is used as an ornament, ranging in size from 10 cm to huge constructions like the Gävle goat. The following day some people attend a julotta and even more venture to the cinema districts as 25 December is the day of the big premieres.


The peak of icelandic jól is when presents are exchanged on aðfangadagskvöld, the evening of December 24th. It is a custom to eat a stuffed turkey, hamborgarahryggur (salted pork ribs) or rock ptarmigan. Before Christmas some people cut patterns into laufabrauð (e. leaf bread) and bake piparkökur (e. ginger biscuits).

On Þorláksmessa (mass of Saint Thorlakur), December 23rd, there is a tradition (originally from the Westfjords) to serve fermented skata (stingray) with melted tallow and boiled potatoes. Boiling the Christmas hangikjöt (hanged meat) the day after serving the skate is said to dispel the strong smell which otherwise tends to linger around the house for days.

Unlike other countries there are 13 traditional jólasveinar Yule Lads that play the same roll as the Santa Claus. The first one comes to town from the mountains December 12th and the last one arrives 12 days later on December 24th. Children leave their shoe in the window and the Yule Lads leave something in the shoe when they arrive to town. If the children are naughty they might get a potato but if they are nice they might get something good, like candy, an apple or a toy. The Yule Lads all carry a specific name that describes his actions. For instance, the sixth one is Pot-Scraper and what he does best is to scrape leftovers from pots.

December 26th is generally reserved for family gatherings. It involves a lot of eating with relatives, usually with cousins and aunts and uncles.

Shetland Islands

In the Shetland Islands of Scotland the Yules are considered to last a month beginning on December 18th and ending January 18th. The main Yules celebration occurs on December 31st. The rest of Scotland eventually adopted "Hogmanay" (the name of the New Years presents) as the name for the festival.


As forms of neopaganism can be quite different and have very different origins, these representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Some celebrate in a way as close as possible to how they believe Ancient Germanic pagans observed the tradition, while others observe the holiday with rituals culled from numerous other unrelated sources including Germanic.

Germanic neopaganism

In Germanic Neopagan sects, Yule is celebrated with gatherings that often involve a meal and gift giving. Further attempts at reconstruction of surviving accounts of historical celebrations are often made, a hallmark being variations of the traditional. However it has been pointed out that this is not really reconstruction as these traditions never died out - they have merely removed the superficial Christian elements from the celebrations blót.

Groups such as the Asatru Folk Assembly in the US recognize the celebration as lasting 12 days, beginning on the date of the winter solstice.


Many Wiccan based sects favor a plethora of sources on winter solstice holidays to recreate a type of Yule holiday. While the name "Yule" is used, it is not a reconstruction of the historical holiday. Wreaths, Yule logs, decoration of trees, decorating with mistletoe, holly, and ivy, exchanges of presents, and even wassailing are incorporated and regarded as sacred. The return of the Sun as Frey is commemorated in some groups. In most Wiccan traditions, this holiday is also celebrated as the rebirth of the Great God, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. The method of gathering for this sabbat varies by practitioner. Some have private ceremonies at home, while others do so with their covens.


See also

Traditions and Lore

Related Holidays

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