The Origins of Yuletide


Candles, a jug of mead, and two drinking horns rest on a Yule stalli (altar).

Long Night / Yule / Jölnir


Gleđileg Jól (Good Yule!)


In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means “wheel,” the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Hollyberries were thought to be a food of the gods.



Yule was the winter solstice celebration of the Germanic pagans still celebrated by Ásatrúar. It is also one of the eight solar holidays, or sabbats, of Paganism. In modern Paganism, Yule is celebrated on the winter solstice: in the northern hemisphere, circa December 21, and in the southern hemisphere, circa June 21.

"Yule" and "Yuletide" are also archaic terms for Christmas, sometimes invoked in songs to provide atmosphere. Indeed, this is the only meaning of "Yule" accepted by either the full Oxford English Dictionary or the Concise Oxford Dictionary, and people unfamiliar with ancient pagan traditions will not distinguish between Yule and Christmas. This usage survives in the term "Yule log"; it may also persist in some Scottish dialects.

Of the contested origin of Jól, one popular but factually unlikely connection is to Old Norse hjól, wheel, to identify the moment when the wheel of the year is at its low point, ready to rise again. Linguists suggest that Jól has been inherited by Germanic languages from a pre-Indo-European substrate language and borrowed into Old English from Old Norse.
...there are few accounts of how Yule was actually celebrated, beyond the fact that it was a time for feasting. 'Yule-Joy', with dancing, continued through the Middle Ages in Iceland, but was frowned upon when the Reformation arrived. It is, however, known to have included the sacrifice of a pig for the god Freyr, a tradition which survives in the Scandinavian Christmas ham.

English historian Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastic History of the English People") contains a letter from Pope Gregory I to Saint Mellitus, who was then on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the heathen Anglo-Saxons. The Pope suggests that converting heathens is easier if they are allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards the one true God instead of to their pagan gods (whom the Pope refers to as "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". The Pope sanctions such conversion tactics as Biblically acceptable, pointing out that God did much the same thing with the ancient Israelites and their pagan sacrifices.

SOURCE: Wikipedia (



The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), Winter Solstice meaning Sun standstill in winter. The Long Night ritual, at its most simple form, is that the head of the household goes outside at dusk, symbolically capturing the last of the sun’s rays (with a candle, or other means) and coming inside, to light the Yule Log. The log is kept burning until dawn, when the gathered go outside to welcome the new sun. They bring a bit of food and drink from the evening’s festivities, and partake of it, spilling some on the ground to honour and thank the Ancestors gone before them. The rest of the form of the ceremony is personal and varies to an extent, but may include parties, food and drink, music, games, storytelling, or simply resting in shifts as some keep vigil over the fire to ensure it does not go out.


This is the day that the Pagan Goddess gives birth to the God. She has been without him since his death on Samhain (October 31st) and all want to celebrate his return. His life follows the changing of the seasons, with birth, growth, life and death all happening in one year’s time and repeating itself every year.

THE WORD YULE: The word Yule probably derives from the Norse "iul" or the Anglo-Saxon "hweol", both meaning "wheel". According to Webster's Dictionary, however, it originates in "geola" (Old English for "ice"), another name for the month during which it was celebrated. "Modronacht" (Mother's Night) is yet another Name for the Midwinter Festival.

TREES & GREENS: In the days before Yule a tree (typically an evergreen or fir) is cut and brought into the home to decorate. Holly and mistletoe are also hung around the house. Any greenery brought inside during Winter are used to extend an invitation to nature to join in our celebration and to remind us that life goes on even in the midst of the darkest and coldest time of the year. A Yule altar is usually set up and decorated with the colours red, green, white and gold.

YULE LOG: It is tradition for some on Yule to stay awake all night and greet the sun when it rises. During the wait for the sun, rituals are held, spells are cast to send peace and joy to others, and joyous celebration takes place. A Yule log (usually a log made of Oak or Ash) is burned and a piece of it is saved to light next years log. A modern Yule log (for those without fireplaces) is a hollowed log, flat on one side that holds three candles. Exchanging gifts usually follows this and eating all the wonderful foods prepared for this holiday. Stories are also told during this time and plans are made for the future. It is a time of rebirth and new beginnings. 

Many customs have survived from Pre-Christian times that lend themselves quite nicely to our rituals today. Among them is the ever-popular Yule Log. Traditionally, the Yule Log has been of oak, ash or beech, ritually cut (often at Dawn) and ceremonially carried into the house. It was lit by the head of the family, with much ado. Toasts were often drunk with wine, cider or brandy, in those early morning hours, giving the participants a good head start on the festivities. A lesser-known tradition is that of the Yule Clog. The Clog was a knobby block of wood, burnt in the kitchen hearth. Household servants were entitled to ale with their meals for as long as the Clog was kept burning. In many parts of Scandinavia, the object burnt was a fat wax candle, instead of a log. The candle was lit at Dawn and must burn until Midnight, or be considered an ill omen.

The Yule Log was said to have many magickal properties. Remnants of it, or its ashes, were kept in the house throughout the year for many purposes. Among these were protection from thunderstorms or lightning, protection from hail, preserving humans from chilblains and animals from various diseases. Mixed with fodder, the ashes would make the cows calve and brands were thrown into the soil to keep corn healthy. Women often kept fragments until Twelfth Night to ensure a thriving poultry flock in the coming year. It was customary to pour libations of wine or brandy upon the Log and to make offerings by scattering corn or breadcrumbs over it. Even money was placed on the Log. Those charred "lucky coins" were then given to children or servants as gifts.

YULE ON THE CALENDAR: Yule is actually a span of thirteen days, usually counted from the night before the solstice (19 or 20 December, as it varies from year to year), to the thirteenth night, (usually January 6 called "Twelfth Night" later by Christians). Bede called Yule eve "Mother Night", and it is thought this night was devoted to honouring the Idises (or Disir, female ancestral spirits) the family protectors. The Solstice itself, either 20, 21 or 22 December, is the most important of the days, when the dead and other beings of the dark fare most freely, Winter arrives, and humans are closest to the spirit worlds. Jölföđr (Yule-father) and Jölnir (Yule) are names of Odin. Some think Odin was the original "Alf" or gift-giving "Elf" ( Julesvenn in Denmark, Jultomten in Sweden, and Julenissen in Norway). Before Santa Claus was popularised in the Victorian era as a fat jolly Elf, he was seen as tall and lean, wearing a dark cloak, not a red and white tunic. Earlier legends describe "Santa" as riding a white horse, not driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer. This reminds us of Odin's steed Sleipner. The elder "Yule Elf" was a bit stern also, and could be quite a terrifying figure, especially to rude or ill-willed folk. This forbidding Yule Father probably arose from ancient legends of the Odensjakt or Wild Host who during Yule tide ride the stormy Winter skies, led by Odin as Oskoreidi. Sometimes people would be taken to join the Wild Host in tumultuous flight. In the Christian era folklore advised people to stay inside at night to avoid the furious Host, which was much feared.

CHRISTMAS MOVED TO SOLSTICE: In the fourth century AD When Pope Julius I decided to celebrate Christmas around the Winter Solstice, the Yule log tradition continued, but the fire came to represent the light of the Savior instead of the light of the Sun. On or about Christmas Eve, a big log was brought into a home or large hall. Songs were sung and stories told. Children danced. Offerings of food and wine and decorations were placed upon it. Personal faults, mistakes and bad choices were burned in the flame so everyone's new year would start with a clean slate. The log was never allowed to burn completely, a bit was kept in the house to start next years log.


  • MOVIE: The Wicker Man (103 min. 1973 Edition w/Christopher Lee)

  • MOVIE: Drawing Down the Moon (Walter Koenig, not yet out on DVD Oct 2008)

  • SONG: "A Breton Carol" by The Chieftains (Lyrics are in Breton (Brezhoneg), a Celtic language spoken in Brittany, France.)

  • SONG: "A Winter Wassail" by Faith and the Muse

  • SONG: "Adderbury Wassail" by The Albion Christmas Band

  • SONG: "Bring Us In Good Ale" by Jaiya


Wassailing is another happy survival of an old tradition. "Wassail" comes from the Old English / Anglo-Saxon "Waes Hael", which has been translated to "Be Well" / "Be Whole" / "Be Healthy/Good Health!" The proper response to this toast is "Drinc hael/Drink Hael", making it a shared blessing, a mutual well wishing. In Best-Loved Christmas Carols, Clancy and Studwell notes that the custom of wassailing may go back to the fifth century century, although the first mention in print was in 1140; Vortigern, mentioned below, dates to the early fifth century. Sandys believes that the custom could date to the third century." [10]


The text of the carol employs noun and verb forms of “wassail,” a word derived from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál and meaning “be in good health” or “be fortunate.” The phrase found first use as a simple greeting, but the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England seem to have turned was hail, and the reply drink hail, into a drinking formula adopted widely by the indigenous population of England—so much so that the Norman conquerors who arrived in the eleventh century regarded the toast as distinctive of the English natives.

“Wassail” appears in English literature as a salute as early as the eighth-century poem Beowulf, in references such as “warriors' wassail and words of power” and: "The rider sleepeth, the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds, in the courts no wassail, as once was heard."

Recording similar usage, the anonymous Anglo-Norman Poet, who witnessed the Saxon toasting cry before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, wrote: "Rejoice and wassail. Pass the bottle and drink healthy, Drink backwards and drink to me, Drink half and drink empty."

A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:

The story of toasting 'wassail' begins when Renwein presented King Vortigern with a cup of wine and the salute 'Was hail.'

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”


Wassail Ritual: The Yule ale would be shared in frith between family members and friends. Sumble (ritual toasts) would be drunk to the Ancestors at this time as well, for Yule was the season for the recognition of the continuance of human life. The Ancestors would naturally be most welcome at the family celebration. Savoury foods such as mutton or leg of lamb, goose, pork, and beef, special Yule breads, porridge, apples, sweets and nuts are traditional. But most important is the Yule ale, brewed stronger than other ales, and considered holy. Oaths were sworn on the bragarfull (holy cup).

The Wassailing Of Trees: The ancient rite of wassailing trees was well known in Devonshire, Herefordshire and in other parts of the West Country of England. It generally took place on Twelfth Night (January 5th), or sometimes on 17th January, known as Old Twelfth Night. Farmers and their families would feast on hot cakes and cider, then they would go into the orchard with more "supplies." A cider-soaked cake is laid in the fork of a tree and then more cider is splashed on it. The men fire their guns into the tree and bang on pots and pans while the rest of the people bow their heads and sing the special "Wassail Song." This custom is said to ward off bad spirits from the orchard and encourages the good spirits to provide a bountiful crop for the following year. In other traditions, the men of the village went out to the orchards carrying the wassail bowl, to alternately serenade and browbeat the apple trees. There were songs, dances and libations (for tree and man alike) until finally, in frustration, the trees would be threatened with the axe if they did not produce well in the coming year. A newspaper account of 1851 documents Devonshire men firing guns (charged only with powder) at the trees. [10]

Wassailing as "Luck Visits": It was only later that these traditions became associated with "luck visits" made around the neighborhood, together with general merry-making (and, as Rev. Bradley pointed out, "fortified by copious quantities of alcohol"). Soon, these traditions would merge with the waits who traveled the streets of the cities (and who were paid to sing and play during the holidays). And voila! we have a tradition: wassailing. William Henry Husk, writing in 1868, reproduced the Wassailers' Carol (whose well known first verse begins: "Here we come a wassailing"), noting that its last verse was the same as the first verse of a carol reproduced by Ritson in Ancient Songs and Ballads (1829), which, in turn, may have been copied from a source during the reigns of James 1 (1566-1625) or Charles 1 (1600-1649). [10]

Wassails were Year Long: The wassail was not, however, absolutely confined to the Christmas season, but was used to indicate any convivial and festive meetings. Later, the meaning of wassail would become more narrow. By the way, the editors of the OBC suggest that verses two, six and seven of The Wassail Song "are not suitable when the carol is sung in church, but they give a vivid picture of the Waits of old times." Rev. Ian Bradley makes the excellent point that the tradition of wassailers going door to door, singing and drinking to the health of those whom they visit, goes back to pre-Christian fertility rites where the villagers went through orchards at mid-winter singing and shouting loudly to drive out evil spirits, and pouring cider on the roots of trees to encourage fertility. [10]

Contents of Wassail Bowl: William L. Simon, in The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981) notes that the wassail bowl itself was a hearty combination of apples, spices, sugar, and hot ale or beer. The contents were referred to as "lamb's wool." Mr. Hone, in his Every Day Book series, has several discussions concerning the origin and contents: Lamb's-wool. In short: The first day of November was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits, seeds, etc. and was named La Mas Ubhal, that is, the day of the apple fruit, and being pronounced lamasool. The English have corrupted the name to lamb's-wool. Keyte and Parrott state that the bowl was often garlanded and ribboned. The Wassail Bowl was sometimes composed of ale instead of wine; with nutmeg, sugar, toast, ginger, and roasted crabs; in this way the nut-brown beverage is still prepared in some old families. [10] Irish antiquarian Charles Vallancey proposed that the name "lambswool" was a corruption of the name of a pagan Irish festival, "Lamas Ubhal", during which a similar drink was had. [12] Sometimes the drink contained frothy egg whites as well.

Wassailing Versus Caroling: In the early 1800s in New York, prominent citizens were very concerned about such practices (which also featured such actions as gunfire, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, excessive gambling, and riots; see the proclamation of the mayor of Washington, December 23, 1828). It was their desire to take Christmas off the streets and into the homes. The evolution of Christmas practices in those years was a direct result. One change was from "wassailing" (and a wassail bowl containing alcoholic beverages) to "caroling" (which was more likely rewarded with hot chocolate, cookies, and the like). [10]