Written by Lori Evans December 2017, updated December 2019.
A number of events are connected to the Yuletide season and the Jul/Yule Feast: the Winter Solstice (the longest night of the year, referred to as the “Tekufat Tevet” in the Talmud, and in the Northern Hemisphere is on December 20 or 21), the Roman Saturnalia, and of course, Christmas. Many other cultures have also recognized the winter solstice and celebrate it in their own way, such as the Dōngzhì Festival in China.
Yuletide specifically comes from the Germanic people of Northern Europe. It was a celebration during the Wild Hunt, a period lasting from mid-November to early January (a time of storms and unpredictable weather), when it was believed that the fae, supernatural beings, and even the dead, would come out in great numbers to parade in hunting parties through the woods or across the sky. There are variations of the Wild Hunt all throughout Europe, with different deities and deceased local historical figures of note as the leaders of the party. Some of the more recognizable of those would be Odin, Wodun, Fionn mac Cumhaill, King Arthur, and the Devil.
Modern Wicca tends to attribute leadership of the hunt to the Greek goddess Hecate, patron of crossroads, ghosts, sorcery, entrances, and a whole lot else. She is a protective goddess, one that could bestow blessings on the family house that worshiped her, or give solemn guidance to those facing difficult decisions.
Midwinter was very much a serious time, when the world was getting dangerous and the gods and the undead (Draugr) were about. In Old Norse, one name for the gods was “Yule-Beings.” The most important business deals and marriages were brokered, and it was an auspicious time for oaths.
Throughout Europe, evergreens were hung over doors and windows, as their greenery in a time of bleak cold was believed to ward off negative energies and illness. Greenery was even important to the Ancient Egyptians, who used green palms during this time when their sun god Ra was just starting to recover from his annual illness. Evergreens represented the sun god Baldor to the Scandinavians, and Saturn to the Romans.
We have our good friends the Brothers Grimm, Jacob Ludwig Karl and Wilhelm Carl, German folklorists and philologists, to thank for much of what we understand about the old winter traditions, from their research and complications published in the 1810’s. They supposed that before Christianity, the Wild Hunt was when these otherworldly beings would come and bring good tidings and fortune to the people of Earth, but after Christianity was introduced, the tales about it turned it into a darker, more devilish phenomenon. Even glimpsing this darker version of the gathering was a portend of doom, war, and death.
So let’s stick with the original idea, which is still full of notable trickery. In Germany, for example, if one came across the Wilde Jagd, if you weren’t immediately snatched up or killed, you had a few options. Opposing the hunters would mean death, but if you helped the hunt along, you would be rewarded – yet can we ever trust a gift of the fae? If they gave you a portion of the hunt, it would invariably be cursed and you’d be stuck with it forever till you managed to find someone capable of removing the bane. So you should ask for salt, which the retinue cannot supply, and this forces them to take it back. The wisest choice seems to be standing and just waiting for them to pass.
There are many new ideas for ways to celebrate the Wild Hunt, including races through the woods at night. Most of us are more likely to focus on the Yule Feast itself, which is a three day celebration starting on the Winter Solstice. From this, we eventually, though Christianization, get our modern Christmas.
Modern Christmas doesn’t look very much like Odin’s Yule, which was a time of increased supernatural activity and when the dead were close to the living. All sorts of domesticated animals would be slaughtered, the sacrificial blood spread over the altars and worshipers, and the meats cooked and devoured, along with great quantities of ale. Toasts would be made to the gods Odin, Freyr, and Njörðr (the dearly departed), and in general for prosperity and good harvests. There was usually gift-giving, but it was usually of practical items, like lamps and wax apples to keep out the dark.
A large log would be burned constantly through the night, later symbolically represented by a more manageably sized and decorated Yule Log (and then later by fancifully decorate cakes), or as in Germany, by bringing in a small tree to decorate (Tannenbaum). Supposedly, 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to put candles on the tree, having been inspired by seeing the stars through the trees outside.
We take further traditions from the Roman Saturnalia, a seven day festival to the sun and agricultural god Saturn. This time of merrymaking and gift-giving even included special privileges for slaves, and the opportunity to enjoy otherwise forbidden activities such as gambling. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, much of this was subdued.
In modern times, we recognize Yule as the period of twelve days after the Winter Solstice. Neopaganism usually celebrates with a meal, gift-giving, and an overnight vigil. While old-school traditional meats such as boar and goat are rarely used, you can see resemblances in the Christmas ham or beef roast.
Christmas celebrations were seen as largely pagan in nature, for a time that Puritans believed was sacred and serious. In 1659 in Massachusetts in America, it was illegal to mark the occasion with anything other than a church service. It took the wildly popular and fashionable Queen Victoria in the late 1840’s to change the minds of America, ushering in Christmas trees and festive decorations.
Some people still hand make their tree ornaments, sometimes from all natural materials, like dried fruit, wood, flour, and clay. They may make spiced, hot drinks, and wassail (going around the neighborhood with their drinks and singing carols).
This is a period for happiness as well as reflection, a time to come together, and plan ahead. It is an excellent time to begin new ongoing projects, like journaling, keeping a calendar, or making a time capsule for next year.
Written by Lori Evans December 2017, updated December 2019.