The Winter Solstice has celebrated for over five Centuries, in many different way. It’s commonly known as Yule, the longest night of the year. Today pagans across the world gather to celebrate the event, many following the traditions of their ancestors. Yule has its roots in an ancient Germanic/Scandinavian midwinter celebration that began on night of the Winter Solstice. As far as the name of the holiday, the origin has been narrowed down to three possibilities. The Old English word, geõla, the Old Norse word jõl, or the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Iul’ meaning ‘wheel’ are all strong candidates. The collective celebrations of Yule and the winter solstice, by pagan cultures has been the source for the modern Christmas holiday
How Different Ancient Cultures Practiced Yule
The Norse consider Yule as the most important celebration of the year. Their celebration lasted 3 days, starting on the night of the Solstice (December 20th or 21st). It was a time for celebrating, drinking, gift giving, and offering thanks to the Gods, particularly Odin, the Yule Father. They decorated their homes with winter greens, trees, and burned a Yule log each year (more about Yule logs later.) The Norse celebration is considered the origin of Christmas Trees, Yule logs, and is a strong candidate for Father Christmas, coming from Odin, All Father or the Yule Father. Some believe that the ancient festival was similar to Samhain, the Celtic festival, in which the protective veil between the world of the living and the spirit world could be crossed. The Norse would roast a boar for Yule, believing it a symbol of good luck. Some say this is where the tradition of a Christmas ham comes from.
The Celts celebrated the winter solstice, but later were introduced to Yule by the Scandinavians. Legend says that on the winter solstice the Oak King would fight and defeat the Holly King, regaining control of the year until the summer solstice when the battle would be fought again, but with the Holly King being victorious. Essentially splitting the year into the light half and the dark half. The Druids of the Celts used Mistletoe in their practices. The Celtic culture is considered the source of Mistletoe and Holly in the Christmas celebration.
Prior to the Celts, the ancient Irish people celebrated the solstice as far back as 3300 BC. Researchers discovered an underground cairn at Newgrange in Co. Meath dating back to 3300 BC that is illuminated by the sun every year, at sunrise on the winter solstice.
The Anglo-Saxons were originally pagan inhabitants of modern day Great Britain. One of the ways they celebrated the solstice was by going out Wassailing. The solstice would be the first of 12 nights of revelry which included wassailing, which included healthy imbibing of wassail, an alcoholic drink made from apples, oranges, cloves, and other spices. Women would go door to door with huge bowls of wassail, offering drinks and singing songs to the homeowners. The men would head to the orchards and “wassail” the trees by splashing them with wassail and singing orchard songs that were supposed to encourage a good crop in the upcoming year. Of course, there are many variants on the details and celebratory techniques used among different cultures. Wassailing is associated with about twenty-five songs, many of which evolved into modern day Christmas carols. It is considered the source of Christmas Caroling.
There are other cultures that celebrated the solstice as the rebirth of the Sun God. Bonfires would be tended throughout the fields while the citizenry celebrated by offering toasts to the very trees and plants surrounding them. For twelve nights, this could continue, with the days growing just a little each day.
Saturnalia & The Feast of Poseidon
In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was celebrated around the winter solstice, from the 17th through the 23rd of December to honor the God Saturn. At that time, everyone was on holiday. Fresh evergreen boughs would be cut and used to decorate the home and close friends would exchange gifts. Evergreens were revered by many ancient cultures because they didn’t die like other foliage or trees, during the winter months. It was seen as a time of liberty for slaves and freemen alike, and masters often waited on their servants. It is generally accepted as the source for giving gifts on Christmas. Romans would also give one another laurel wreaths as gifts, which they would hang in their houses.
A short hop across the Mediterranean, the Greeks would celebrate The Feast of Poseidon during the Winter Solstice. During the event, men and women would separate for a time. The women would eat and drink together while the men built big bonfires and sat around them feasting and telling stories. The celebrations would last for days and always included sacrifices.
The Yule Log
The Yule log was an important part of the solstice festival, which originated with the Norse practice. A traditional yule log should be ash wood and be one harvested from the home owners land or can be received as a gift. Yule logs could not be purchased or brought back from foreign lands. As long as the log was acquired in a way which no money changed hands, it was acceptable. These logs weren’t small by any respect, as they were expected to burn and smolder for 12 days, before being ceremoniously extinguished by the family. The remaining bits of the log would be carefully preserved for the following year, whereupon that piece would be used to ignite the new yule log, thus preserving the cycle. The long log was decorated in evergreens and doused with ale and flour before being set alight, and as it burned, would be pushed into the fire slowly over the duration. It was considered bad luck if the yule log burnt out or burned away completely.
The modern yule log is quite different in appearance and use. It’s short and usually has been pre-drilled to hold three candles. Different combinations of candle colors can be red, green, and white (seasonal colors), green, gold, and black (representing the Sun God), or white, red, and black (representing the Great Goddess). Evergreens, pinecones, cloves, ribbons and other seasonal items finish off the decorating; adding a pinch of flour to dust the creation off adds a final touch.
The Christian religion defines Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ. The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th is 336 AD; documented by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. Most biblical scholars do not believe that December 25th was the actual birthdate, in fact, the available information is so scarce, that the real date is unknown. It’s believed, however, that in order to convert pagans to Christian, the church incorporated the traditions and timing of traditional pagan celebrations. Since the winter solstice was already a time of celebrating among so many cultures, it was easier for people to make the connection, and hence solidify the timing in history.
As far as the actual celebration of Christmas, outside of religion, most, if not all of the key symbols come from pagan culture. The Yule Log, Christmas tree, ornaments, and Father Christmas are all of Norse origin. Mistletoe and Holly come from the Celts. Exchanging gifts come from the Romans. Christmas caroling comes from the Anglo-Saxon’s. Other icons cannot be exactly pinpointed to one culture, since they were practiced by many. These include the 12 days of Christmas, lights (which evolved from the fire festivals of many ancient cultures), and the traditional Christmas meal.
Updated November 18th, 2021 by the original author – First Published December 20th, 2016