Yule means 'wheel'. Or maybe 'feast'.
For ancient Germanic and Celtic people, the impulse to celebrate solstice was the same as for their neighbors to the south -- a celebration of the cycle of nature and a reaffirmation of the continuation of life. But the style and substance of their celebrations took very different shape. It isn't hard to figure out why. These northern cultures survived a colder, darker winter for one thing. And they were just as likely to be herders and hunters as farmers.
It's cold, it's dark many more hours than light, and snows cover the fields where your herds might forage. What is there to do but make a delight of necessity, with a great slaughter and feasting? And what better time to do it than at the point that marks the return of the sun's light and warmth?
Imagine living in, say, Scandinavia a thousand years ago. At solstice, the sun rises around 9 a.m. It sets about 3 p.m. A mere six hours of daylight. Even if you sleep for eight hours, you spend much more of your waking time in darkness than in light. What a relief when the days begin to lengthen again!
Many of the ancient traditions surrounding Yuletide are concerned with coping with the darkness and the evils it was thought to harbor, and helping the return of light and warmth.
Take holly, for instance. Evergreens were cherished at this time of year as a natural symbol of rebirth and life amid winter whiteness. But holly was particularly prized to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces because of its prickliness -- to either ward off or snag and capture evil spirits before they could enter and harm a household. Sort of like flypaper for faeries.
Of goats and elves. Scratch the surface of Christmas folklore in Scandinavian countries, and you find images and traditions that probably go way back. Perhaps this is because Christian missionaries didn't reach these countries until the 10th and 11th centuries, so the old traditions had longer to settle in.
There's the Julbock or Julbukk, or Yule goat, from Sweden and Norway, who had his beginnings as carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge. I've even read somewhere that the Finnish version of this goat character, the Joulupukki, does the present deliveries himself by riding on a bicycle! Here's a perspective on that from a Finnish visitor to Candlegrove. (This is what I just love about the net!) The Yule elf is called Jultomten in Sweden, Julesvenn in Norway, and Jule-nissen in Denmark and Norway. (A Norwegian visitor to Candlegrove tells us more.) Jule-nissen was remembered fondly in 1908 by Jacob Riis: "I do not know how the forty years I have been away have dealt with Jule-nissen, the Christmas elf of my childhood....He was pretty old then, gray and bent, and there were signs that his time was nearly over. When I was a boy we never sat down to our Christmas Eve dinner until a bowl of rice and milk had been taken to the attic, where he lived with the martin and its young, and kept an eye upon the house--saw that everything ran smoothly. I never met him myself, but I know the house cat must have done so. No doubt they were well acquainted, for when in the morning I went in for the bowl, there it was, quite dry and licked clean, and the cat purring in the corner.....the Nisse, or the leprecawn--call him what you like--was a friend indeed to those who loved kindness and peace."
The Yule Cat
From Iceland comes the legend of the sinister and gargantuan Yule Cat, who, it seems, is ready to eat lazy humans. Those who did not help with the work of their village to finish all work on the autumn wool by Yule time got a double whammy -- they missed out on the Yule reward of a new article of clothing, and they were threatened with becoming sacrifices for the dreaded Yule Cat. This tidbit from a lovely Web site on Yule in Iceland, complete with a poem on the Yule cat.
There's so much to share about this amazing evergreen that it needs its own page.
So many Yule traditions.
Of course, there's the tree, so layered over with folklore and speculations about its origin that one could write an entire book about it. Indeed, someone already has. California writer Sheryl Ann Karas brings us The Solstice Evergreen, highly recommended. One historical note about Christmas trees I found most odd--originally in many places, they were hung upside down. And there's the famous Yule Log, immortalized in carols and in a delicious French dessert.
And from time immemorial, Yule has been a time of peace and charity. In Norway, work had to be reduced to a minimum, and no wheels were to be turned, for that would show impatience with the great wheel in the sky, the sun. As part of this time-- called Julafred, or Peace of Christmas--neither bird, beast nor fish is trapped, shot or netted.