By Mark Sundaram
How did we get from a Christian holy day marking the birth of Christ, to a celebration involving evergreen trees, feasting and drinking, and reindeer? Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today we look at the word Yule.
Before it was co-opted to refer to Christmas, the Germanic word Yule meant the month-long period coinciding with the winter solstice, and specifically a pagan midwinter fertility festival. The word Yule comes from the Old English Geol, and is related to other Germanic words like the Old Norse Jól. We don’t know for sure where this Germanic root comes from, but it might come from an Indo-European word *yek- which means “to speak” and also gives us words such as joke, juggle, and jewel, probably through association with festivity. Or it could come from an Indo-European word *kwel- which means “to turn or move around” and also gives us words such as wheel and cycle, probably referring to the turn of the year that happens at Yule. From Old Norse Jól also possibly comes jolly, through Old French joli meaning “pretty or cute”, unless that comes from Latin gaudere, “to rejoice”, or maybe both sources are at play here. What is certain, though, is that Clement Clark Moore famously refers to Santa Claus as a “jolly old elf” in the poem commonly known as “Twas the Night before Christmas”. The combination of the words jolly and elf (also from a Germanic root) starts us down the road to the Germanic origins of so many modern English and North American Christmas traditions – all because the early Church decided to mash-up Christ’s birthday with midwinter festivals.
If you hear the word ‘yule’ today, it might be in the phrase “Yule log”, a particularly large log traditionally saved for burning at Christmas – or a kind of log-shaped Christmas cake. It’s been suggested that the traditional burning of the Yule log has its roots in early Germanic pagan ritual. Trees seem to have been a big deal in early Germanic belief – for instance, when describing the Germanic people, the Roman historian Tacitus writes about the importance of particular types of wood and of sacred groves as places of worship, and the Norse cosmology is based around the image of the world tree Yggdrasil. This emphasis on trees (also important to early Celts) seems to have survived in England from the time of the earliest Germanic peoples who settled there; we see this also in the tradition of Christmas decorations with evergreens such as Christmas wreaths, mistletoe and holly, all symbolically appropriate for a midwinter fertility festival since evergreens stay green through the winter months. Christmas trees too, seem to come from Germanic pagan roots, but aren’t part of that continuous English tradition; the Christmas tree was popularized much later in the Victorian period by Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria, after having been imported a little earlier by other German-born members of the British royal family.
And then there’s the traditional Christmas ham, a custom that goes back to the Germanic Yule boar. The boar was associated with the Norse fertility god Freyr, and it was customary to sacrifice a boar as part of the pagan Yule celebration to ensure fertility in the coming year. This is reflected in the song “The Boar’s Head Carol”. Slaughtering most of your livestock before winter, of course, makes good sense, since then you don’t have to feed them all when food is scarce, and a new set of animals will be born in the spring. No wonder people often have a large feast at that time of year, like our over-the-top Christmas dinners. So, when you have to loosen your belt two notches over the holidays, you can blame those old Germanic pagans!
Wassailing, now most familiar in the Christmas carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing”, also seems to have roots in an Anglo-Saxon fertility tradition. Wassail the drink is similar to mulled ale or apple cider, and wassailing, which is now commonly used to mean the practice of Christmas carol singing from door to door, also refers to the ritual of singing in apple orchards to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good apple harvest the next year. The toast itself, “Wassail!”, is from the Anglo-Saxon “wæs þu hal” meaning “be thou hale” or in other words “be healthy”.
But getting back to the word Yule, Nordic countries have a tradition of the Yule Goat, called a Julbok in Scandinavian countries or Joulupukki in Finland, which might involve constructing a large straw goat or dressing up in a goat costume to go wassailing or give out gifts. Though the modern version of Santa Claus has largely replaced the goat-man, Finns still use the term Joulupukki for the guy in the red suit. The Yule goat may have its origins in the two goats that were said to pull the chariot of Thor, the Norse thunder god. And this may also have inspired the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh – and remember two of the reindeer are named Donner and Blitzen, which mean thunder and lightning.
Incidentally, the term Julbok or Joulupukki is etymologically the same as “Yule buck”, and buck comes from an old Germanic word for a male deer or goat. Bock is a type of lightly hopped lager beer that is commonly associated with festive occasions, particularly Christmas. It’s called bock because it originally comes from a German town called Einbeck, which when pronounced with a Bavarian accent sounds like ein Bock meaning “a goat”, and so beer labels on bottles of bock often feature a picture of a goat – particularly appropriate given the Christmas association!
But getting back to Santa’s reindeer and Norse mythology, the chief god Odin rode his eight-legged horse called Sleipnir in the Scandinavian version of the Wild Hunt, a widespread European myth involving ghostly huntsmen on horseback, riding wildly through the sky, and this is an element of the Germanic pagan Yule festival. Thus Odin’s eight-legged horse may have led to Santa’s eight reindeer, and Odin, who is sometimes known by the name Jólnir or “Yule-figure”, and often depicted as an old man with a white beard, with hat and cloak, may have influenced our modern image of Father Christmas or Santa Claus, in combination with the old English tradition of Old Father Time, as well as the Mediterranean gift-giving Saint Nicholas.
Yeah, it’s all a little complicated!
Ok, back to Odin and the Wild Hunt. In Germanic pagan tradition Yule is a time of supernatural occurrences and is connected with cult of the dead and ancestor-worship. Odin is, appropriately enough, a god of the dead. And this association with Yule may to some extent carry over to Christmas in the tradition of the Christmas ghost story – think Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol with its ghosts of Marley and of Christmas past, present, and yet to come. Dickens is almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of Christmas as a major, popular holiday – well, along with the populariser of the Christmas tree, fellow Victorian Prince Albert – remember him? Before the Victorian period, Christmas was in decline and not particularly popular. In fact, in what was the real War on Christmas, Oliver Cromwell and his party-pooper Puritan pals tried to stamp out Christmas – as did many of the early Puritan colonies in North America – passing laws forbidding its celebration and requiring shops to stay open, since they saw all that feasting and drinking and celebrating as rather too pagan – well, as you can see, they weren’t wrong!
But then, where did Dickens’s vision of snowy, festive Christmases come from? Well, oddly enough, we have a volcano to thank for that. In 1815 Mt Tamboura in Indonesia had an enormous volcanic eruption which drastically affected world climate, making the following years remarkably colder than usual, with the so-called year without a summer in 1816 and at least eight snowy winters in a row in England–not a common occurrence. As a result, winters for young Charles, who was born in 1812, involved the iconic white Christmases that set the tone for his Christmas writings like A Christmas Carol. Another literary outcome of the Mt Tamboura eruption, by the way, was the cool and rainy summer in Switzerland in 1816, where Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and his personal physician John Polidori were holidaying. The miserable weather meant they stayed indoors a lot, and this led to them having a ghost story writing contest, which ultimately led to Mary’s famous novel Frankenstein–and what could be more Christmassy than re-animated corpses, right?
Well oddly enough, maybe, according to Germanic mythology. In Old Norse stories such as Grettis Saga, it is said that the activity of draugar increases around Yule. The draugar were the walking dead, a bit like ghosts but more corporeal, so maybe more like zombies. They dwelt in their burial mounds and sometimes came out to make trouble for the living, attacking their homes and so forth, particularly at Yule. In another Old Norse saga, King Hrolf’s Saga, one of King Hrolf’s warriors, named Boðvar Bjarki, fights off some kind of winged monster which always attacks the king’s hall at Yule. This battle, along with a troll-fight described in Grettis Saga, are often held up as remarkably close parallels to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel, in the famous Anglo-Saxon poem. Though Grendel’s attacks aren’t specifically at Yule, as are the other monsters’ attacks, Grendel does perhaps have a role to play in one of our modern Christmas stories, Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Like the old Norse monsters, the Grinch comes to the settlement at Christmas/Yule. Like Grendel (and the Norse monsters) he comes at night. And the attacks of both the Grinch and Grendel are triggered by the sound of people singing and happily celebrating in their community while the Grinch/Grendel is left friendless out in the cold wilderness. Even their names, Grinch and Grendel, sound similar. So perhaps Dr. Seuss was inspired by the figure of Grendel, as well as by Dickens’s Christmas-hating character Scrooge, in creating his iconic Grinch.
So, as we approach the season of Yule, don’t be a Grinch – or a Scrooge, or a Grendel! – and join me in raising a cup of wassail or a bottle of bock to the fascinating origins of the coming holiday.
I’ll be back soon with more etymological explorations and cultural connections, so please subscribe to this channel; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog, The Endless Knot, at alliterative.net.