In English, Yuletide is synonymous with Christmas time. However, it has connections to the winter celebrations of Northern Europe including the cultures of the Norse, Scandinavian and Germanic people. Yuletide customs surrounding the Winter Solstice have also made their way to America and Britain from caroling to the giving of gifts. The holiday is associated with the darkest night of the year, and the birth of the new Sun. It is also associated with Mōdraniht, or Mother’s Night the New Year celebration of the ancient ancestral mothers. These female powers were found across ancient Europe in Celtic and Germanic tribes, and depicted in Roman stone carvings. The ancient traditions surrounding the Sun, feasting and sacrifice go back to a time before Christianity was even a whispered rumor. Yule, or Jól, celebrates the mid winter season from the Winter Solstice to the middle of January. It is a time of new light and life, and also the greatest darkness.
This period of feasting, drinking and sacrifice was celebrated in Northern Europe to propitiate the dark winter powers and celebrate the growing light of the new Sun. In the Northern territories, when approaching the Winter Solstice, daytime becomes extremely short. The Sun often rising only for a few hours. On the longest night a brief period of twilight lasts for a couple of hours and then the world is plunged back into darkness. Ancient cultures recognized this as a time when Otherworldly spirits were at their most active. This was the time of the Wild Hunt, during which the King and Queen of the Underworld would ride through the night sky across the land with a band of spirits and beings from the spirit realm. Yule Logs were lit, and other apotropaic measures were taken. Sacrifices and offerings were set out for these spirits in hopes that they would pass the home without disturbing the living, and even perhaps bring the family prosperity in return.
The Sun Goddess
In the Viking Age, the Sun was considered a goddess of the Aesir known as Sól. She was known to drive across the sky in her horse drawn chariot. The goddess who embodied the Sun was pursued and devoured by the wolf of winter each year, an annual reflection of the Fenris wolf of the Ragnarök. The wolf is a creature of the goddess Hel, representing death, survival and life force. Hel is the Norse goddess of the dead and also has connections with ice, hail and the cold of winter. Death like winter was not seen as a fixed state, but a transition period from one existence to another. The Sun goddess was of central importance in the Bronze Age, and although she may have lost some of her importance in the religious cult of the Vikings, many of her features survived into later Norse mythology and religious symbolism. These symbols are retained by individual goddesses of the Norse Pantheon. The threat of abduction of the bright life-bringing light of the golden goddess was a recurring theme in Norse mythology. Akin to other myths of goddesses descending into the Underworld. The idea of the Sun represented as a goddess and the Moon as a god is a common trait of the most ancient Indo-European religions. The Yuletide was a time of celebration, welcoming the reborn Sun goddess. It was also a fragile time period where rituals of fire and light would ensure her continued growth throughout the winter months.
Tomte. Flickr Images.
The Dark Powers of Winter
Winter time is ruled by dark goddesses, crones and goddesses of the Underworld. Many of the attributes of winter time are under the domain of the goddess Hel, during which the powers of death and darkness ruled. In the midst of this darkness, the Sun is born anew. Nökkvé, Holy Darkness was both celebrated and feared. Placating the powers of darkness were an important aspect of survival. This was a dangerous time for many reasons. Hungry animals roaming the empty woods, coming all to close to the warmth of the homestead weren’t the only things wandering in the darkness. Spirits of the dead and dangerous otherworldy entities roamed the cold dark nights. The Yule Riders, Jólareia, or Asgard-Riders were a Northern Equivalent to the Wild Hunt of continental Europe. These immortal souls would ride through the Winter nights. Underworld creatures and the fearsome dead would pose a danger to those who would cross their paths. Protective deities were also called upon during this fragile time and petitioned to defend those who would call upon them against the dangerous powers of Yuletide.
The Julebuuk, or Yule Goat is as popular in Northern Europe as Santa’s reindeer are in America. They are an established symbol of Yule. Thor, the protective god of thunder was known to have two goats that he would slaughter and eat every night, resurrecting them the next day. The zodiac sign of the winter solstice is Capricorn, the sea-goat. Interestingly the virility and earthiness of the goat serves as a symbol of male potency, ruled by the planet Saturn. Originally these goats would have been sacrificed to the god Thor to protect the people until spring.
The Yule Goat tradition remained but transformed over time, connecting to the Krampus tradition. A man would dress as the Yule Goat and go house to house, receiving offerings for the spirits, later giving treats to well-behaved children. This was an early precursor to Santa and his reindeer delivering presents. Santa Claus was often depicted riding on a goat in earlier Christmas imagery. A job originally performed by the gnome-like tomten of Northern tradition, these small magical men would be accompanied by Yule Goats.
Julbok Guise. Wikimedia Commons.
The Yule Goat tradition remains a popular custom in Scandinavia. Straw goats of various sizes are displayed as ornaments, placed in yards and left on neighbors doorsteps. The Gävlebocken is a 49 ft tall Yule Goat made of wood and straw displayed in Gävle, Sweden. It was originally constructed in 1969. An unintentional tradition has grow up around the Gävlebocken. Over the years the structure has been set fire 35 times by vandals. Bets are now taken to see how long the goat will last.
Gävlebocken. Gävle Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.
Yule is the perfect time to honor our ancestors, and celebrate family traditions. It is about spending time together, kept warm in our homes. Many of us with Germanic and Scandinavian ancestry can take this opportunity to learn about the customs that are unique to our heritage, which have gone on to become universally associated symbols of the Holiday Season. There is something about this time of year, when the days grow shorter and the cold air reaches your bones. Feeling the frigid air and knowing that your ancestors survived these conditions with little more than their need fires and fur pelts to keep them warm through the long winter of the lands of the North. There is ice in our blood, and there is something familiar and comforting about the cold.
God Jul! Happy Yule!