Pronounced ‘Yool’ (ˈyül) the Yule Sabbat is the shortest day of the year. It is celebrated at the Midwinter Solstice and begins on December 21st and runs through January 1st. Germanic peoples are credited with the creation of Yule, also known as Yule Time, Yule-tide, and Yule Season.
It is a festival established in original commemorations of Odin the Norse God of War and the Dead, the Wild Hunt, the Pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht and the rebirth of the Sun.
While etymologists have been unable to ascertain the pedigree of the word Yule, we do know that it holds root in Common Germanic, Old Norse, Old English, Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Faroese.
WHAT DOES YULE CELEBRATE?
In essence, Yule is a celebration of the Sun’s return. It’s not on accident that it takes place on the shortest day of the year. It’s at this point that we reach the darkest depth of the longest night. The return of longer days and fertile seasons is welcomed with traditions like the Yule Log, feasts, gift giving, and singing.
According to Wicca and some other sects of Paganism, the Goddess followed the God into the Underworld during Samhain. Earth started its slumber for winter and as it does, the Wheel of the Year turned to Yule. It’s then that the Goddess is with child and gives birth to the Oak King – also known as the God of the Waxing Sun. The Holly King – also known as the Old God who’s the Lord of Winter – is defeated by the Oak King. He goes back to the Underworld to rest until he is reborn as the Lord of the Waning Sun at the Summer Solstice.
For practitioners who observe this facet of the Wheel of the Year, Yule is also a time for mourning the Old God AKA Holly King AKA Lord of Winter, and a few other monikers he’s been given.
WHO DID IT FIRST?
I’d venture to say that for as long as humans have witnessed and understood the cycle of life – birth, death, and rebirth – and its connection to the sun, festivals like Yule have taken place. It’s kind of hard not to notice the days growing shorter and colder up until a point. And with the same happenings taking place every year, you begin to expect a period where it’s cold and dark. However, people also started to expect the Sun to return, warming the land and all of its inhabitants.
Roughly 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the Ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra. The Egyptian God is the father of all creation, the king of deities and patron of the Sun. This means he governs the Sun, can embody the day and physically assume being the Sun itself. As such, Ancient Egyptians would celebrate Ra and his daily rebirth as he was seen as the source of life and of power.
Roman & Greek Festivals
In Rome and Greece, winter festivals were also quite common. The Roman Saturnalia fell on December 17th. It lasted for one week and celebrated Saturn, an agricultural god. Haloa or Alo was a Greek festival, held at Midwinter in honor of Demeter, Dionysus, and Poseidon – all agricultural gods as well.
Celtic peoples of the British Isles held midwinter festivals, too. Not many details are known about what was carried out during the celebrations. However, we do know from the writings of Pliny the Elder that Druid priests would gather mistletoe and sacrifice a white bull.
And as aforementioned, Yule is indigenous to Germanic peoples and it’s been around for roughly 2,500 years. Scholars ascertain that historically Yule used to be Yule-tide and lasted from mid-November to the early days of January.
I really don’t think who did it first is important – especially when compared to the knowledge that midwinter celebrations were held pretty consistently throughout history and are still being held today!
HOW IS YULE AND CHRISTMAS RELATED?
When Christianity came on the scene, the new religion ran into some problems with the conversion of Pagans. And rightfully so. After all, why would any Pagan want to give up the traditions, practices, and beliefs that played a huge part in who they were as people for as long as they could remember? Could you imagine a new religion popping up nowadays attempting to rid the world of Christianity?
One way in which the new religion imposed itself on folks of the ‘old ways’ was building Christian churches on old Pagan worship grounds. Another was incorporating Pagan symbols into Christian emblems. A few centuries later, a vast majority of folks of the ‘old ways’ were participating in a brand new holiday – Christmastide.
Along with the conversion of Pagans to Christianity came the conversion of Sabbat traditions to Christian holidays. Yule and Christmas are no exception.
TRADITIONS TAKEN FROM YULE
At the center of Yule celebrations is the Yule Log. It is also known as a Yule Clog or Christmas Block. Lighting the log (and keeping it lit) is an act of sympathetic magick to encourage the Sun to grow stronger. The same goes for the lighting of candles and using their light as not only encouragement, but also as a way to drive away evil forces.
The Yule Log is presented in Christianity as a symbol for the guiding light for the baby Jesus.
CHRISTMAS TREES & OTHER GREENERY
Worshipping plants and trees that remained green year-round (i.e. the pine tree) was common practice long before Christianity. People would decorate their doors and windows with wreaths and sprigs of evergreens – mistletoe, pine, holly, ivy, yew, etc.
Another practice was to bring trees inside in order to shelter the Spirits of Nature during the harsh winter weather. People would then decorate said trees – typically topping them with a pentagram – and offer gifts to the Spirits. It was believed that once the Spirits of Nature were sheltered, they would protect your home in return.
These were considered Pagan practices and would not make their way into the homes of Christians until roughly 1840.
Outside of the gift offerings to the Spirits of Nature, during the aforementioned Feast of Saturnalia the tradition of gift-giving between people was born. Typically these presents were things like writing tablets, cups, spoons, tools, food, or clothes- much like the things we gift today.
In Christianity, the practice of giving gifts became pronounced when it was reconstructed to align with the supposed birth date of Jesus on December 25th. These gifts were symbols of those given to the baby by the three wise men.
HOLDING GREAT FEASTS
One of my favorite things about celebrating the Sabbats throughout the year is planning the menu! After all, nourishment plays a big role in being present and remembering those who are not with us. For Yule, the feast is at the center of the merry making and gathering together to ward off the darkness on the longest night of the year.
Christians eat great feasts, too. For them, it is to honor Jesus’ birthday.
Christmas caroling holds roots in what is known as ‘wassailing’ – rhymes with fossil-ing – and started as a pre-Christian fertility rite. Village citizens would walk through orchards and fields in the middle of winter while shouting and singing to scare off any evil entities that may impede future crop growth. Part of this tradition was pouring cider and wine in the fields as a way to stimulate fertility in the crops.
The practice of wassailing evolved into citizens traveling from door to door, singing and toasting to their neighbors’ health and well-being. As time went on, wassailing became Christianized and the name was changed to Christmas caroling. This became especially popular in the Victorian era.
As always, I hope these posts are informative as that is my end goal. Learning about why we do the things we do – and not just because we are told to – helps to broaden how we perceive the world for ourselves, our life, and our craft.
Bright Blessings, Witches and Blessed Yule!
2 thoughts on “The Yule Sabbat: A History”
You must log in to post a comment.