We hear it every year, hidden in many of the carols we sing along to or the holiday cards we send off to loved ones, “yuletide,” but what does it really mean? Many people may think it is merely a synonym for Christmas but Yule actually predates Christmas, holding its origins in historical Germanic rituals.

Yule refers to a midwinter festival celebrated by Germanic peoples, falling around the astronomical phenomenon of the winter solstice. This event was a very common time for ritual and celebration, marking the date of the shortest day of the year and was often referred to as ‘midwinter’. It was a very common time for celebration and there are versions of this holiday in Scandinavian and Slavic countries as well.

During Yule a log would be burned, and for as long as it stayed lit, everyone would feast. We still hear about this tradition in Christmas carols today. For example, the lyric “See the blazing yule before us,” refers to the log that was ignited all through Yuletide. This same log now makes an appearance at Christmas time as a Yule log cake.

This merry feast could last for up to twelve days – which is now known as the twelve days of Christmas. Another adapted concept from Yule is the tradition of eating a Christmas ham which is an evolution of the traditional boar feast held by the Germans.

The origins of Christmas trees and wreaths also come from traditional yule festivities. It was originally believed that hanging evergreens over the door and by the windows would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. This also applies to things like mistletoe and holly. Germans who celebrated the pagan holiday are credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition and later bringing it to America as settlers in the 1830s.

Yule became more integrated with Christmas as Christian missionaries travelled from Rome to convert the Germanic people. The missionaries began looking for ways to subtly infuse Christian rituals into the Germanic celebration of Yule.

Some cultures still celebrate Yuletide traditions, especially in Northern Europe. Though the dates are slightly different, and the word has slowly become synonymous with Christmas, Yule has deeper origins that sparked many of the traditions we practice today in affiliation with the winter holiday. Remember that next time you go to ‘deck the halls’ or ‘make the Yuletide gay.’

Photo via Sidny See, Unsplash.

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