winter solstice

What is the origin of Yule?

In Culture by Skjalden

Many of the ancient Indo-European traditions, celebrations, and rituals that connected our ancestors together have for a long time been hidden away from us, like an old forest full of trees with intertwined roots beneath the surface. We often believe that the origin of Yule is lost, however, this is not necessarily the case.

Many of the old ways are simply hidden, in a network of puzzles, poems, and misconceptions. It is like a blurred image, we can see something, but we are not quite sure what we see. Exploring the origin of Yule helps us clear some of that blur.

Yule and its Connection to The Winter Solstice

Where does Yule originate from? And is Yule held on the winter solstice? I asked myself these questions before I began my journey down the rabbit hole. A hole that would lead me through a network of rabbit tunnels and this article is the result of it.

Is it true what you have heard, does Christmas really have pagan roots? The answer is complicated, and I will try and unwrap this difficult question in this article as well. I’ve come across many theories of why we celebrate Yule, and these theories often seem to have an exaggerated interpretation of our past.

origin of yule

Of course, we will never know every single little detail since most of it was never written down, but we can look at the sources that we have available and try and get as close to understanding the original meaning of the Yule celebration, and when Yule was celebrated. This exploration into the origin of Yule reveals the depth of its historical and cultural significance.

There is this widespread belief that the pagan Yule celebration is about the return of the sun. Every year it is the same thing, new articles pop up on the web, recycled from last year, after going through a five-minute trip into the word blender. One article after another states the fact, in a never-ending loop, that Yule is on winter solstice and that this day is about celebrating the return of the sun.

What does Yule Mean?

Before we can understand what Yule is about, we need to look at the meaning of the word. Yule, or Jul as we still call it in Scandinavia, is a word that has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. This inquiry into the word itself provides insight into the origin of Yule.

The word Yule (Old Norse: Jól) is actually plural, and it literally means parties. The word is therefore not referring to one single party or one event, but to several Yule celebrations that most likely took place between the winter solstice and the Yule Sacrifice (Old Norse: Jólablót).

The word Yule originates from the old Norse word Jól, however, the celebration is much older than the word jól. The old Norse meaning of the word seems to have been lost with time. Some people believe that the word is connected to the word (Icelandic: hjól / Danish/Norwegian/Swedish: hjul) which means wheel in Scandinavia. The word wheel could in this case then refer to the sun cross, also called the sun wheel (Icelandic: sól hjól / Danish/Norwegian/Swedish: solhjul).

What is the Celebration of Yule?

There are three main theories about Yule (Danish/Norwegian/Swedish: Jul / Old Norse: Jól). The first theory describes Yule or Jól (pronunciation: “yoh-l”) as a celebration of the return of the sun. The second theory talks about Yule as a midwinter party for the dead. The third theory describes Yule as a fertility feast, where people would sacrifice animals to the Gods, in the hopes of getting a good harvest in the coming year. Since Yule is about several parties and not just one, all three theories could, in theory, be true.

Yule is a Germanic Tradition

Yule is not as many people might think just a Scandinavian celebration, but it is, in fact, in its origin Germanic. The pagan Gods and Goddesses that are often associated with the Vikings and Scandinavia today, have a broader origin. Tribes in Northern Germany and Northern Poland also consisted of people who followed the Nordic Gods.

The Slavic peoples to the east also have their own version of a winter festival called Koliada. This celebration is just as ancient as Yule, and it is possible that they have a connection with each other in one way or another. This is not something that I will elaborate more about in this article.

The winter traditions spread across the continent of Europe when the people traveled either for trading, raiding, or exploring. The two tribes Angles and Saxons also brought these traditions with them when they migrated to the British Isles.

Yule – A Sun Ritual

It is not totally ridiculous to think that Yule is held at winter solstice to celebrate the return of the sun. After all, it is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and having a festival to celebrate the return of the sun would make perfect sense.

However, while the sun was important to the people of the North, they were not obsessed with the sun. As some Mayan shaman cutting out hearts and offering them to their sun god. I believe if the sun had a more central role as it did with the Mayans, it would have been much more reflected in their sagas.

The sun and the moon are also not deities in the Norse religion, but rather two personified beings. The sun (Old Norse: Sól) is female, and the moon (Old Norse: Máni) is male. They are servants of the gods and most likely tools that were used to count the time.

The Nordic people were probably seeing the sun and the moon as cosmic features, rather than a deity or an object that was to be worshipped. The name of the moon in Old Norse Ártali also seems to confirm this, a name that literally means ”He who counts the year” according to the elves in Norse Mythology.

Old Norse: Þórr kvað: “Segðu mér þat, Avlíss,- öll of rök firavörumk, dvergr, at vitir -:hversu máni heitir, sá er menn séa, heimi hverjum í?”

Old Norse: Alvíss kvað: “Máni heitir með mönnum, en mylinn með goðum, kalla hverfanda hvél helju í, skyndi jötnar, en skin dvergar, kalla alfar ártala.”

English: Thor said: tell me, Alvísby the fate of all families. I deem that, a dwarf will know what the moon is called as the Men see, in all the worlds so wide?

English: Alvís said: It is called ’Moon’ among men, ’Mild Light’ among gods, In Hel ’The spinning wheel’ ’Quick’ among Jotnar, ’Skin’ among dwarfs, ’Teller of time’ among elves. The Lay of Alvís, 13,14 (Alvíssmál).

More Sources about Yule

Before I dig further into the meat of this article about Yule, it is important to understand where the sources are from. The people who lived in Scandinavia before the Christification did not write their traditions down on paper, but instead, their, religion, stories, and traditions were passed down orally from the parents to their children.

There are many sources available today, that describe the Scandinavian society during and prior to the Viking age, however, most of these observations were all made by either foreign people or people who lived in Scandinavia after the Christification. This is an important detail to be aware of, just imagine if everything we knew about the Natives of America was only written down by the settlers, hundreds of years later.

One source that has described the society within Scandinavia in the Viking Age, was the Icelandic author named Snorri Sturluson. He was an author who has become very famous for writing down the stories and traditions of the people of Scandinavia, however, many of these stories were written down almost 200 years after the Viking age ended.

Nevertheless, Snorri Sturluson is still a great source, and we have come to understand a great deal from his books about this period in time. However, he was not a pagan, but a Christian, and his books have therefore been written down from a Christian perspective, and this is just something to keep in mind when reading them.

Another element that adds to its difficulty to interpret the old texts, is that Snorri often wrote them in a poetic style. While this makes the story more entertaining for the reader, it also makes it more difficult to interpret. Some of the details would have been commonly understood in society and were a part of their everyday life.

Might not be something that we have the same understanding of today, and we could misunderstand parts of the text. For instance, technology and norms change constantly in our modern society, just ask your child if they know what tape salad is.

Yule and the Sun

We can’t just push the sun theory completely away, the sun was still very important to the people of the North. The return of the sun was a turning point after a long and dark winter, and it could have been an important date for the people. Since most people were farmers, it was important to know the path of the sun, especially when you live in a harsh environment.

The people needed to know when to sow and reap, it is not like a continent such as Africa, where you can pick berries from the trees all year round, and hang out on the beach. They needed to prepare for the long winters. The people of the North are the people of ice and fire, living there means preparing, innovating, and adapting, and the sun was definitely part of that.

The amount of sun crosses or sun wheels found at archaeological excavations in Scandinavia also adds to the fact that the sun was significant. There is no exact date for when Yule was held for the first time, but archaeological evidence seems to indicate that the worship of the sun goes back at least 7,000 years.

Solvognen Trundholm Mose Odsherre, in Denmark
Solvognen – Trundholm Mose, Odsherre, in Denmark.

The sun cross can often be seen carved onto many of the runestones throughout Scandinavia. However, the sun cross is not just found on the runestones. This one-of-a-kind Sun Chariot was found in 1902 at Trundholm Mose, Odsherre, in Denmark, and it has been dated to 1350 BCE (more than 2000 years, before the Viking age began).

This might sound like a very long time ago, but we can go even further back. The oldest sun wheel/sun cross that has been found in Europe dates back to 5000 BCE. It was made from an oak tree and it was found at Pilkmosen in Give, Denmark.

Observing The Winter Solstice was a Ritual

There is actually one source that describes this pagan winter solstice ritual before Christianity got its grip on the Scandinavians. The ritual was observed in the 6th century by the Byzantine chronicler Procopius, who visited the island of Thule.

However, it should be said, that it is not possible to point at a place on the map and say that was the island. The word Thule is not really a place, it is more of a term. Thule or ultima Thule means a distant place located beyond “the borders of the known world”. The North was at the borders of the known world, at least to him. The scholars today, do seem to agree on the fact, that this place probably was somewhere in Scandinavia, possibly in Northern Norway.

”Around the time of the winter solstice, the sun is never to be seen on this island for forty days, but the eternal night encloses it. And when thirty-five days have passed in this long night, certain men are sent up to the top of the mountains, because that is their custom. When those men barely can see the sun from that point, they return to the village with the message, that within five days the sun will shine on them again. The people would then celebrate a party about 20 days after the winter solstice, and this would be the biggest party held by the natives at Thule.”

The Yule Feast is not held on Winter Solstice

The German bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (c. 975 – 1080), wrote in the 11th century that the biggest Yule feast was held in January in the village of Lejre in Denmark, and not on the winter solstice, however, no exact date was mentioned.

origin of yule
Disarblot by Malmström

The date of the big Yule feast celebration always seems to vary in the old texts, and the question is, why is this day bouncing back and forth, and why is it not just celebrated on a certain day? Well, it is, and it isn’t.

The Norse used a lunar calendar to count time, but there is a very big problem with using the moon to calculate time because it only takes 354 days to complete 12 lunar cycles. Which are 11 days short of the 365 days that it takes the Earth to orbit the sun.

This means that the new moon this year will occur 11 days earlier than it did last year, and every year it will move the new moon another 11 days backward than it was the previous year, and it will keep doing that unless there is some sort of a system that prevents this, a lunar calendar simply won’t stay still.

The lunar calendar needs an exception, something that can be observed in the northern hemisphere, and something that is always the same. What could be better than the winter solstice which is the shortest day of the year, and always falls on either the 21st or 22nd of December? A fixed date for joining the lunar year and the solar year into a lunisolar calendar.

When is Yule Celebrated?

According to the researcher Andreas Nordberg (2006, Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning), to make up for the 11 days that were lost with the lunar calendar, the Nordic people may have used a leap year every third year, by inserting a 13th month around the time of the summer solstice.

The 13th month would be added if the new moon of the second Yule month emerged 11 days or less after the winter solstice. This would have been done to prevent the second Yule month in the following year from starting before the winter solstice.

In that way, the winter solstice would always be in the first Yule month, and the Yule sacrifice (jólablót) would always be celebrated on the first full moon following the new moon past the winter solstice. If this was indeed the method that the pagans used is uncertain, but it could explain why the time of the celebration would vary so much in the sources.

origin of yule

When is it Yule

In practice, this means that the first new moon after the winter solstice marked the beginning of the second Yule month (Old Norse: Jólmanuðr). This means that the 2nd Yule month, began with the new moon that occurs between the 22nd of December, and the 19th of January. This is the month when the Yule celebration should according to this theory take place.

Yule Sacrifice (Jólablót) is celebrated on the first full moon following the first new moon past the winter solstice. This full moon will occur on the 5th of January at the earliest and on the 2nd of February at the latest. The whole Yule month is therefore celebrated from winter solstice until the first full moon.

Drinking Yule

One of the oldest sources that also mentions the word ”jól” is in the poem Hrafnsmál (Old Norse: Haraldskvæði) by the poet Thorbjørn Hornklofi (Old Norse: Þorbjörn Hornklofi). The poem was written around the 10th century, to the King of Norway Harald Fairhair (c. 872-930) (Old Norse: Haraldr inn hárfagri). On one of its pages, it was written, that the Norwegian King wants to drink Yule (Old Norse: jól drekka).

Icelandic: Úti vill jól drekka, ef skal einn ráða, fylkir hinn framlyndi, ok Freys leik heyja. Þórbjörn Hornklofi Haraldskvæði 6, 1-4

English: (NOTICE: Translated in context of the source) He wants to drink Yule out at sea if he alone should rule, the brave King, and practice the sport of Freyr. Thorbjørn Hornklofi Hrafnsmál 6, 1-4

It might not be quite obvious what the poem is trying to tell us, but it praises Harald Fairhair for being brave. Because he would rather drink and fight with his enemies at the sea than sit at home with a horn of mead in his hand.

The poem also tells us that drinking was a big part of Yule, a tradition that is not really practiced anymore at Yule. However, drinking is still a big part of the Scandinavian culture, especially in Denmark which has a high consumption of alcohol, and where the sound of ”drink drink drink” often can be heard as echoes throughout the night.

Since the word Yule (Old Norse: Jól) is plural, it is possible that multiple ritual feasts were held during the Yule month. One party could have been a fertility celebration in honor of the god Freyr, and another in honor of Odin. Some parties could have been held with the family and their friends, and others by the entire village.

What is Sacrificed at Jólablót?

A good Yule is not without a sacrifice, or is it? Many rumors are flooding around, that claim that the pagans made offerings during their Yule celebration. Some believe that animals were sacrificed, and others are convinced that it was humans. Let’s unwrap another Yule myth, and see what the sources tell us.

In an old poem from the Viking age, it is written: ”I think that the King Harald Fairhair was preparing Yule for Huggins hird” (hird means family and it comes from the Proto-Germanic word: hīwarēdaz). As you probably can see, this line is written in a poetic style, but its context matters if we want to understand its meaning.

Harald Fairhair had prior to the celebration of Yule ”jól” defeated an enemy in battle, and now the bodies of all the slain lay on the battlefield as a feast for the raven Huginn’s family (all the ravens). Ravens are important animals in the Norse religion, for instance, Huginn and Muninn are the two ravens that belong to the god Odin. Who is known under many names, including ”the raven god”. A feast for the ravens could be considered an offering to the pagan god Odin.

According to Thietmar, was the sacrifice a part of Yule, and this is something that he mentioned in his chronicle. ”Every ninth year there was a big Yule sacrifice (Old Norse: Jólablót), in the village of Lejre. At this Yule sacrifice, 99 humans, including just as many roosters, dogs, and horses were sacrificed to the pagan Gods”.

Yule Sacrifice
Yule Sacrifice – Jelling – riget og regenten

These numbers do seem a bit exaggerated to be honest, and there are no other sources about this event, that can either confirm or deny it. However, Lejre is a village that has been mentioned many times in the past, for instance, in the famous saga of Beowulf.

It is from the village of Lejre that the legendary royal family called Scyldingas (plural) (Old Norse: Skjöldungar) (Danish: Skjoldungerne) originates. This family was among others known for their enormous amount of wealth. Today this family seems to be most known for one name in the media, which is Ragnar Lodbrok (Old Norse: Ragnarr Loðbrók), who was one of these Scyldingas.

In 1075, the German medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen wrote about a Yule ritual that took place in the Viking age, in the village called Uppsala in Sweden. We do not know the exact location, but it is probably the great pagan hall that used to be in old Uppsala.

Adam of Bremen wrote: If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Odin; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frey. Book 4, c.27.

Yule Ritual in Hedeby

In 965 CE the Arab merchant Al-Tartushi visited Hedeby (Old Norse: Heiðabýr) in southern Denmark. This was an important trade town in Northern Europe at the time, and he probably had some goods to trade. While Al-Tartushi was in Hedeby he witnessed one of these blóts if it was during Yule is uncertain, but this is what he wrote.

“They celebrate a festival, at which all come to worship the god and to eat and drink. The one who slaughters a sacrificial animal erects stakes at the entrance to his farmyard and puts the sacrificial animal on them. This is so that people know that he is sacrificing in honor of his god.” -Al-Tartushi

How is Yule Meant to be Celebrated?

Drinking large amounts of mead, and eating meat from animal sacrifices, do indeed seem to have been the main part of a successful Yule celebration, at least it was so when the society was mainly pagans. Some of the evidence for this is mentioned in the saga of Haakon the Good (c. 920-961), (Old Norse: Hákon góði), by the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson.

The King of Norway, Haakon the Good was expected to participate in the annual Yule sacrifice (Old Norse: Jólablót) with the farmers. This was not something that the King was particularly fond of, because of his Christian faith. However, he did decide to travel to Trøndelagen in Norway and participate in the event.

Before the Yule feast began, all kinds of animals were sacrificed especially horses. The blood from the dead animals was collected in bowls and then sprinkled (most likely by a Völva, someone who practiced shamanism or witchcraft) on the altars, walls, and the participants by using sacrificial twigs. The meat was then cooked in kettles that hung over a fire on the floor in the middle of the hall.

The farmers told the King to make sacrifices (Old Norse: blóta) to the Gods, and if he refused, it would cost him dearly. However, the King seems to have gotten off the hook, when the Jarl Sigurd intervened, and the King got away with eating some of the horse’s liver. The farmers teased the King and kept serving him mead, but without making the cross sign over them.

Cups were raised in honor of the gods, first Odin, Skól (cheers), and then to the Victorious King. A new cup was filled, Skól (in Danish: Skål) to Njord (Old Norse: Njörðr) and Freyr for good years and peace.

Then many of the participants at the blót emptied their cups and made personal promises of great accomplishments. Finally, the cups were raised in honor of their ancestors who rested in the mounds.

The Yule Oath

While many of us might think that the New Year’s Resolution is a modern tradition, where we make promises to ourselves under the influence of alcohol, it is actually not. Swearing an oath for the coming year was also practiced by the Babylonians.

The annual tradition of making New Years’ Resolutions dates back more than 4,000 years to the Babylon civilization. Every year on the 1st of March, the Babylonians celebrated the spring festival Akitu. The Babylonians would swear oaths to their Gods, and try and keep them, to stay on their good side.

The Scandinavians also have an annual tradition of swearing oaths to their Gods, the Yule oath. As I briefly mentioned at the blót King Haakon the Good was part of. However, if you did not keep your oath, it could have serious consequences. An oath to the Gods was not something that was taken lightly, and you could end up paying the ultimate price if you broke it.

The Yule oath is an oath that is made during Yuletide, for instance, at the Yule sacrifice (Jólablót). You can swear an oath for anything that you want, however, other pagans could punish you if you broke the oath.

The Yule Presents

What is a successful Yule celebration without Yule presents? (Icelandic: jólagjafir). How common was it to gift Yule presents to each other in the past, for instance, in the Viking age, is not something we can know for certain.

However, there are examples that the Jarls and successful merchants gave presents in the Yule month to their friends, family, and other people who were important to them. Karls and Jarls may also have been giving a Yule present to their King or Queen.

The Jarl Sigurd, whom I mentioned earlier, was remembered by everyone at the Yule feast for his generosity because he gave everyone at the feast a Yule present.

The Celebration of Yule was Moved to Another Day

The famous Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson mentions in his saga about the Norwegian King Hákon the Good, that the King had decided that the Yule celebration should be moved and placed on December 25th when the Christians celebrate Christmas.

King Haakon the Good who was a Christian probably wanted to use his influence to replace the pagan Yule celebration with Christmas, and moving the date could have been the first step. This was an unpopular action, but the King attempted to Christianize Norway.

Haakon the Good by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Haakon the Good by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1860)

However, it was not everyone was easily persuaded to let go of their pagan ways, and King Haakon had to be careful since he still needed the support of the people to keep him in power.

The Norwegian King Olav Tryggvason was also not that pleased with the pagan blóts, and he actually forbade the practice of blót and their drinking feasts. However, he did allow Christian drinking feasts on Christian holidays.

”Blót is a pagan ceremonial offering, held in honor of the Ancestors, Gods, and Spirits. At the blót, sacrifices are made by either pouring out a drink as an offering, or sacrificing an animal, and eating its meat.”

Why is Christmas called Yule in Scandinavia?

When Scandinavia changed from being small clans and nations of pagans to mostly Christians, the old name Yule (Old Norse: Jól) remained. There are no sources that explain why the old name for Yule was kept as the name for Christmas. It could have been because it made it easier, to convince the pagans to become Christians since the winter celebration with plenty of food and mead continued.

If the annual Yule festival had changed its original name to Christmas, it would probably have been called Kristmesse in Danish. Which is the literal translation of Christmas into Danish. However, because of nostalgia or tradition, the name Yule (Danish: Jul) will probably remain indefinitely.

Some of the old Yule traditions from how the pagans celebrated Yule can still be found on the Yule tables in Scandinavia which is held on Christmas Eve (December 24th). In Denmark about 50% eat duck and pork, pagans did not eat duck, but they definitely did eat pork at Yule. Archaeological excavations from an old Yule feast in Denmark have shown us that.

We do not know how exactly the pagans cooked the pork, but in most Danish homes today, the pork is roasted, we call it flæskesteg in Danish.

The consumption of Alcohol and singing is still a big part of the Yule feast (Danish: Juleaften). However, instead of raising our cups in honor of Odin or Freyr, it is mostly raised to wish each other a the table a Merry Christmas (Danish: God Jul).

What’s the Difference Between Yule and Christmas?

Yule is an ancient Nordic winter celebration where sacrifices are made to the pagan gods. Yule often consists of several parties, from winter solstice at the end of December until the first full moon in January, and until all of the food and drinks have been consumed, which can last up to several days after Jólablót.

Present-day this heathen/pagan faith is known as Ásatrú. Ásatrú is an old Norse word, consisting of Ása, which refers to the Norse gods, and trú, which means faith.

Christmas is a Christian celebration that begins on December 1st and ends on January 6th. The biggest day is Jesus’s birthday, which is held on either the 24th after sundown or the 25th of December.

Final Thoughts

As we delve deeper into the origin of Yule, what emerges is more than just the skeleton of an ancient winter festival. It’s a vivid glimpse into the life of the Norse—where the cold, dark winter months were met with resilience and a fierce spirit of community.

This exploration brings us closer to understanding how these traditions, rooted in the necessity of survival and the celebration of the sun’s return, shaped the lives and beliefs of our ancestors.

Revisiting the origin of Yule allows us to appreciate not only where we come from but also reminds us of the enduring human capacity to find light in the darkest times. Each December, as we light our candles and gather together, we rekindle the same flames that our forebears did, continuing a legacy that has been passed down through the frosty ages.