The big day is almost here!
You've probably been scrambling to buy some last minute Christmas gifts, or taking advantage of the Holiday Sales to grab yourself a gorgeous New Years Eve outfit. Either way, it's safe to say that society kind of goes crazy for Christmas, so much so that it can be easy to forget the other holidays that happen this time of year.
You may not realise that almost every modern holiday tradition, from Santa Claus to mistletoe, has an origin story steeped in pagan customs. Read on to find out all about the interesting connections between Christmas and the pagan holiday of Yule.
What Is Yule?
Hare Hug Yule Card Pinterest
Yule is the traditional pagan celebration of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. We celebrate because after Yule the nights will officially grow shorter and the daylight hours longer, beginning the journey out of the cold, dark winter nights towards the long, warm days of summer ahead.
When the holiday was officially decreed in 274 A.D. winter meant reduced food supplies and the difficulties of surviving the harsh weather instead of hot chocolate and The Muppets Christmas Carol on Netflix, but despite the drastic change in circumstances the celebration and its accompanying traditions have survived into the modern day.
The Yule Log
There are many rituals and traditions shared by a variety of pagan groups. Most pagans will have a traditional Yule log, whether that is an oak log to burn in the fireplace or a log crafted to hold candles for display. This was once the most common Christmas tradition, even more popular than the Christmas tree, but as the years have passed this has fallen back to being a predominantly pagan custom. Thought to keep evil at bay and ensure a prosperous year for the household, the earliest Yule logs were enormous, often requiring multiple people to carry them to the fireplace.
Because modern day fireplaces are typically small and decorative, Yule logs today tend to be small, symbolic pieces of wood instead of the massive tree trunks that were used in the past. For people of many faiths, tuning in to watch the broadcast of the crackling Yule log on television has been a time-honored holiday tradition, bringing this pagan custom to the masses through the magic of modern technology.
The 12 Days of Yule
Many traditions during this time of year take place over a period of several days, such as Hanukah, which is spread over eight days, and Kwanzaa, which is celebrated for seven. Many pagans celebrate Yule for 12 days, setting up an altar and lighting candles each night, honoring the gods and rejoicing in the end of the long, dark nights of winter. Evergreen boughs are often used for decoration and feasts are prepared at least once during the 12 days to celebrate with family members and their circles.
What About Santa?
Just like Christmas and Hanukah, Yule has traditional lore and legends that are part of the celebration of the holiday. While Christian households tell the story of the nativity and Jewish families teach their children about the oil that lasted for eight days, pagan families often tell the tale of the Oak King and the Holly King who battle over the right to rule the land. In Midsummer the Holly King wins the battle, bringing on the fall and winter, and on Yule the Oak King is victorious, moving the world into spring and summer.
Wreaths of evergreens are hung as a symbol of the wheel of the year and sometimes stories are told of Holda, the Germanic goddess of winter and snow, who brings presents to children who have been very good. Legends of Holda are thought to have been melded into stories of St. Nicholas to help create the legend of Santa Claus.
It’s Not a Holiday Without a Spread!
Because no holiday celebration is complete without food, pagans have many traditional dishes that are part of the merriment. Some of the foods are similar to what you would see at a Christmas party, including ham, turkey, and cider. Pagans usually include caraway cakes on the dinner table and crescent moon cookies for dessert as part of the festivities. There is also a popular rolled cake often called a Yule log that is usually decorated on the outside with a woodgrain design so it looks like an actual log. Pagans certainly know how to put together a delicious feast!
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Mistletoe, not exactly uncommon in celebrations today, has itself firmly cemented in our idea of traditional Christmas celebrations. Numerous songs and stories about the holiday season involve someone stealing a kiss under the mistletoe, from Washington Irving and Charles Dickens to I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.
The use of mistletoe originated with the Druids as a medicinal herb, though some variations of the plant are extremely poisonous, making this a practice best left to the annals of history. Norse mythology considered mistletoe to be a symbol of love and kinship, which inspired the idea of kissing someone under the mistletoe for good luck. Because of the importance mistletoe plays in various ancient pagan cultures, many modern pagans still keep the traditional holiday mistletoe as part of their celebrations.
While it is true that no two people will have the exact same holiday traditions, many of us find comfort in seeing the traditions that are so close to our hearts visible in the celebrations held by people of other faiths.
Though you won’t find any pagan-themed Yule wrapping paper in the holiday aisles, the influence of pagan culture can be seen in almost every modern holiday tradition, and for those of us who observe this time of year in a circle instead of a church that can feel like a reason to celebrate.
Which of the Pagan Yule traditions do you like the best? Comment below!