Yule is an ancient Germanic midwinter celebration better known today by the name Christmas. Being associated with the winter solstice, Yule is traditionally a twelve-day festival centered near the days of December 21st. Although Yule is a holiday of Germanic origin, the traditions and symbolism associated with it have been absorbed by the Christmas holiday and practiced in variations throughout the world. Similarly the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia: a festival of great significance on December 25th, the date that was adopted as the official date for Christmas. Due to Christianization, these similar holidays are now united throughout most of Western society as Christmas, but many of the traditions associated with it are of pre-Christian, and Heathen origin.
Over the centuries through colonialism, missionary infiltration, and technological development unrelated and often foreign mythologies were grafted onto the significant dates so that the original meanings and reasons for our oldest holidays have been all but forgotten in popular culture. It’s not just coincidence that the Yuldetide falls at the solstice time. That is precisely the point.
Solstice time is significant to human society for a number of reasons. Since the beginning of autumn as the earth has tilted on its axis, the sun’s rays have begun to hit the earth’s northern hemisphere less directly causing the air to cool off and the seasons to change into winter. Winter in Northern Europe was a perilous time for the ancient tribal peoples of Northern Europe with average daily temperatures consistently below freezing. Crops will not grow. The herds are thin and wild animals that were so abundant in the summer are scarce. The grass is brown with death and trees stand naked, stripped bare save for the evergreen which has taken on the symbolism of everlasting life. For our ancestors, the people fared little better. We have a term for this time of year, “the dead of winter.” Since the harvest, death has seemed to surround the tribe.
During winter the daylight hours appear dimmer and get progressively shorter and the nights longer and colder. Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. It is the longest night and symbolically at least, the coldest of the winter nights. It sounds depressing doesn’t it? For a lot of people it is. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real winter-induced condition that has otherwise been colloquially called the “winter blues” and has been documented in Northern Europe since the 6th century. Recommended treatments include Light Therapy, exposure to bright light. And what is Christmastime without Christmas lights? These LED bulbs that we cover our houses, yards and Christmas trees in are easily traced back to festive Christmas candles and most anciently and significantly the hearth fire, the social and spiritual center of the traditional Western home.
Notice the Yuletide is the annual time for good cheer. Why the middle of winter instead of any other time of year? Because during no other time of year are people in need of such uplifting sentiment and behavior than in the dead of winter in Northern Europe. Of course it is the darkest and often most depressing time of the year that the people would choose to lighten the mood with shimmering lights and “making spirits bright.” This ages old Yule tradition of decorating the house with lights, wreaths, ribbons, and shiny, joyous symbols is a wonderful way to lift the mood when it’s needed most.
And these festivities center and culminate around these particular dates in December for specific astronomical reasons. At this point the Earth begins to tilt on her axis in a manner that allows for more of the sun’s rays to shine directly upon the northern hemisphere, allowing the days to grow longer and the frigid nights to grow shorter. These are the first stirrings of the coming summer. In contrast with the atmosphere of death that has surrounded the people through the autumn, we can now look forward once again toward spring and summer, the time of life and abundance. It is almost as if the new year has been born again and we are saved.
Joseph Campbell took great effort to document the depth and breadth of the solar hero motif in its various forms from the divine child to the dying god, and metaphorically, poetically it’s a powerful image. This distinct relationship between the earth and the sun is likened to a procreative act that bares life and provides the conditions for abundance. The winter solstice bares the New Year sun like a child who will grow into a hero and eventually die before being reborn over and over again. The hero’s life is a personified metaphor for the annual cycle. The birth of the solar hero, the sun god, the god of the tribe is the first step toward the fulfillment of an annual prophecy: a divine promise that the summer will come again, that life will flourish once more on the earth. The passing of these last days of the most deadly time of winter is celebrated with revelry at the birth of the sun, the personification of the sacred year.
Over thousands of years the prominence of one mythology over another distanced the people more and more from the astronomical significance and the agricultural affects associated with the winter solstice. Depending on the region of the world different characters are associated with the holiday. For many people today Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. For others the central figure is Santa Claus, a popularly marketed fusion of an old Christian Saint Nicholas and Odin, the Nordic Allfather. In other countries there a witches, demonoid monsters, and logs that represent the winter holiday. Otherwise the oldest and most traditional symbols of the Yuletide remain pretty consistent with their seasonal significance.
When we consider the Yuletide and are faced with deciphering the meaning of it all, or the reason for the season it’s important to remember it is the astronomical relationship between the earth and the sun which has caused the northern hemisphere to experience conditions antagonistic to survival. It’s cold. It’s dark. It can be depressing. So we light up and try to spread good cheer to each other during these times. At the worst part of the year is the winter solstice and for the most part the worst of the winter is behind and we have the joys and abundance of summer ahead. That is something worth celebrating.