If you ever wondered why there are ‘12 days of Christmas’, the answer most likely lies in the pagan celebration of the solstice, known as Yule. The word Yule is the anglicised form of the Norse word Jul (or Jōl), the name for the midwinter festival oriented around the shortest day of the year, the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice.
For the people of Germania, Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxon England, understanding the cycles of nature and the sun, in particular, was critical to survival, and celebrating the winter solstice is an ancient pagan tradition, predating Christianity by several thousand years. The Stonehenge structure in England, dating back to 3000 BCE, is known to have a mysterious relationship with the solstices, as does the Newgrange monument in Ireland from the same period.
The word solstice, derived from the Latin sol, meaning ‘sun’, and sistere, meaning ‘to stand still’, refers to the point at which the sun ‘stops’ to change its direction having reached the furthest extent of its north-south traverse. During Yuletide (the time of Yule) the Nordic peoples celebrated the ‘return of the sun’ as the days began to grow longer again. As a period of rebirth, they also commemorated the dead and offered sacrifices for fertility, hoping for a good harvest in the year ahead. The Yuletide festivities are understood to have taken place over at least 3 days and involved slaughtering animals for the feast, gorging on food, especially meat, and drinking to excess, with singing and good cheer. During Yuletide, no work was done, and quarrels or fights were set aside so that the period could be kept holy.
Gradually Yuletide was extended to span a full 12 days and nights, blending several other traditions. The 12 days between the winter solstice and the beginning of the next solar year were considered a sacred period, belonging neither to the old year nor the new year. These are the days of least sunlight and the Celts believed that the sun stood still for 12 days, so they lit fires to conquer the darkness and banish evil spirits. The Druids are believed to have created the tradition of the yule log, a bough of a large tree that was kept burning continuously for the 12 days between the solstice and the start of the solar year. Remnants of the previous year’s log were used to start the fire: in effect, the ‘light’ was kept throughout the year and ensured continuity of good luck from year to year, from family to family, and from generation to generation.
The first day of Yule, December 20th, is known as Mother’s Night (Módraniht) and celebrations honour feminine ancestors and goddesses: the mother figures. The second day of Yule, December 21st, is known for The Wild Hunt. This is the night of the solstice, when Odin, as God of Death and Transition, rode through the sky, accompanied by furious winds, thunder, and lightning, collecting the souls of the dead. People stayed indoors, feasting, not venturing out for fear they might be swept up by the hunt. The Twelfth Night, December 31st, brings the festivities to a close and is associated with Wassailing, the wishing of good health in song, and the drinking of wassail, a warm alcoholic concoction (which in more recent times has become a Christmas tradition of carol-singing and the drinking of mulled wine punch).
During these 12 days of celebration, there was lots of close family contact with each day seen as representing one of the 12 months of the year. With the return of longer days and the ending of the solar year, they celebrated the start of another cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It was also a period of reflection with some traditions assigning individual days to focus on one of the Nine Noble Virtues from Norse religion, considered to form a spiritual law and moral code by which one should live life.
Today’s Christmas traditions may have borrowed much from ancient Nordic traditions of Yule but did so without retaining their meaning. In our increasingly materialistic and commercially-driven Christmas season, we might ask ourselves what is it that we celebrate at this time of year, and what is the meaning behind our so-called customs. Certainly, we no longer depend upon the solar cycles for survival like our ancient northern ancestors, but we are still part of the natural world and in 2020, a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been reminded that we are still powerless over the forces of nature. In this time of crisis, many are re-evaluating what is important in life and the type of society we want. In our reflections at the end of this year, we might draw from the ancient Yule tradition of accepting the cycles of nature and life, celebrating the promise of a new year, the value of togetherness, focusing on the noble virtues and the development of our moral character.