Dice players at Saturnalia - wall painting from Pompeii (Wikipedia)

Dice players at Saturnalia – wall painting from Pompeii (Wikipedia)

The winter solstice is the point in the year when the day is at its shortest. The sun rises at its furthest south, and rises in roughly the same place for three days, hence the name “solstice”, meaning “Sun stands still”.

When I was a kid, I was told that ancient pagans used to light bonfires on top of hills at the winter solstice because they feared that the sun would not return after the longest night. I don’t know if there is any truth in this idea, but I remember finding it thrilling.

The Anglo-Saxons called the festival Yule; the Old Norse word was jól.

The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). It has been speculated that the word means “turning point”, but the etymology is unclear.

Yule customs and symbols

The exchange of gifts comes from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. People gave small gifts to their dearest friends, and larger gifts to others, as a sign of the inversion of normality that was part of the festival. The giving of gifts at Christmas was suppressed by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.

Bringing greenery into the house is also Roman in origin (Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton).

The origins of the Yule log are lost in the mists of time, but it probably dates back to ancient Germanic paganism.

Carolling may originally have been a round dance with singing, but the first specifically Christmas hymns for Christians appeared in fourth century Rome.

Wassailing, on the other hand, is much more ancient, and very likely to have pagan origins.

Feasting at Yuletide is definitely Pagan, and was actually discouraged by several Christian traditions.

A full list of Yule customs, and an explanation of their origins, can be found in the excellent Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton.

The idea of the birth of a child of light at the winter solstice is found in several mythologies – Mithras, Christ, Horus, Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus are all born at the winter solstice. The Romans referred to 25th December as Dies Natalis Sol Invictus (the birthday of the unconquered Sun).

The inner meaning of Yule

Saturn was syncretised with the Greek god Chronos, god of time and old age. Hence Saturnalia represents the old year, and the birth of the new sun god at the solstice represents the birth of the new year. That is why the old year is often depicted as an old man, and the new year as a baby.

For Pagans, the whole year is a cycle, and the movements of the Earth around the Sun, and the resulting changes in temperature and day length and vegetation (in short, the seasons) are a core part of Pagan festivals.

At Autumn Equinox, we begin the descent into winter. At Samhain, we meet the ancestors and the beloved dead. At Yule, the furthest point in the descent of the Sun, we begin to emerge from the creative and introspective phase of winter, and start thinking about the first stirrings of Spring. The sun represents the core aspect of the personality in many esoteric symbol-systems, and so its descent into the underworld represents a journey into our own subconscious, our own depths, to bring up fertile material to feed a time of creativity. Of course we know that the Sun doesn’t really descend into the underworld, but in many mythologies, that is where the sun god goes.

Yule is also a time for enjoyment; the harvest is over and done, there is little work to do in the dark time of the year, so it is time to feast, sing, dance, make merry, and kindle plenty of lights (to make up for the lack of sunshine, and to remind the sun that we would like it to start rising further north again!)

UPDATE: Excellent comment from P Sufenas Virius Lupus with corrections to the history of Roman solstice celebrations.

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2 thoughts on “Yule

  1. A few things you’ve mentioned aren’t quite correct, Yvonne.
    Mithras’ birth being on the 25th is not actually attested; it’s only through his syncretism to Helios, assumed to be the same as Sol Invictus (on which more in a moment), that he gets that association, and that only comes via early 20th century scholars, not anything from the ancient world.
    The festival of Sol Invictus on the 25th of December is not particularly ancient; it’s only attested from the reign of Aurelian in the mid-3rd century CE onwards, when the cultus of Sol Invictus was re-organized after a generation of Romans getting over their allergy to “Invictus” solar deities after the disastrous (though short) reign of Elagabulus. Christians actually do have a potential precedent for Christmas on December 25th before the cultus to Sol Invictus began, according to the writings of Tertullian of Carthage (late 2nd c. CE), who says that the feast of the Annunciation of Jesus was on March 25th, nine months before December 25th and thus his birth. There was an earlier cult of Sol Indigenes in Rome that had its celebratory feast earlier in December, but it became rather obscure by the 1st century CE.
    Also, Saturn is most certainly syncretized to the Greek god/titan Kronos, but not necessarily the god Chronos–they are two entirely different deities in origin. They were occasionally syncretized via “punning,” but their attributes generally remained distinct. Kronos and Saturn both were seen as having ruled over the “Golden Age” of humanity, and the inversion of masters and slaves during Saturnalia reflected that earlier, more just time in cosmic history.


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