The Yule Tree

When do you put up your Yule tree and take it down again?

I work on the assumption that saints’ days were originally festivals of the deity they replaced (this works in some cases but not necessarily all, so I really should cross-check it with a calendar of Pagan festival days).

For example, Martinmas (29 September) is when you eat goose, and according to countryside lore, it’s the last day you can eat blackberries picked from the bush, as otherwise the Devil spits on them. 29 September was a festival of Odin. Geese are associated with the Wild Hunt, and so is Odin. And Odin was sometimes referred to as the devil by Christians.

Using this method of retro-engineering, our Yule tree goes up either on 6th December (St Nicholas’ Day), or 13th December (St Lucy’s Day) and comes down on 6th January (it has to still be up for Befana).

St Nicholas Day

In Greek iconography, St Nicholas took over the role of Poseidon, and is therefore prayed to by sailors and when there’s an earthquake (the sea and earthquakes are under Poseidon’s control).

Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors, just like in the case of Myra. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as “The Lord of the Sea”, often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon. When Christianity was established as the formal state religion of the Roman Empire, churches began to rise in the ruins of the temples of the former deities of the ancient Greeks. According to many religious historians, Nicholas’ life story and legends resemble much of the the mythology and legends attributed to ancient Greek god Poseidon, the Roman god Neptune, and the Teutonic god Hold Nickar.

Furthermore, the feast day of St Nicholas is December 6th, the day when the bishop of Myra is reported to have died (342 AD). This day is speculated by many to well have been in pre-Christian times a feast of Poseidon, marking the beginning of winter and possibly the day when navigation ended and ships returned to the harbors. In Athens and other parts of ancient Greece, there was a month that roughly corresponded to December/January that was named Poseideon for the sea-god Poseidon.

— Stella Tsolakidou (2012), What do Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and Poseidon Have in Common?

In Northern Europe, St Nicholas seems to have taken over from Odin in many areas.

Intriguingly, it appears that the English “Father Christmas” is not a Christian figure, but an amalgamation of personifications of winter and feasting:

Father Christmas’ predecessors come from different groups that invaded England. The Romans (AD 43) brought Saturn who returned at Saturnalia with food and wine, revelry and equality among people. The Saxons (AD 600) anthropomorphized seasons and weather, inviting “King” or “Lord Frost” or “Snow,” inside by dressing an actor in a pointed hat and cloak draped in ivy; if the personification was treated kindly, it was hoped the season would treat them likewise. Vikings (AD 800) brought Odin, who wore a hooded cloak, listened to the people and distributed goods to worthy folks; and Thor, with cloak and long white beard, who lived among the icebergs. Elements of these personages coalesced to form “Christmas,” “Old Christmas” or “Father Christmas” by the the 1400s. “Father Christmas” was never a Christian religious figure, but symbolized rather the arrival of those [seasonal] secular pleasures that came from elsewhere than the Christian tradition.”

— St Nicholas Centre, Who is St Nicholas?

After the Reformation, Catholic saints were frowned upon, so the separate and more secular figure of Father Christmas became more important.

St Lucy’s Day

In Scandinavia, St Lucia is very important as she represents the return of the light.

It is speculated that the St. Lucy’s Day celebrations in Scandinavia alone may retain a few indigenous Germanic pagan, pre-Christian midwinter elements. Some of the practices associated with the Feast of Saint Lucy may predate the adoption of Christianity in that region, and like much of Scandinavian folklore and even religiosity, is centered on the annual struggle between light and darkness.

Wikipedia, St Lucy’s Day

Usually I can’t wait to put up my tree till the 13th, so I put it up on the 6th.

The origins of the Yule tree itself

The Yule tree looks Pagan (it’s a tree! Pagans love trees!) but is it really?

The custom was developed in medieval Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), and in early modern Germany where Protestant Germans brought decorated trees into their homes. It acquired popularity beyond the Lutheran areas of Germany and the Baltic countries during the second half of the 19th century, at first among the upper classes.

Wikipedia, Christmas tree

So the custom of the Christmas tree isn’t Pagan, but the custom of bringing evergreens into the house around the time of the winter solstice does date back to ancient pagan times. The Romans brought greenery into the house at Saturnalia.

There’s even a theory that the Yule tree represents Yggdrasil, the World Tree, the baubles are the Nine Worlds, and the tinsel represents the Rainbow Bridge, Bifrøst.

The wonderful thing about the festivals of the winter solstice is that they’re an amalgam of different culturesfestive customs, but still with enough local variations to keep things interesting. There’s a great post by Crispian Jago, The Venn Diagram of Christmas Traditions, which shows how the entire time of year is a smorgasbord of traditions from different sources: Pagan, Christian, and secular.

One of my favourite quotes about Christmas, reflecting this interweaving of traditions, is this:

“Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom?  There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something very beautiful, something which compels our understanding.”

—   Earl W. Count, 4,000 Years of Christmas

6th January

The tree generally comes down and gets packed away (yes it’s an artificial tree which I’ve had for many years) on 6th January, unless the cat tries to destroy it, in which case it sometimes comes down earlier. 6th January is Epiphany in the Christian calendar, but in Italy, is associated with La Befana, the Christmas Witch. There are three different stories of Befana associated with Christmas; but she may also be a hangover from ancient pagan traditions, as the goddess Strenia was celebrated in early January:

A theory connects the tradition of exchanging gifts to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Ianus and Strenia (in Italian a Christmas gift used to be called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans used to give each other presents.

In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily (1823), John J. Blunt says:

“This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year’s gifts, ‘Strenae,’ from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character”

— Wikipedia, Befana

Whatever the Yule tree means to you, may you have a peaceful and blessed Yuletide.

And remember to make the Yuletide gay!

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15 thoughts on “The Yule Tree

  1. Thank you for the post.

    On the complexity of amalgams that underly our midwinter festivals in modern Europe and America a little story.

    The Jewish festival of Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Being a lunar-solar calendar the corresponding day in day in Gregorian calendar will move from year to year. However the 25th day of Kislev will always be the beginning of the period of the dark of the Moon nearest the winter solstice. Possibly the thinnest of crescent moons could be seen on that day in the early morning sky just before sunrise, but in most years no moon will be seen it being so close to new . Chanukah ends eight days latter on 2nd day of Tivet. The second day of a Jewish month will be when the newest crescent moon can first be seen in the western sky near sundown.

    Kislev is considered the 10th month of Jewish calendar. Months are counted from the spring even though the Jewish year begins near the fall equinox. The Roman’s were not that much different in their counting though they used a solely solar calendar. December is the tenth month, counting from the March equinox, that is is why it is called December, this true even though by the time of Julius Caesar the year began in January.

    A few interesting observations arise from this.
    Firstly, Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the Tenth Month of the Jewish calendar, Saturnalia, and latter Christmas fell on the 25th day of the Tenth Month of the Roman calendar. It is likely that if one went back far enough Saturnalia was also originally timed with the moon’s phases. Secondly, Chanukah’s beginning falls not on the longest night of the year, but perhaps the darkest, that is the time of the dark of the moon nearest the winter solstice.
    Blessings in the lovely dark of the year

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    • And just a bit more of lore about the 25th day of the Tenth Month. While the Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year, the 25th of December, which falls three or for days after the Solstice, is the first day where the day is noticeable longer (that is measurable without a reasonably accurate clock) than on the Solstice. The Sun has truly begun its return on that day.

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  2. Interesting correspondences between the saint’s days and the older festivals. I tend to wait to put my tree up until after the university has finished its term for the year, then I can start thinking about the holidays more. It’s interesting the different markers people use for when to do this – but I hope you’ll agree anything earlier than December is just wrong!

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  3. I like to put ours up as close to 1st December as possible, and it comes down, erm, in time for when the council collect old ones from outside the house! They only do this on one day of the year so you need to be ready!

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