Yule is a distinct festival, often overshadowed by its younger sibling, Christmas. If you’re a Pagan or have Pagan leanings, the chances are that everything you love about Christmas is actually because it’s a Yule thing. If you love the tree, the holly, the greenery being brought into the house, the feasting, and the reciprocity of thoughtful gift giving (as opposed to obligatory gift giving dictated by social norms), then you love Yule. Yule is not “Christmas with the serial numbers filed off”, and Christmas isn’t “Yule with added Baby Jesus”, Yule is far more exciting and wild and numinous than that.
I really love Yule, and I’ve spent decades carefully cultivating Yule in my life and eliminating as much Christmas as possible from my Yuletide. Baby Jesus doesn’t move me. Stables are quite cosy. I’m kind of okay with Mary, but only because she’s the Great Goddess with the serial numbers filed off. I quite like the Magi but that’s because they were Zoroastrians and astrologers/astronomers.
I’ve written before about which of the festive customs of this time of year are actually ancient and can be traced back to ancient Yule and Saturnalia. Wassailing, feasting, gift-giving, bringing greenery into the house, the Yule log, are all ancient.
Over the centuries, Yule has constantly reasserted itself. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight, the anarchic customs of wassailing and mumming, Krampus, Old Father Frost, and many more legendary beings popping up to create anarchy.
Yule is much more mysterious and uncanny than its upstart sibling. In many ancient mythologies, the Sun descends into the underworld. A descent into the darkness of the underworld is a chancy endeavour, as the story of Tammuz, Orpheus, Eurydice, Inanna, and many others can tell you.
Many other cultures have stories where the Sun does not return and the animals or birds have to bring fire to humans, or bring the Sun back.
There are numerous stories of Sun gods being born at Yule, a highly significant event in Northern latitudes where the Sun struggles to get above the horizon.
The uncanny nature of Yule is very well illustrated by the story of Gawain and the Green Knight, the mysteries of mummers’ plays enacted by Morris sides all over Britain, the first-footing customs of the New Year, the stories of making a king for the duration of Yuletide (probably based on the Saturnalian idea of inverting the usual hierarchy), the tradition of ghost stories at Christmas.
Yule is a time of liminality. The word liminal comes from the Latin for threshold. The threshold, the doorstep, is an edgy space, neither public nor private, neither in nor out. That’s why wassailers and mummers and carollers and guisers (trick-or-treaters) come only as far as your doorstep. We are at the turning point of the old year becoming the new. That’s why Janus is represented with two faces, and is also associated with Cardea, the goddess of the hinge. There’s a sense that anything could happen; the Otherworld might very well break in upon our world. The light breaks through the crack in the burial mound, the harbinger of the Sun returning from the deep.
Any liminal time is an opportunity for normal constraints to be loosed, and Yule is no exception to this rule. The German custom of letting loose the Krampus is an illustration of this principle, and the anarchic spirit of Krampusnacht seems to feed a yearning in people for this anarchic and chaotic aspect of Yule. And not forgetting the wondrous and awe-inspiring Mari Lwyd of Wales, who pokes her bony nose into houses at this time of year.
I am declaring war on the saccharine, commercialized, sentimental aspects of Christmas (and their illegal occupation of November). Bring back Old Father Christmas, the spirit of Yuletide anarchy. Bring back the custom of church congregations braying like donkeys and mooing like cows.
Bring back the stag running on the hill with the Sun caught between his antlers. Bring back the old gods, the spirit of the wildwood, the way that the uncanny breaks into ordinary life as the Green Knight enters the court of King Arthur and flings out his challenge to the startled knights.
Bring back Modranecht, when we honour the mothers (female ancestors), the Disir, sitting by the fire and telling stories of their lives. These can be ancestors of spirit, beloved Pagan dead.
Bring back the Cailleach, beloved Scottish goddess of winter, shaking out the snow on the land. Bring back Mother Holda, with her wild geese and her snowflakes landing on the tongue like a gift from the sky. Bring back Befana, ancient Italian goddess.
In my life, these aspects of Yuletide never left. For more than a decade, I was able to celebrate Yule by attending the Ragged Heroes mumming at Lacock in Wiltshire on the 24th, and the Marshfield Mummers on the 26th, with their mysterious song about a grandmother and a nanny-goat. Canada is sadly bereft of mumming (except in Newfoundland, where the mummers do not perform a play but are mysterious and weird).
In my world, the Yule tree is a representation of Yggdrasil; the tinsel and garlands are nebulae and galaxies, and the baubles are the Nine Worlds. Hmm, I need a squirrel to represent Ratatosk, I did buy a couple of ravens at Halloween to represent Hugin and Munin, and they’ll be going on my Yule tree.
In my world, “Father Christmas” is the spirit of Yuletide anarchy, bringing the wassail bowl and inverting the normal order of things.
In my world, the festive entertainments of Yuletide are Hogfather, the Mabinogion, Gawain and the Green Knight, mummers’ plays, Box of Delights, and that Solstice radio play from the 1980s.
The glittering stars of Yule shine down upon the Mari Lwyd, the mummers, the Wassailers, the Krampuses, the first footers, and the birth of Mithras in a cave. They shine on the holly leaves, the red berries, and the drop of blood in the snow. They shine upon Old Father Frost and the Cailleach and Mother Holda, painting the land with frost and snow. And they shine upon the Christmas Truce of 1914, when the soldiers realized that they had more in common with each other than with the establishments they were fighting for.
May your Yuletide be blessed with the spirit of anarchy, camaraderie, liminality, the wildwood, the old gods, feasting, and creativity.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.