For most of us, we know the origins of a lot of our religious holidays. Or at least we think we do. Some religions are so steeped in mystery that even the most devoted followers may not be able to draw up a clear origin to some of the holidays. During the month of December there’s a very solid example of this: Christians know that Christmas was created to celebrate Christ’s birth, but Pagans are a little more in the dark about Yule.
Yule, currently known as a celebration on the longest night of the year to mark the returning light, is one of the more common Pagan holidays known by other religions. The most prevalent story of origin from Yule can be seen in the Wiccan sect of paganism. The tale goes that yule has been traditionally a celebration of longest night of the year partially to symbolize the waiting, and “labor,” of the birth of the Oak King, the Sun King, the Giver of Life. Upon this King’s birth, he grows until, in the spring, he warms the frozen Earth and makes her bear forth the seeds in her “womb” that had been protected throughout the fall and winter.
A more interesting concept, and possibly a bit more historical, is that Yule did not take place on a certain date. Currently, Pagans celebrate Yule on one of two dates, depending on their sect. These dates are either Winter Solstice (the longest night of the year, usually the 21st or 22nd of December) or December 25th, coinciding with Christmas. It seems that originally yule was celebrated on the closest full moon to the Winter Solstice (as that would provide the markings of a new beginning as full moons do) and lasted for three nights. According to Norse tales, this changed when King Haakon ©. 920-961 CE) I took over.
According to historians, King Haakon I hid his Christianity from the natives of Norway in order to win their trust. He told the peoples that it would make more sense for the Yule celebration to coincide with Christmas so that they could all celebrate together, regardless of belief. Haakon actually created a law stating that the celebration would be on December 25th and would last until the “drink runs out.” Anyone that didn’t celebrate on the designated date would be fined. With this placed into effect, it didn’t take long for the sacrificing at the holiday and mass amounts of toasting (and thus mass amounts of drinking) to slowly fade. Through this, King Haakon ironically gained enough respect that when he began his Christian crusade, he ran into very little opposition and is credited with Christianizing Norway.
However, there is documentation even earlier then this that Yule existed. About 730 CE, the English historian Bede documented the Germanic people’s holiday celebrations. As far as he could discover, these celebrations for Yule went as far back as the fourth century. At this point in time, Bede reported that the pagans had already been celebrating yule on December 25th as an all-night honor to their Germanic “divine mothers.”
It seems that the more digging one does into the origin of Yule, the more mysterious it gets. There are so many conflicting tales as to the date and the why behind the placement of the celebration, but one thing does remain the same: the meaning. Whether a person celebrated Yule on the 21st, 22nd, or 25th of December, the celebration of the returning light and the slow awakening of the Earth and Nature help remind us that winter, in all Her glory, is still a temporary rest and not an end.