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What is Yule? Origins of the winter festival explained, and how it influenced Christmas celebrations

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Christmas is a time of comfort and tradition, but many festivities we now know and love actually originate from our pagan past.

The winter solstice has spawned rituals and celebrations from the earliest human times, with some traditions now associated with Christmas beginning as observances of the astronomical phenomenon.

For example, the origins of Christmas trees and wreaths can be found in the twelve day pagan holiday of “Yule”, which centred around the solstice, particularly in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, such as Germany.

Here’s what you need to know about Yule and the origins of the winter festival.

What is Yule?

Belarusian villagers celebrate the Christmas carol rite (Kalyady) in the village of Danilevichy, some 320 km south of Minsk on 7 January 2020. Kalyady is an ancient pagan holiday originally celebrated on winter solstice (Photo: AFP)

This year, Yule began on Monday 21 December and will end on Friday 1 January 2021.

The term Yule, although it has changed in meaning through the centuries, is a remnant of a secular holiday that has been overshadowed by the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Yule originates from the 12-day festival, celebrated by Germanic peoples, around the winter solstice in December and January.

By the 900s, Yule was already mapped on the Christian celebration of Christmas and its surrounding festivities.

Nowadays, Christmas celebrations in the west have become an amalgamation of characters, traditions and symbols appropriated to serve a Christian holiday.

How does Yule influence Christmas celebrations?

Yule occurs at the same time as the celebration of the birth of Jesus in the form of a twelve-day feast, sometimes called epiphany or feast of the nativity.

This feast was intended to correspond with the pagan holiday, the feast of Sol Invictus, which celebrated the winter solstice and the gradually lengthening days of increased sunlight.

Over time, these feasts merged to become the holiday we now know as Christmas.

In today’s language, Yule is simply the feast celebrating the birth of Christ, and Yuletide is the Christmas season.

Lots of aspects of the story of Jesus’ birth are celebrated during Yule season, but remnants of the original feasts and celebrations also show up in many of our modern-day Christmas traditions.

Nowadays a chocolate yule log or ‘bûche de Noël’ is a popular Christmas dessert or pudding (Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

For example, most people with a yule log don’t care about its origin or associate it with paganism, but the custom of burning a yule log goes back to medieval times.

It was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony, and the largest end of the log placed into the fire hearth, and lit with the remains of the previous year’s log.

Celtic druids would mark the winter solstice with the cutting of mistletoe and lighting a yule log – believed to banish darkness and evil spirits – wheareas nowadays a chocolate yule log or ‘bûche de Noël’ is a popular Christmas dessert or pudding.

Romans had their own similar observance called Saturnalia (in honour of the god Saturn), which began on 17 December and involved a full week of partying.

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