DECEMBER: YULE THEN AND NOW
From my earliest childhood, Christmas seemed magical. The colorful tree; the candy; the endless gatherings; the reindeers around Santa. It was also obvious that it had something to do with religion because we went to the Catholic Church on Christmas Eve, and it was full. I did not know at the time that other traditions existed, and they are the most self-evident during this time of year. According to their location, the celebrations of the winter solstice had many names around December the 21st, but the meaning was ever alike. For thousands of years, the seasons' change was a moment to celebrate with food, drink, and liturgies.
Rituals build up positive energy and prepare everyone for the arrival of better days, with more sun, as the seasons affected everyone's job. It is crucial to consider that in Northern countries (Germanic people mostly), the darkness of winter made for much shorter days. This point of the year marked when days would become longer. And the surrounding time, the yuletide, had the spirit of our holidays. The Vikings had a festival for it that lasted almost two weeks (12 days usually). It was an event for the entire family and friends, including those who already passed. It was also about fertility and hope, and it was open to foreigners.
Those harsh winters make summer even more enjoyable. Yule is light expanding and activity growing under it, and the expectations of a robust harvest.
Among the pagans were the Romans, who had a similar celebration called Saturnalia, but it was more liberal and would sometimes be wild among the adults.
The Christians took advantage of the celebrations to party in the name of Christ, surreptitiously. It all changed with Christianity becoming the religion of the Roman state in 380.
Of course, the pagan festivals did not suddenly stop. They continued and transformed into the celebration of Christmas, which then became the new festival. It combined the old religion and the latest belief and gave it a new meaning; The birth of Jesus Christ was that sun that conquered darkness. The Christians who lived through Saturnalia and mixed their own beliefs with it ultimately shared the ancient customs.
Some of today customs surrounding Christmas come from this tradition:
PRACTICING YULE AND CALLING IT CHRISTMAS
- The Yule festival also had a tree, which represented the Yggdrasil. In the Norse cosmology, it stands for the tree that joins the different realms of existence and connects spiritual realities. They also carefully decorated this tree.
- The bonfire: the burning of a log, popular in Europe, is central to the Yule celebration, it stands for protection, and they burned it with other plants such as mistletoe and birch boughs.
- Sonargöltr, a wild boar, was the sacrifice offered to Freyr, a Norse god that could bring fertility and prosperity. It became the Ham at Christmas.
- Exchanging gifts was a roman tradition during Saturnalia. Usually, people exchanged little presents, such as figurines and other items that could be meant as a joke.
- The mistletoe is a symbolic herb of the pagan belief because of its healing properties. They used it for treating ulcers, menstrual cramps, and inflammatory affections.
- An evergreen decoration, taking the shape of a wheel, that hung on doors, representing never-ending life.
- In the Nordic countries, they used ginger in the bakery. We can also find the "pepperkaker", a kind of bread in Norway in other countries. Found in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, and Estonia under similar names. Nowadays, even as window decorations while approaching Christmas, but initially connected to Yule.
- Wassailing or singing carols are familiar on Christmas eve, and it comes from the Nordic tradition.
- The goat-shaped doll (the Yule goat) is popular at this time of the year, in Nordic countries. It began as a symbol for Thor. He has a chariot pulled by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.
The continuum of this festival is then pretty much alive. The names may change, but the essence of it, which is to gather us in celebration, is present, and it remains an important time of the year, filled with awe in childhood. The nostalgia that it may trigger us as we grow up can transform into a happy remembrance of those who no longer can sit at our table. At least we can offer them a drink, hoping that Yule brings a season of more light to us all.
I hope you enjoyed this month’s blog and I wish you all a blessed Yule filled with love, light and a spark of magic!