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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Midwinter Celebration—Yule

“Yule” comes from the Old Norse Jōl, which may derive from hjól, meaning “wheel.”

For Norsemen, midwinter was a dark time when it was best to stay indoors to escape the gaze of Odin who brought winter into the world accompanied by his Dark Helper, a demonic horned creature who punished wrong-doers. Odin rode his eight-legged horse Sleipner through the sky, and Thor, the god of thunder, rode in his iron chariot pulled by two huge goats, called Tangrisnir and Tanngnøstr (Gnasher and Cracker).

It made sense to slaughter domestic animals at the start of winter, so the end of the year was an ideal time to have a feast. Norse people would sacrifice an animal to implore Freyr, god of agriculture and fertility, to give his blessing, and by tradition, the boar’s head became a seasonal sacrifice. The boar’s head becomes very important in English Christmas folklore, one tradition that has not crossed over to the US, most likely because it’s hard to find boar in the US; we will return to this. (See December 9).

With regards to pagan midwinter festivals, Saturnalia began in the later Roman Empire on December 17th and ran until December 24th, and Kalends took place on January 1st. The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, an important Mithraic festival in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, took place on December 25th. During the former two, buildings were brightly lit and decorated with holly and laurel. Lucian in the 3rd century described Saturnalia, “all business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight. Let none follow their avocations except cooks and bakers.” The Cult of Mithras was one of the Roman “mystery religions” because it was an exclusive but highly influential because so many of its adherents were in the Roman Army.

The Role of Evergreens

According to the Venerable Bede writing in the 7th century, Yule preceded Modranicht, Night of the Mothers, when Anglo-Saxons kept watch and performed religious ceremonies. In the Norse and Celtic traditions, evergreens were very important. The Norse ancestors used evergreens—mainly holly, ivy, mistletoe and branches of fir-trees. Druidic beliefs held that wood spirits were in evergreens brought into the home and could cause mischief, however, they were prevented from doing so between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night.

To pagan people, evergreens had to be magical, otherwise how could they stay green during the winter while other plants died? By bringing them into the house, people also hoped some of the magic would rub off on them. Each evergreen had different functions. Pine branches gave the home a fresh smell, as did rosemary (with its connotations of remembrance). Branches of evergreens might be twisted around a hoop, candles attached to the outer edge. When lit and spun, this created a whirling circle of light. (This symbol would later be adapted in the Church for use in Advent.)

The Ancient Greeks and Druids revered the mistletoe; to the Romans it was a symbol of peace. The plant was sacred to Frigga (Freya), who was the goddess of love. The story goes that an arrow carved from mistletoe-wood shot and killed Frigga’s son, Balder, the god of light. As Frigga cried, the tears that fell became the white berries of the mistletoe. She then proceeded to kiss everyone who passed under the oak tree where the plant grew, as an approbation to act in peace.

Mistletoe only retains its properties, according to the Druids, if it is from a sacred oak. The ceremony to harvest mistletoe was complex. Using a golden sickle to cut the plant, it then had to be allowed to fall and be caught by a white cloth before it touched the ground. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon Mistel (dung) and tan (a small branch), which comes from the fact that mistletoe is actually a partial parasite that grows in the branches of old trees. It reproduces naturally when birds—usually mistle thrushes—eat the berries and then excrete the seeds. The mistletoe parasite extracts essential nutrients and water by pushing its roots under the bark of the host tree. Viscum album is slow-growing and can be hard to establish. The best time to propagate it is between March and April.

(A legend in the medieval period tells that where the tree that Christ had been crucified grew mistletoe. It was at this time a tree, but it became so ashamed of its role in the crucifixion that it shrivelled up. In Brittany, in fact, it is still known by the name Herbe de la croix.)

Mistletoe was also called an “all-healer.” When it was fed to cattle, they were sure to calve in the spring. It was said to cure toothaches, nervous disorders, epilepsy, heart disease, and snake bites.

The Yule Log

The earliest recorded example of the Yule log in Britain was by Robert Herrick in the 1620s, though it was referenced in Germany as early as 1184. However, evidence suggests that the Yule log tradition may not be as ancient as originally thought. Nevertheless, the accepted wisdom goes that on or around December 21st, the winter solstice, fathers and sons would find the largest log they could to burn through the entirety of Yule (12 days). As per the Vikings, burning the Yule log warmed the frozen shades of the family’s dearly departed. Every spark that fell from the log was supposed to represent a pig or calf that would be born in the spring. It was considered bad luck if the log went out. By the Middle Ages, the log was lit using a piece of the previous year’s log. By the nineteenth century, the log was only required to burn for 12 hours (phew!).

The Robin

Finally, another pagan symbol appropriated by Christianity: the robin was sacred to Thor in Norse mythology. The robin was described in two Christian legends. In one, Joseph had gone to collect wood. He was gone for such a long time that Mary began to worry that the fire keeping baby Jesus warm would go out. Then a flock of brown birds flew down and landed beside the dying fire; by flapping their wings, they kept the fire alight until Joseph’s return. They scorched their breast feathers in the attempt. Mary said, “From now on, you will always have a fiery red breast in memory of what you have done for the baby Jesus. People will love you and will call you Robin Redbreast.” The second legend takes place during the last hours of Jesus’ life, on the way to Calvary. One thorn from the crown of thorns became deeply embedded in Jesus’ brow. A plain brown bird tried to help and pull out the thorn; when the thorn came free it spurted blood on the breast of the bird.


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