Yule: the Heathen Holiday of Light
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Ask anyone about Norse Paganism, Heathenry or Asatru and they might not know what you're talking about, but chances are many people have heard of Yule. Yule is the pre-Christian name for a Holiday celebrated either at the Winter Solstice or at Midwinter (the first full moon after the New Year) and for many days after (3 or 12, depending).
Why are there two different dates for Yule?
The different dates for Yule are due to a mild calendar dispute.
Winter Solstice Yule
In modern times, Yule was thought to be celebrated near the Winter Solstice (December 21st) for both symbolic and practical reasons. Symbolically, the Winter Solstice represents the longest night of the year, and thus the beginning of the return of the sun and the restoration of the Earth.
For us, this is the essence of our faith in the Gods: the long night comes, but it passes and the sun returns. The cold winds howl, but they will abate and the warm easy days of spring and summer will return. They return because the Gods keep their faith with us, and do not fail to return a gift for a gift.
Practically speaking, the Winter Solstice is host to a whole cluster of holidays. Christmas (and all the mini-holidays surrounding it) are all clustered around the Winter Solstice.
Midwinter Yule is likely the more accurate date for Yule given the information we have from the literature of the early conversion period. An Icelandic statesman, historian and poet from the Middle Ages named Snorri Sturlusson wrote in one of his chronicles called the Hiemskringla that the pre-christian Norwegians used to celebrate Yule around the time of Midwinter.
Now what the heck is Midwinter?
Midwinter is, according to the calendar of the time, the first full moon after the New Year. Which makes sense because it falls right in the middle of winter--between the end of Fall in November and the beginning of Spring in March. This was beginning of what was called the month of "Thorri" in pre-Christian Scandinavia.
Does it matter if you celebrate Yule at the Solstice versus at Midwinter?
Depends on who you ask. Some Norse Pagans take the calendar very seriously and believe in strictly reconstructing the practices of the pre-Christian Heathens. The theory is that if our predecessors had a connection with the Gods and we want a connection with the Gods then we should do what they did in order to get that connection with the Gods. We might not know why it worked the way it did, but we know that it worked. That's the thinking.
Other Heathens feel like rigid adherence to past practices without room for improvisation or adaptation ends up more in reenacting a dead faith rather than reconstructing a living faith. We ought not to ignore the centuries of cultural and religious changes that happened in the intervening period, but ought to seek a way to negotiate between the past and the present.
Still others cite things like spiritual energies, moon cycles and all other kinds of Pagan-y stuff. We can't speak authoritatively as to the validity of all that. We'll just stick to the books for now.
Did Christians steal Christmas from Pagans?
There was some debate as to whether or not setting the date of Christmas at the Winter Solstice was intentionally done to "steal" holidays like Saturnalia or Yule from Paganism and import them into Christianity. Most scholars of the time period agree that this was probably not the case in terms of setting the date.
However, many of the traditions and iconography that we associate with holidays like Christmas could be from from centuries before the conversion. We don't know for sure, though. Frustratingly, no one in the Pre-Christian period wrote down exactly step-by-step what they were doing and when they did it and why.
But any traditions that did make it through to the modern day weren't "stolen" as much as they were tolerated and eventually incorporated into the celebration. Christian missionaries and rulers, not wanting to upset the apple cart too much, tolerated and incorporated pre-Christian traditions and even gave them a Christian veneer and backstory.
Long story short, Christmas was not stolen from Pagans, but some of the traditions Christians do today to celebrate Christmas may pre-date the conversion--though we can't know for sure which ones, if any, they are.
We'll just settle for telling you what we do now, how's that sound?
Today, we can see the Yule fire as symbolizing the life of the family and the people and the land, burning through the darkness of the long night until the return of the sun. Modern Heathens who do not have fireplaces may use a large candle as a Yule flame.
A modern custom developed by Swedish Heathens, which has also been adopted by a growing number of American Heathens, is Väntljusstaken, “Light Anticipation Candles,” also called Sunwait Candles.
Six candles, one for each of the first six runes of the futhark, are placed in a fitting holder, and one is lit on each of the six Thursdays before the winter solstice, although some might prefer to light one on each of the six days before the solstice. You could then meditate on the rune on the candle that you’ve just lit, or carry out any other appropriate activity: a blót, singing songs, telling stories, and so on (Tjeerd, “Crafting Yule Traditions”).
How do Norse Pagans celebrate Yule?
In many ways, Yule is going to look exactly like your Christmas celebrations. You can have a tree. You can put up lights. You can decorate your house in boughs of holly. Most of the Christmas 'fun stuff" is stuff Pagans continue to do. But for us it symbolizes different things.
Wassail, Wassail All Over the Town: Heathen Caroling
The historian Geoffrey of Monmouth records that it was proper etiquette among the Saxons to say “Wassail!” when you offer someone a drink—or, in Old English, wes hál!, “be hale!” or “be in good health!”
The response is drinc hál!, “drink hale!” (History of the Kings of Britain VI.12, transl. Thorpe, p. 159)
By the end of the Middle Ages, the name “wassail” had become attached specifically to a bowl of hot spiced ale.
In the 1600s, English women would carry a bowl of wassail from house to house, singing carols.
By this time, the wassail bowl often held a drink called lambswool: sweetened, spiced ale or cider, with roasted apples and pieces of toasted bread floating in it.
A number of traditional wassailing carols are still sung, many of which are variants on “Wassail, wassail, all over the town.” They express wishes that the folk of the house will enjoy prosperity, as long as they give some food, drink, or money to the wassailers. If you're looking for some Modern Heathen twists on these songs, check out these Norse Pagan Yuletide Carols.
We have a Blot on either "Mother's Night" to Frigga or a Blot on "Midwinter's Night" to Thor. The Blots can be found on or specific resource page on Yule Blots.
Offerings to Ancestors
We also have an offering to our Ancestor Spirits. This is usually a portion of the Yule feast that is left for them in a sacred space in the home.
Offerings to the Home and Land Spirits
The Home and Land Spirit offerings we see at Yule look very much like the Scandinavian tradition of leaving a bowl of buttered porridge at your door for the Tomte or the Nisse. Inside the house, you can make a porridge or some cookies (like we do in the United States for Santa Claus) to leave out at Yule for the House spirits.
Heathens have many special recipes for food and drink for Yule. If you're familiar with Christmas dinner, you'll see many of the same foods. Norse Pagans don't have to stop enjoying their favorite holiday foods just because they changed religion. If your family always had a Christmas Ham, it doesn't make you less Pagan to make that same Ham for Yule. It doesn't make you more Pagan to change over to cooking something else.
The key to the Yuletide feast is the same as it is for every Heathen feast: peace and plenty. Plenty of food. Plenty of drink. Peace, goodwill and Frith between all the guests.
Brewing Strong Beer
Yule was also a time to brew strong ale, as some European breweries still do. In pre-modern Europe, barley was harvested in the autumn and needed time to be malted; thus brewing traditionally began in late autumn, and the first ale that had had time to ferment to a nice strong alcohol content would have been ready around this time.
Some traditional Yule ales are flavored with cardamom, coriander, vanilla, and/or other spices (although, since many of those spices are imported from the tropics, the custom of brewing with them probably does not go back to Heathen times).
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