Yule, also known as Yuletide, is a festival based holiday that is historically observed by the Germanic people as part of Germanic paganism. The precise origin is debated by scholars, but the holiday definitely existed.
Some scholars connect Yule to as a holiday to the celebration of the mothers by the Anglo Saxons in their holiday Modraniht which was celebrated on December 24th. Other scholarly guesses connect Yule to the Wild Hunt which is a folk holiday involving dead souls that is typically celebrated for Odin.
Yule is celebrated from the 21st of December until the 1st of January, meaning that it lasts 12 days. The 12 days are the Yuletide, and it is true that they are where the 12 days of Christmas and Christmastide come from.
Modraniht was a holiday celebrated by the Anglo-Saxon pagans on the 24th of December, the same day that Christians call Christmas Eve. Medieval English historians confirm the existence of this holiday and give us some details about it.
The suggestions they have provided for what the holiday was and what occurred during it is that it was a celebration for female ancestors, and this holiday held them in the form of collectives of threes. It also was likely related to the Germanic Matres and Matronae, these were sets of female deities that were worshiped across northwestern Europe by the Germans that were documented by the Romans. The worship of these deities, called mothers and matrons, seems to span from the first century to the fifth century.
These goddesses are rather unknown, but based off of the inscriptions we have related to them, it is possible that they were like the Charites, the Fates, or even the Furies. As well, they were given an association to snakes which could suggest relation to goddesses associated with snakes like Hekate (who also happens to be a triple goddess).
Modraniht definitely appears to have a link to the broader Germanic celebrations of women and probably a link to the Yuletide season, but it appears to have split off from the rest of the Germanic practices and become its own thing. That being said, medieval Scandinavia was also known to have similar holidays to this so maybe it did not get so far away after all.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a folk holiday that came from Germanic paganism and spread out across Northern, Western, and Central Europe. The Hunt is associated with a celebration of Odin, but has also come to be associated with several human figures such as Gothic and Danish kings.
The purpose of the hunt was to chase down souls, and the hunters were considered either dogs for Odin or Valkyries that were going out to collect the souls of the dead to take to the afterlife.
It was believed that seeing the Hunt was a bad thing if you were not apart of it and that you would be doomed to die soon. The Hunt was also thought to be able to ward off potential incoming plagues and other disasters if you encountered it.
Fairies, elves, ghosts, and actual Valkyries were said to get involved with the hunt. Especially the fairies who were supposed to take away people that interrupted the hunt to never be seen again.
As time went on and Christianity became the dominant religion of the land, the Wild Hunt became more related to antagonizing the spirits of bad Christian figures such as King Herod who wanted to kill the baby Jesus or Cain from the story of Cain and Abel. This shows that the Hunt went through a Christianizing process much like Yule is known to have.
Odin from the celebration of the Wild Hunt and Yuletide is believed to have inspired the appearance of Santa Claus through the Dutch Christmas figure known as Sinterklaas that also appears to have Yuletide development.
What Else Is Known About Yule?
The earliest known writings to Yule come from the Goths in the 5th century. There are additional writings that come from Old Norse and the Anglo Saxons in the centuries directly following this.
According to the Prose Edda, there is an association of the Norse Gods with the title of Yule, they are called “Yule-beings” as an alternate title to “god.” A variation of the same root word for Yule is also an alternate name for Odin, Jolnir.
The Christmastide took on many of the aspects of Yuletide as well. The Yule log and the Yule boar (Christmas Ham) are just a few of the commonly known and celebrated inherited traditions from Yuletide, much in the same way that traditions of Saturnalia were inherited.
The Christianizing of Yuletide seems to have been brought on first by the Norwegians who were led by their King Haakon I in the early to mid 900s AD. Haakon had converted to Christianity and was in the process of converting Norway to Christianity, but he wanted to keep the holiday continued as a practice.
The Yuletide that we know was celebrated by those Norwegians under Haakon involved a three day celebration, primarily celebrating at night, that involved feasting, drinking, and sacrifices. Speeches were also given in honor of Odin, Njordr, and Freyr.
Haakon did change the dates just a bit so that the Yuletide lined up more properly with Christmas, but other than that he largely left it alone. In privacy, it was said that he would have the gospels preached to him.
In the time following Haakon’s reign, Yuletide would eventually meld entirely into Christmastide and the same would follow similarly in other northwestern European countries that practiced it.