|HO. HO. HO.|
Yule and Christmas have very different flavours. Yet it’s widely imagined that Christmas is derived from Yule, or that modern Christmas customs originated as Yule customs.
That idea is often motivated by anti-Christian sentiment. If Christmas is derivative, the idea goes, then that licenses a skeptic to treat it, and the people that celebrate it, as dishonest. But you don’t need to be a Christian (or a Neo-pagan, for that matter) to acknowledge that Christmas and Yule are very separate things.
Our earliest evidence on Yule and our evidence on Christmas come from different times and different places. Christmas originated as a Mediterranean festival, first attested in the 4th century but with a backdrop reaching back to the 2nd century. Yule pops up from the 6th century onwards as an East German and North German season of the year. There’s only the faintest trace of Yule in modern Christmas customs.
In previous years, in 2015 and in 2017, I wrote long posts about supposed links between Christmas and pagan Roman customs and festivals. The short answer is: there aren’t any.
- Christmas has nothing to do with Mithras. Neither does Christianity in general. The supposed similarities are all imaginary, made up out of thin air, mostly in the 1990s.
- Christmas isn’t based on Saturnalia. Saturnalia is on 17 December, and ancient Christians celebrated it alongside Christmas for a long time. We haven’t inherited any customs from Saturnalia -- it’s just too far in the past.
- Christmas isn’t based on Sol Invictus. We have only one indication of a Sol Invictus festival on 25 December; it dates to 354 (not 274, as often claimed); it was celebrated in only one place (Rome); and it’s no older than Christmas, which is attested in the same document.
- The date of Christmas is linked to the winter solstice, indirectly. Ancient Judaeo-Christian custom reckoned that prophets and saints died on the same date they were born or, in later times, the date they were conceived. Jesus supposedly died at the spring equinox, so by custom, that was also the date of his conception. That put his birth nine months later at the winter solstice. Evidence of Christian interest in the link between Jesus’ death and the equinox goes back to the 150s, so Christmas has its background in that period, even if we can’t be sure it was celebrated at that time.
- The solstice is on 21 or 22 December these days, but in the Julian calendar, it was traditionally reckoned to be 25 December. 1st century pagan sources are very clear on this. That’s in spite of the fact that when the Julian calendar was first instituted, in 46 BCE, the solstice had already drifted a few days out of synch with that date. The solstice was on 25 December in the retrojected Julian calendar in the 4th century BCE, so that’s probably when the traditional date was fixed by Greek astronomers. (See this post, section 4, for more details.)
The earliest evidenceThe earliest source to mention Yule is a calendar of saints’ days dating to the 500s. This text, in Gothic, is in a palimpsest held at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. It contains the phrase fruma jiuleis, which means either ‘first part of Yule’ or ‘before Yule’. It’s often reported that the phrase is a gloss of the word ‘November’, equating the Roman month to a Gothic season: Landau (2006) has shown that ‘November’ doesn’t appear in the manuscript, though he accepts, on other evidence, that fruma jiuleis probably does refer to November or December anyway.
(Let me just repeat that this is a calendar of saints’ days. There’s no mention here of Christians killing people for celebrating a season observed in a Christian calendar, no mention of ‘woodland spirits, feasting, male fertility’, no Christmas trees. Why on earth would anyone expect any of these things? Well, some people do. Observe:)
Where does the word jiuleis itself come from? Its linguistic origins are disputed. Landau argues (2009) that it’s derived from the biblical Jubilee (via Greek Ἰωβηλαῖος), and that already in the Gothic calendar it’s used as a nomen sacrum to refer to Jesus. That neglects the fact that some later forms of Yule in other languages display a velar fricative: Old English geohhol, Old Finnish (loanword) juhla. It’s more usual to infer an Indo-European origin (e.g. Koivulehto 2000). On the other hand, Landau is right to point out that Gothic jiuleis appears in a firmly Christian context, and centuries before any evidence of a non-Christian festival. I don’t think we have enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion on this point.
Our next reference to Yule appears in Bede’s De temporum ratione (‘on time-reckoning’), written around 730 in northern England, two centuries after the Gothic palimpsest. At §15 Bede lists off names of the lunar months in the English calendar. He states that giuli corresponded to two months, not one, namely December and January, and mentions that the English calendar was reckoned as starting on 25 December.
By the time of the Old English Martyrology, around the late 800s, 25 December itself is referred to as ‘the first Yule day’ (þone ærestan geohheldæg: Martyrology 25 Dec.), and December and January are known as ‘former Yule’ and ‘after Yule’ respectively (ærra geola, æftera geola: Martyrology start of Dec., 1 Jan.).
The use of Yule for month names is perhaps more suggestive of a season than a festival. Bede does mention something that looks like a pagan festival, though. He tells us that the New Year in the English calendar, that is 25 December, was called modranicht or mothers’ night. Not mother’s night, as it’s often reported: Old English modra is plural. Now, Bede can’t be trying to cast modranicht as a fixed date in the Julian calendar, or equate modranicht and Christmas in any religious sense. What he’s saying is that modranicht was the New Year; the New Year was reckoned as starting on the winter solstice; and the solstice is 25 December, which also happens to be the date of Christmas. (See above on the solstice being traditionally reckoned as 25 December in the Julian calendar.)
Evidence about Yule customs appears from the late 800s onwards, in Old Norse texts. At this point we also start to see distinctly pagan features. I don’t just mean Norse sagas: the sagas have tons of references to Yule (Old Norse jól), but they’re half a millennium after Bede. The earliest references are in poetry. The first is in the Hrafnsmál (raven’s song), reliably dated to the second half of the 800s. Stanza 6 refers to the custom of drinking a toast at Yule. Another less direct reference appears in the Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (poem of Helgi Hjorvarth’s son), which is a patchwork of multiple sources, probably mostly dating to the 900s. This poem mentions the custom of drinking a toast too, along with a vow made over the pledging-cup, at stanza 32. The Helgakviða doesn’t name the festival: jól only appears in the prose frame-narrative, written later; it also refers to a ‘sacred boar’ (sónargölt-).
|One of the earliest references to Norse Yule customs: the Codex Regius manuscript of the Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, fol. 46. The first two highlighted passages are in the prose written around the verse as a frame-narrative: they refer to Yule (iola), the custom of making a vow over a pledging-cup (bragar fvll), and bringing in the sacred boar (sonar gꜹltr). The third highlighted phrase belongs to a verse section, and refers to the bragar fvll at the king’s toast (konvng borno).|
The upshot of all this is that Christmas goes back centuries earlier than any of our evidence for Yule; the very earliest evidence for Yule is already in a Christian context; and Yule customs don’t show up until much later. Also, as I mentioned at the start, Christmas has its origins very firmly in the 2nd-4th century Mediterranean, while our only evidence for Yule is East/North Germanic.
With all this in mind it would be very weird to see Christmas as based on Yule in any sense. Christmas is a (2nd-)4th century Mediterranean festival; Yule is a season in eastern and northern Germanic calendars, linked to pagan customs by the 9th century, but of disputed origins.
Yule customsCould we at least say that Christmas absorbed aspects of Yule over time? Well, what do we know about Yule customs?
- Making vows over a toast, attested from the 8th century onwards in Norse texts, as we saw above. In modern times, vow-making has become linked to the Gregorian new year (New Year’s resolutions), not Christmas. And fair enough too: Bede does after all cast Yule as a season centred on the New Year, not as a religious festival.
- A sacred boar is attested as early as the Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (see above). It hasn’t left much trace in modern Christmas customs, but it has left some: most prominently, the 15th century ‘Boar’s head carol’, though even that isn’t exactly well known these days. An adapted version of the custom does appear in some Neo-pagan celebrations of Yule, and in Scandinavia, and apparently a number of the more extravagant American universities lay on a boar’s head celebration. But it’s not exactly mainstream. Wikipedia claims that the modern western Christmas ham is based on the Yule boar, but doesn’t do the legwork to demonstrate continuity. Is there a line connecting the mediaeval boar’s head to the Christmas ham? Well I suppose there might be. Tracing it is beyond me, I’m afraid.
- Feasting: a parallel for sure, but this is hardly distinctive to any one festival.
- Spirits and hags coming out to wreak havoc: this happens at Yule an awful lot in Norse sagas. As a modern Christmas custom? Not so much. Not in the English-speaking world anyway. (Unless you want to count Tim Burton’s The nightmare before Christmas (1993) ... but it’s clearly not related, even though it is a great film.)
But wait, I hear the protesters saying, what about the Yule log? That’s a pagan custom that has survived to the present day!
Oh no it isn’t.
Oh yes it is!
Oh no it isn’t.
The Yule log, it is usually claimed, is first attested in 1184. That’s kind of true. But I doubt anyone who has claimed this in the last 50 years actually knows what the evidence for this is. They certainly haven’t checked the original source. I had to go to an 1899 book just to find out what the source is. And, it turns out, it’s been drastically misrepresented.
The source is an edict from a Christian bishop outlining the prerogatives of the Christian parish priest of Ahlen. These prerogatives include ‘a tree at the Nativity of the Lord’ -- not Yule -- ‘to be brought for his own fire at the festival’ (& arborem in Nativitate Domini ad festivum ignem suum adducendam esse, Kindlinger 1790: 210). So
- the 1184 source doesn’t mention or allude to Yule;
- it explicitly and specifically links the log to Christmas;
- Yule sources belong to Britain and Scandinavia, but the 1184 edict is about Westphalia, in western Germany.
In Britain, the earliest attestation is much later: the log first appears in the early 1600s, in a poem by Robert Herrick. He too calls it a ‘Christmas log’, not a ‘Yule log’. Don’t read too much into the fact that it dates to Protestant times: Herrick loved to troll Puritans.
Did the Yule log start out as a Christmas log, and only get rebranded as a ‘Yule log’ in later centuries? It looks that way to me. The best counter-argument Tille can find (1899: 88-89) is a letter written in 742 by a missionary in Germany, St Boniface, which tells of a disagreement over celebrating the New Year with pagan customs. People of formerly pagan German tribes had noticed
that on the first day of January year after year, in the city of Rome and in the neighborhood of St. Peter’s church by day or night, they have seen bands of singers parading the streets in pagan fashion, shouting and chanting sacrilegious songs and loading tables with food day and night, while no one in his own house is willing to lend his neighbor fire or tools or any other convenience. ...Tille takes this as an indication that native German customs involved a sacred fire too. That’s a pretty thin argument. It’s not impossible: there’s a 400 year gap between this and the Christmas log of 1184, but it is the same part of the world -- Ahlen is in Westphalia, Boniface refers to western and southern German tribes. But even if Tille is right, we don’t have corroboration for Yule in Germany. I’m not inclined to believe the Yule log was originally a Yule log.
-- Boniface, letter to Pope Zacharias (trans. Emerton)
OK, how about Christmas trees -- the kind you decorate, not the kind you burn? They’re a Yule custom, surely? That’s another no: Christmas trees are another German custom. Even in Germany, we only start to see them in the 1500s, and they didn’t become popular outside Germany until the 1800s. (Famously, they were popularised in Britain by Prince Albert in 1840 -- though Queen Charlotte did set one up at Windsor in 1800.)
Gift-giving? Well, Christmas charity to the poor goes back to the 1200s or thereabouts, but gifts within the family are much more recent. Santa is based on an ancient Christian saint, St Nicholas, but St Nicholas had nothing to do with Christmas until Luther tried to suppress the cult of the saints in the early 1500s.
Is this all just Christian apologetics?No. If we say there’s barely any trace of paganism in Christmas as practised in the English-speaking world, that isn’t the same as saying that there’s any authenticity about modern Christmas customs. At least, not ‘authentic’ in the sense of customs that have survived since antiquity.
There’s virtually nothing pagan about modern western Christmas customs. But at the same time, nearly all modern Christmas customs are exactly that -- modern.
The Christmas log, Christmas trees, and gift-giving all come from late mediaeval or early modern Germany. Santa went through several phases, starting out as St Nicholas with no connection to Christmas, then metamorphosing into the Christkind and Sinterklaas, before re-coalescing into Santa. Christmas trees only spread to France around 1830, and England in 1840 (1800 if you’re a Queen Charlotte fan). Santa’s flying reindeer were invented for the poem ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’ in 1823. Advent calendars only started to become popular in the early 1800s, Advent wreaths in 1839, Christmas cards in 1843 -- and it was also in 1843 that Charles Dickens published A Christmas carol.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. If Christmas customs are modern, well, so what? So are Neo-pagan customs relating to Yule and the solstice. There’s no rule that customs have to be ancient. Kwanzaa dates to the 1960s. The midwinter festival in my part of the world, Matariki, dates to the 2000s. They’re still real festivals.
The only bits of Christmas that are ancient are the bits that happen in church. A number of Christmas carols are pretty old: a handful are even ancient. Sizeable chunks of the liturgy are ancient.
The story of the nativity is certainly ancient. (Not that that implies it’s true, mind.) It’s a mash-up of the 1st century gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew has the star, dreams and prophecies, the wise men, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt; Luke has the annunciation, the census, no room at the inn, the manger, and the shepherds. The idea of combining these two stories in a mash-up is ancient too. Even some non-canonical parts of the story are ancient. The Protevangelium of James (early 2nd century) gives us the virgin birth, as opposed to the virgin conception, and the idea of Jesus being born in a cave. The ox and ass standing by, a standard feature of modern nativity displays, appear regularly in ancient iconography and in some ancient Christian writers.
|The ox and ass are premised on Luke’s manger, and by analogy with Isaiah 1.3 and the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 3.2; see e.g. Benedict XVI 2012: 69. For ancient sources, see: Origen, Homily on Luke 13, xiii.1832c Migne; Prudentius Cathem. 11.81-84. (Also, at this point I have to mention that Prudentius is the author of my personal all-time favourite Christmas carol, ‘Of the father’s heart begotten’, Cathem. 9.10-24.)|
If a 2nd century Christian were to time-travel to 2018, they’d definitely recognise the story and motifs in a Christmas pageant, and in films like Ben-Hur (1959) and The star (2017). They wouldn’t recognise anything else about Christmas in its modern form. But then again, neither would an 8th century Northumbrian who was used to celebrating modranicht. Nor would a 9th century Norse person who was used to jól.
- Benedict XVI, PP. (alias Ratzinger, J.) 2012. Jesus of Nazareth. The infancy narratives. Trans. P. J. Whitmore. London: Bloomsbury.
- Kindlinger, N. 1790. Münsterische Beiträge zur Geschichte Deutschlandes, hauptsächlich Westfalens, vol. 2. Münster: Friedrich Christian Theissing.
- Koivulehto, J. 2000. ‘Fest und Zyklus des Jahres: Jul und Kekri’ (subscription required). Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 101: 235-52.
- Landau, D. 2006. ‘On the reading and interpretation of the month‐line in the Gothic calendar’ (subscription required). Transactions of the Philological Socety 104.1: 3-12.
- ---- 2009. ‘The source of the Gothic month name jiuleis and its cognates.’ Namenkundliche Informationen 95-96: 239-248.
- Tille, A. 1899. Yule and Christmas. Their place in the Germanic year. London: David Nutt.