Yule is a curious word. Like wassail and mistletoe, it’s been with us for as long as we can remember, yet barring vague associations with edible timber, a good working definition always seems elusive. Perhaps we’re right to feel out of our depth when it comes to this term, for it is very old indeed, and as much altered with the passage of time as we are, as speakers of the language that engendered it.
Yuletide (or ‘yule time’), as we know it today, made its debut in Early Modern English, whilst William Caxton was pursuing pressing matters in Westminster, and the Bard was but a glimmer in his treble-great granddaddy’s eye. As a general term for the festive season, it’s a contemporary of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian Jul and Finnish Joulu. However, if we reach back to very early Anglo-Saxon days, we discover the true origins of yule in polytheism. Before we claimed it for our Christmastime, our Old English forbears had it as geol(a) or geohol (Old Norse jol), a name for their annual midwinter festival, wherein farmers would congregate at the temple for twelve days of food, drink and the communal oblation of livestock. Indeed, the original Yuletide might appear to have been nothing but a raucous, beer-swilling, blood-letting wingding in tribute to those gods who seemed content to have saddled them with an otherwise unbearable existence.
But geol was more than that. It was an opportunity for common folk to enact a system of belief that upheld them through physical circumstances largely beyond their control. As such, the festival’s traditions were deeply rooted in the spiritual provisions of Norse mythology. And so it was that during this coldest and bleakest season of the year, a great benefactor, the long-bearded god Odin (meaning ‘Master of Ecstasy’) was believed to assume the role of jolfathr (Old Norse for “Yule Father’), jolnir (the ‘Yule one‘) or Langbathr (‘Long-beard’). As darkness fell, he’d mount his trusty eight-footed steed to lead a spectral march through the heavens, stopping en route to enter homes via fire holes and leave gifts for all the inhabitants of the North.
The striking resemblance this ancient patriarch bears to the protagonist of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1823 poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, is no mere coincidence. Centuries forward, in a hemisphere far, far away, a long-bearded fatherly figure careens through a dark, December night tossing treasure down chimneys to those he deems sufficiently deserving. Still, to go from a pagan god atop an eight-legged horse to an areligious do-gooder in a sleigh drawn by eight four-legged reindeer seems to demand of us a singular leap of faith. Or, at least, it might, were it not for one pious, more corporeal, intermediary.
In 354 AD, with the Christianisation of Germanic Europe, December 25th was designated the official birthday of Jesus Christ, even though the actual date remains a mystery to this day. This time of this month may have been agreed upon by the powers that were because it corresponded with what they considered to have been the precise date of his conception. In any case, this is how the original pagan Feast Day of Dec.6 came to be replaced by a celebration of the birth of the Christian Messiah. The use of the word Cristesmaesse in Old English was first recorded in 1038, evolving to Cristes-messe in 1131, then Cristemasse in Middle English, and finally to Christ Mass, or Christmas, as we know it today. Crist was from Greek Khristos, a translation of the Hebrew Masiah, or Messiah, meaning ‘anointed’. Meanwhile, Maesse was from Latin missa, which was the name for the celebration of the eucharist.
Thus, the symbolic figure of Odin gave way to a brand new ambassador of good will tailored to satisfy monotheistic expectation. This one found its prototype in a 4th century Bishop of Myra by the name of Saint Nicholas. Like his mythological predecessor, this true-to-life figure was also white-bearded and widely admired for his selfless habit of distributing presents to the underprivileged. During the 16th century, and the reign of Henry VIII, his model of faith, hope, joy, and prosperity evolved, concurrently, into that of Father Christmas, who was settled upon, in the public imagination, as a character of generous proportions clad in a fur-lined green or scarlet robe, much like Charles Dickens’ ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ in his 1843 A Christmas Carol. Since that time, the more numerous and varied his adherents have grown, the more titles he has seemed to acquire. He is St. Nick, Pelznickel, Belsnickel, Pere Noel, Kris Kringle, Christ Kindl, Christ Kind and not least, our very own Santa Claus, which is a variation of Dutch Sinterklaas (a dialectical pronunciation of Saint Nicholas). As for the red and white suit he wears these days, we may have a certain soft drink manufacturer to thank for that. In the 1930s, a savvy staffer seized his chance to capitalize on the enduring allure of Father Christmas by merging his persona with the colours of his company’s name brand.
Still, whatever his moniker, this age-old representative of the festive season remains true, at least on one level, to his previous incarnations. He is ever the harbinger of gracious good will during the annual festival we call either Christmas, Xmas (an abbreviation based on initial letter ‘chi’ in Greek Khristos), Noel (from Latin natalis meaning birth) or, yes, the ever mysterious Yule.