The Real Meaning of Yule
The Real Meaning of the Holidays
or A Peaceful Solstice From the Good God Thor!
by Rel Davis
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
(“The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy)
The real meaning of Christmas. What is it?
I keep hearing that we have lost sight of the real meaning. Too much Santa
Claus. Too much emphasis on gift-giving. Too much feasting and making merry
and mistletoe and … not enough talk about the baby Jesus!
I’d like to offer a slightly unorthodox version of the real meaning of these
holidays. But first we’ve got to do some straightening out about some facts.
First, Jesus was not born on December 25. Couldn’t have been. There were no
“shepherds watching their flocks by night” in or near Bethlehem in December.
Sheep were taken on a constant journey all year long, spending certain seasons
in certain parts of Israel. In December, the sheep would have been across the
Jordan river (having been taken over the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” a
real river crossing described by a shepherd psalmist named David), miles from
Shepherds would have been in Bethlehem only in the spring.
In fact, the church celebrated Jesus’ birthday in the spring for hundreds of
years, until it saw that the masses had their biggest festival on December 25
and moved his birthday to mid-winter. This wintry season has nothing
whatsoever to do with Jesus the Nazarene.
Second, a mid-winter’s festival on or about December 25 is an ancient event
predating Christianity (and Judaism) by thousands of years. The festival
traditionally featured gift-giving, evergreens, lots of food, circular wreaths,
fires, and (in the north) a flaming yule log plus holly and mistletoe. Sound
The evergreens, holly and mistletoe symbolized life in the midst of winter.
The fires, log and wreaths symbolized the reborn sun at the winter solstice.
The food and gifts were in honor of the bounty to return with spring.
Virtually nothing in the modern-day celebration of Christmas has anything
whatsoever to do with Christianity.
Third, Santa Claus is not Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus pre-dates Nicholas by
thousands of years and was a traditional element of the ancient mid-winter’s
festival. Santa Claus today might be traveling under a bit of an alias, yet he
actually has much more right to this holiday season than does the baby Jesus.
Face it, there is something comforting about Santa Claus. He’s a friendly old
fellow. Does only good things. Lives far away in the northlands. Laughs a
lot. Likes children.
And, as I say, he fits in better at Christmastime than all that stuff about the
Evidence indicates that the Christ-thing is just window-dressing added on to an
ancient festival to make it more palatable to the Church, and that the whole
rigmarole about magi and shepherds and mangers is part of a charade that the
mass of people put up with in order to be able to celebrate Yule as they have
for thousands of years.
I submit that to be true. And that the way we celebrate Yule today is quite
fittingly similar to the way our nordic ancestors celebrated it long before
Christianity arrived on the scene.
Yule, of course, is the time of the winter solstice. The word is derived from
two ancient words: one meaning “to turn” and thus similar to the Latin word
“solstice” (describing the sun’s standing still before it turns). And the
other meaning “feast” and describing the eating that traditionally went on at
the solstice season. (The ancients apparently liked puns as well as we do!
They combined the two words into one season: “jul geol” (pronounced “yule
yule”) would mean “feasting at the solstice.”)
This season traditionally was celebrated by our nordic ancestors like this: A
large log would be burned in the home, a symbol of the sun’s warmth. Candles
would be lit throughout the house, symbolizing the sun’s light. A fir tree
(usually undecorated) would be placed in the house because the evergreen was a
promise of coming spring. Mistletoe, another plant that was green in winter
(and which lived on the sacred oak), also would be brought into the home. It
was believed that enemies meeting beneath a mistletoe-bearing oak tree would
become friends at least for the day, and that couples kissing beneath the
mistletoe would be married within the coming year. Kissing beneath the
mistletoe was a way of announcing your engagement.
Gifts would be given to friends and family. Singing and dancing, usually in
circles — witchcraft style — would be featured at Yule. The word “carol”
derives from a Greek word meaning “to chorus with flutes” (compare
“choreography”) and referred to the popular circle dances of pre-Christian
Drama would be used, and often gifts would be brought by a symbolic figure. In
Russia, children to this day receive gifts from “babushka” or grandmother, a
winter figure, or by Father Winter. Father Christmas was the name used in
England for awhile. Before the Christians, he was called Father Winter in
England as well. The Germans called him Knecht Ruprecht — Knight Robert.
Originally, he was someone quite different!
Gradually the gift-giver in Christianized Europe took on other forms. In
Italy, the gift-giver is called the Christ-child. German children once called
this the Krist-kindel, which became eventually our alternate name for Santa
Claus: Kris Kringle.
Food, of course, was important at Yule. Fruit, candied or preserved, would be
served. (The fruitcake, and plum pudding, are modern equivalents.) A major
meal would be served on the day of winter solstice –with a roast pig or goose
(the turkey, of course, is an American species).
If this all sounds familiar it’s because our culture hasn’t really changed the
holiday much over the years. They’ve added new names and tried to put new
meanings onto things, but really haven’t changed things a lot.
The central figure of our holidays is a person called Santa Claus. Not Jesus.
Not Mary. And certainly not Joseph.
Let’s look at Santa Claus a minute. Nicholas was a bishop in the city of Myra
in Asia Minor. The historical reality is just that. He was supposed to have
been imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian and later released by Constantine.
And he died about the year 350. Around the turn of the first millennium, his
remains were dug up by Italian merchants and taken to the city of Bari in Italy.
Nicholas hated to see women unmarried, so he went around giving money to
unmarried women so they could have a dowry and get married.
That’s it. The myths, of course, are numerous. He is a patron saint of
mariners, of unmarried women, and of children. He was supposed to have given
gifts by throwing money in the windows of homes (always of unmarried women, of
course). The church recognizes his feastday as December 6.
At some point, his name was transferred to the gift-giver of Yule. Dutch
children brought their favorite Yuletide character, “Sinter Klaus,” to New
Holland (later New York) and English children picked up the name. And the
church pretended that “Santa Claus” was the Dutch pronunciation of “Saint
Nicholas.” Not only is that not true, but no Asia Minor bishop would have been
caught dead wearing furs and red clothes and driving a sled pulled by reindeer.
Santa Claus, I’m afraid, is not Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus is someone
altogether different. The common people of medieval times probably thought it
a great joke on the church to call their gift- giver “Saint Nick”! Nick was
the usual name for the consort of the Goddess in pagan Europe (compare our
expression “Old Nick” for the devil.) Nick was one of the names given to the
most popular of the pagan gods.
Before the Aesir — the stern warlike gods of the Norse led by one-eyed Odin —
were worshipped by the peoples of northern Europe, another race of gods were
revered, the Vanir. Later myths place the two races of gods side by side in
the nordic pantheon, though sometimes they seem to be opposed to one another.
The reality is that the Vanir are the original gods worshipped in northern
Europe and the Aesir are the usurpers, the gods worshipped by the warlike
hordes which overran Europe not long after the advent of Jesus.
The Vanir were gentle farming deities, led by Erda, earth, also called The
Goddess. When the warrior classes conquered the aboriginal farmers, Erda was
destroyed, but some of the Vanir, like Niord and Freya, survived. In the place
of a seasonal honoring of earth and sky and weather, was placed a stern,
vengeful set of gods who lived in Valhalla (the Hall of Death) and honored war
and killing and dying.
One other of the Vanir refused to die. The rulers might honor stern Odin (or
Woden, for Wednesday is his), but the common people preferred the kind god
Thor, Thunder. The rulers later transferred the day and the honor of Odin to
Peter — who is worshipped by the church each Wednesday! And the people
transformed Thor into Santa Claus.
Who was Thor? Thor was originally the son of Erda and was associated with the
sun and with fire. As such, he is the same as the druidic “Be al,” and the
Phoenician “Baal” and the Roman Apollo or Mithras. And as such he shares their
birthdate — for the sun is reborn each year at the winter solstice.
Thor was worshipped in every home: his altar was nothing but the chimney
itself! When a person translocated he or she would take the entire fireplace,
or at least a brick from the fireplace, so that Thor would have a place to
live. The first European structure in Iceland was a chimney transferred intact
from Norway as an altar to Thor.
Thor was dressed always in red — the color of fire — with fur boots and hat.
He visited homes by coming down the chimney, of course. He drove a chariot
pulled by two goats (called Cracker and Gnasher). He lived in the Northlands,
in a castle surrounded by icebergs. He was elderly, always jovial and
laughing, and of heavy build. He could be expected to visit between December
21 and 25 and would bring gifts when he came.
Our modern Santa, of course, lives at the North Pole, drives a sled pulled by
reindeer and … that’s really about all the difference I can think of. Two of
Santa’s reindeer, fittingly, are called Donner and Blitzen, and it’s only right
that Thor’s sled should be pulled by thunder and lightening!
Santa Claus is the god Thor. The Dutch name Sinter Klaus was the children’s
title for Thor as the Yuletide gift-giver. It means simply “Klaus of the
cinders.” However much rulers try to substitute the stern Yahwehs and Odins
for the gentler goddess and her children, the people will refuse and will
continue to worship as they feel best.
The church has known this for all time, of course. Much of the history of
Christendom has involved an attempt by the Church to abolish Christmas.
Christmas was completely banned over and over again throughout the Medieval
period, only to be reborn again by popular demand. The Puritans in England
tried to abolish Christmas and faced rioting which virtually destroyed some
Every year I hear people attacking Christmas as being too “commercialized,”
that is, too much Santa and not enough Jesus. That, of course, is hogwash.
Christmas is commercial because we happen to live in a commercial, capitalistic
society. As long as we choose this form of society, don’t knock our most
popular folk holiday as reflecting that form of society.
My feeling, of course, is that there is too much Jesus and not enough Thor —
or Santa, if you will. Some years ago I formed the National “Keep Christ Out
of X-mas” Committee. I might be the most active member but I think it’s
necessary that we remember our true roots as human beings. I’d like us not to
forget the old ways, not to lose touch with our ancient verities, not to fall
from the path of the Goddess.
The solstice, the time of the turning of the sun in its path down toward
darkness, is a time of looking back and of looking forward. It’s a time of
analyzing one’s life and making changes, if necessary.
The solstice is a time of being thankful for life itself. That is the meaning
of the fires and the evergreens. Life is precious and we need a time of year
to express that preciousness. For had the sun not turned each year, there
would be no spring and no life at all. Yuletide is a time of joy and
happiness, a time of honoring the fact of life itself.
And the Yule is a time for reaching out to others. To bring people in to our
homes, to give gifts to children and grownups, to provide aid to those in need.
This again, is an extension of the joy of life itself. And is a reflection of
the concept in ancient goddess-worship that all humankind are of one family.
Of one flesh. Of one kind.
There is much meaning in the festival of the Yule.
The northern people at this season wish “God Jul” or a “Merry Solstice.” The
word “merry” did not originally mean “joyful,” but meant: “peaceful.” In the
carol,”God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” the wish is that they remain peaceful and
That should be our wish this solstice season: may you be peaceful and
contented in the year to come. May you be grateful for continued life and have
good health the year through. May the goodness and kindness personified in the
image of the good god Thor be yours, not just at Yule, but all the year around.
God Jul! And Blessed Be!