The Yule of Our Ancestors
by Wlfgar Greggarson
The Yule tree is probably one of the most recognizable symbols of the Yule
season. For me, the tree always stood for the coming together of family. It has
been one thing that bound my family together, the center focus for the children
eagerly awaiting the present-opening ritual. For the adults, it was a
comfortable place to drink and catch up on old times. The Yule tree was a
much-needed place of peace for my large family. Now, as an adult with a little
more worldly knowledge, I have found a deeper understanding of the Yule tree’s
lore and purpose.
Customarily, the tree was a spruce or other evergreen, which symbolized the
survival of green life through the barren months of winter, the people’s hope
and nature’s promise that the earth would once again spring back to life. It
was a symbol that the cold touch from the god of death would wane with the
rebirth of the newly returned sun. Surely the goddess of life would and could
replenish all of the earth after Old Man Winter had his fun.
In various parts of Europe, fruit-bearing trees were an important feature
during the Yule season. In more natural times, the folk would gather at a large
apple tree on Twelfth Night to hang cider-soaked bread on its branches for the
good spirits and all the fey and thus renew and strengthen the fragile and
cherished relationship with the wee folk.
Yule has also been a time to begin certain harvest magick. In parts of Denmark,
the people would go out and shake the fruit trees, then hang a token of the
Yule season in their branches and pray for a good harvest in the summer. The
fruit tree is also a sign of the triumph of life through death, much as the
evergreen is a symbol of life’s continuance.
Possibly the origin of decorating the Yule tree lies with the people known as
the Lapplanders or, more correctly, the Sami. It is said the Sami would take
small portions of meals eaten on holy days, put them in pieces of birch bark,
then after making ships out of them, complete with sails, hang them on trees
behind their homes as offerings to the J”l (Yule) spirits.
At some point, it became unsafe to observe heathen Yule practices publicly; it
is probable that, at this point, the Yule tree was brought into the home. Pagan
Yule practices, symbolism and holy tokens became enmeshed and hidden within the
Christ birth mythology. Yule’s theme of honoring the sun, newly reborn, and the
triumph of light through darkness is quite an easy target for an opportunistic
There are many other Yule traditions, such as wreath making, cake baking, ale
brewing and so on. Another was wassailing, a kind of ritual toasting and
singing, which comes from the words Wes Hal, meaning to be whole. Wassail the
drink was usually a hot cider mixture drunk from a maple turned bowl.
The actual Yule feast is also a favorite of this hungry heathen. The Yule
season ended on Twelfth Night, which is now celebrated on December 31. In more
ancient times, Mothers Night was observed on December 25 and the festivities
continued until January 5. Mothers Night, the beginning of the Yule season
ritual observance, was practiced on different days at different places and
times and is now celebrated beginning at sunset on December 20. Mothers Night
activities included making wreaths woven with wishes for the coming year, a
rite to bless the family and exchanging gifts.
Wreath making can be a fun activity for a coven, kindred or family. Wreaths can
be made using a circular candle holder that holds four candles. Evergreen
branches, sprigs of holly and nuts are good items to offer as gifts to the Yule
spirits. Being that a gift calls for a gift, we can tie small pieces of red
ribbon onto the wreaths with our requests and wishes for the coming season, to
be answered by the Yule spirits.
The Yule log is probably one of the most important aspects of the Yule time
festivities. The log traditionally was kindled from the burnt remains of the
previous year’s Yule fire. The Yule log symbolizes the light returning to
conquer the darkness. Decoration for your log can be of various evergreens,
holly, mistletoe, nuts, fruit and so forth. There are many traditional ways to
collect your log; what I do, because it seems most practical, is save the
thickest part of my Yule tree when it comes time to throw it away. This I keep
through the year (making sure a well-intentioned friend doesn’t accidentally
throw it in the fireplace – no names mentioned), then I decorate it, put
offerings on it and send it to Valhalla.
The burning of the log can be a fun party for your group or family with a round
of toasting, boasting, bragging or promises for things to come in the next
year. In my opinion, this is best done drinking hot cider, because when mead or
ale is drunk, the toasting, boasting and bragging can get out of hand.
Appropriate items to hang on our trees include cookies in the shape of horses,
swine, birds, cats and trees. Apples if available, most varieties of nuts,
strings of cranberries and popcorn are also nice. I like to use my scroll saw
to cut wood into shapes such as horses, swine or other holy tokens such as
pentagrams, labrys, Thor’s hammers, sun wheels and, one of my favorites, the
Valknut, which is three interlocking triangles, a symbol sacred to Odin.
Other Yule season facts are out there, not far out of reach. We can research
and find these things and revive the practices that touch our heathen hearts.
It is our right and responsibility to revive this old lore and educate others
of the many pagan origins of this very heathen time. I hope this small article
will stir your interest in our pagan heritage.