Why is Yule Also Called Christmas?

Photo by The Witches Sabbat

Most years the holiday season tends to sneak up on us — it seems we’ve just packed away the Halloween costumes when it’s time to start decking those damn halls.

In recent years, the end-of-year hustle and bustle includes people hotly debating the correctness of wishing each other a Merry Christmas as opposed to Happy Holidays or other more generic, less Christian-oriented names for the mid-winter holiday, such as the Winter Solstice or Yule. How one defines the late-December holiday has (stupidly) become a hot-button political statement.

Pitching a tantrum over a coffee cup. C’mon people. Get a grip.

Those asserting the holiday cannot be rightly known as anything other than Christmas often claim to have history and tradition on their side. This may be true beginning with the globalization of Christianity. But humankind was celebrating the return of the sun (or “son”) long before the advent of Jesus of Nazareth.

Historically, it’s more a question of why Yule is also called Christmas, instead of the other way around. A staggering number of traditions that are now associated with Christmas are actually much older Pagan practices, used by ancient northern Europeans to commemorate the yearly return of the sun.

Although largely unacknowledged today, the Pagan origins of Christmas were a sore point for many Protestant sects during and after the Reformation. The celebration of Christmas with all its trappings was all but abandoned by numerous denominations. Groups such as the Puritans were horrified by the Pagan associations of Christmas and downplayed its importance in their liturgical calendars for hundreds of years.

Today, most Christians aren’t even aware that most of their beloved Christmas traditions, such as Christmas trees, Yule logs, wassailing, and mistletoe were actually swiped from earlier Pagan religions. Even Santa Claus is believed to be an incarnation of the Norse god, Odin.

The early fathers of the Catholic Church were no dummies. They realized the quickest, most effective way to get folks on board with Christianity was to incorporate the traditions and festivals of the Old worship into the New. Then as now, most people resist change, so allowing the common rabble to keep their familiar rituals made it much easier to indoctrinate them to the worship of Jesus.

The time around the winter solstice had always been crucial for our ancestors whose entire existence revolved around the growing cycles of the year. Winter meant the leanest time of year for most, but that the fact that the sun grew stronger every day from the solstice, and the promise of spring, gave people hope and comfort during the long, dark winter months.

Our agriculturally-driven forefathers saw the return of the light as a reason to celebrate, and celebrate they did. The solstice was an occasion marked by feasting, drinking, gift giving, and much merriment.

The word “Yule” itself is believed to be a derivative of an ancient Scandinavian turn of phrase meaning “wheel,” although the precise etymology is still a topic for modern debate. The connotations associated with “wheel” seem rather apt for the origin of the word Yule, especially when one considers that Yule was, and is, an important milestone in our yearly journey around the sun, or “wheel” of the year. Many cultures, both old and new, chose this time to celebrate the arrival of a new year.

Evergreens have always been an important symbolic element of Yuletide, which was later incorporated into Christmas traditions. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are all familiar Christmas greenery that has been part of Pagan solstice celebrations in Europe for thousands of years. Evergreens are potent reminders of immortality, a perfect complement to the sun that is reborn every year at the end of December.

A myth spanning back through the millennia is the story of the Holly King, representing the waning year, and the Oak King, representing the waxing year, who battle each other for dominance annually on the summer and winter solstices. This story may harken back to a time when young males were sacrificed to appease the deities that controlled the changing seasons.

It’s obvious that Jesus of Nazareth, as the god Mithras before him, is the latest in a long line of sacrificed savior-gods who are born at the solstice, and worshiped as bringers of light — and hope.

Many of the Yuletide traditions that became Christmas traditions trace their origins back to an even older mid-winter festival — the Roman holiday called Saturnalia. This festival, which went from December 12- 17, was a time when slaves were waited on by their masters, candles blazed to encourage the rebirth of the sun, and gifts were exchanged amidst the revelry and feasting. Wealthy nobles gave money and food to those less fortunate, and some scholars speculate that this was a precursor of caroling, as those going door-to-door came to expect the gift of a few coins in return for their song.

The celebration of Christmas is simply the latest in a long line of mid-winter holidays celebrating the rebirth of a sacrificed deity. The names may have changed, but the fundamental myth has remained constant back into the mists of pre-history. Some may see this as blasphemous, while others derive comfort from the knowledge that humankind has been remarkably consistent with the basics of its belief systems, if not the particulars.

So, no matter what you call the holiday you celebrate in late December, you are part of an endless chain of humans who have been compelled to mark the return of the sun every year with feasting and celebration. The compulsion to do so has probably always been a part of life on this planet and will likely endure in one form or another until we completely trash the place.

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is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

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