Wherein we find that, as far as the historical record goes, the oldest recorded details of Western European non-Christian December Solstice celebration beyond the Mediterranean comes not from Germany or Scandinavia, but rather, from ENGLAND
What we DO know from the historical record about what most Neopagans consider the ancient pagan "Yule" does not really come from the Germans or Scandinavians, per se...
Yes, although the familiar word "Yule" comes directly to us from Christian Germanic-customs a couple hundred years old, when we are looking for an ancient source speaking of an active paganism in Western Europe celebrating the December Solstice, we find the word spelled "Yule" does not carry us back that far - - yet of course, we Neopagans tend to use it as a convenient umbrella term for all the pagan-ish non-Bethlehemic customs we co-celebrate with our neighbors to this day alongside their feast of Christmas. So, to Neopagans, the term "Yule" has come to signify everything "pagan" celebrated at the December Solstice, except say, the more Mediterranean Saturnalia observances of the Romans.
So, if there is any significantly "ancient" source material predating the Continental Yule, then where do we look for such information? A variety of sources? Well, actually not.
As it is, it comes mainly from
ONE ancient source,
and it's from
Our source was the Venerable Bede in his de Temporum Ratione ("On the Reckoning of Time"), writing in England around 730 C.E. Earlier than that, we only find early Christian writers' adjurations against Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and their Solstice-feast "Dies Natis Solis Invicti" ("birthday of the Invincible Sun") in various Mediterranean sources.
Therein we find the word Yule looks back to this single English source as citing the oldest surviving predecessor found written in connection with its lore, a feast referred to as "Giuli". Earlier than that there is only one case suggested by a month name: fruma jiuleis in a 4th century Gothic source. Of course there may have been others but simply, none those seem to have survived.
There was pagan celebration related to Giuli which he decribes as allegedly the greatest religious celebration of the pagan year. It was known to them as the "Mothers Night" ("Modranecht", often Germanicised into "Modranicht") he says it was observed on the night preceding the December Solstice; and we should remember that in those days the solstice fell, or was held to have fallen on the 25th :
"...(the month) December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very eve, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is. "mother's night", because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night... - - Nor is it irrelevant if we take the trouble to translate the names of the other months. The months of Giuli derive their name for the day when the Sun turns back [and begins] to increase, because one of them [these months] precedes [this day] and the other follows..."-------------
Wallace, Faith. Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1999.
So, there we have it. Bede specifically tells us that...
1.) previous to the arrival of Christian customs, the "English" had their own important celebration on the same date(s) as Christmas
2.) this celebration Modranecht, (Mothers' Night") was observed by them "all that night"
3.) the night described, was the night preceding December 25th
4.) the 25th of December was held to be the beginning of the heathens' year
5.) December and January were once joined to comprise a single heathen month "Giuli"
6.) "Giuli" also was the heathens' name for the December Solstice, the day the Sun "turns back"
We do get reeeally close to having him say that Giuli, heathen new-year, and the December Solstice were the same date/event. It's almost a safe assumption to make - - yet he doesn't quite specifically say so. What he does say is that they were related at least by sharing the same name. Perhaps a Latin scholar could clarify this.
I don't know about you but I'm willing to make that leap of faith; I just won't continue saying that the historical record (via Bede) factually confirms my assumption.
But nonetheless, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...
Therefore, considering the elements of the seemingly endless debate over the etymology of the word "Yule", upon the above and the following, I personally have come to assume that:
1.) Giuli and Yule are basically different versions of the same word.
2.) Giuli, often suggested as being closely related to the word for "wheel", is less about wheels than what it is that wheels do: they "turn"... (see Bede's suggestion above that Giuli is the word for the December Solstice because it recalls the "turning-back" of the Sun...).
3.) Therefore, I feel it's more than safe to say, specifically on Bede's authority, that Giuli /Yule meant "the Year's Turning"; that-is, the feast of the (Sun's / Year's) Turning (wheeling-on / changing).
On the other hand, the great ancient English celebration of the "Mother's Night", although celebrated in those days on the eve of December 25th - "must" have been an observance of the December Solstice because, since late Roman times, the prevailing Julian Calendar used from Constantinople to Rome to Ireland, had December 25th falling on the date of the solstice (-solstices after all are fixed annual events and calendars are movable imaginary constructs). It was only later when Pope Gregory's team created our marvelous Gregorian Calendar (1582 C.E) did we see the solstice better found happening on the 21st or 22nd, as it does to this day. We need to remember that before Britain was Anglo Saxon, it was very deeply affected by several hundred years of Roman occupation and, like the roads and the architecture they left behind, much of their cultural imprint had been left upon the subsequent generations of the British, including the those who would later be known as the "English".
Here’s a trove of Book of Sassafras
YULETIDE goodies from days of yore…
"Bah- humbug?" - No way...
Yes, Christians should keep
"the Christ in Christmas",
belongs to everybody!
The three faces of the Spirit of the Yule and
the Fractal Mystery of the Twelve Nights
between Solstice Eve and New Years Eve...
The oldest records of Yuletide may be from
England of the Dark Ages, not Germany...
Don't overlook these basic themes when creating
ritual celebrations for the December Solstice...
Yes, it's true, you can hear the year turn...
Looking for D R U I D - ish
Y U L E T I D E T U N E S ?
Check these out:
by Steeleye Span
on their holiday album
Solc/Ex diagram by Earrach
Note / extra: While I was doing my fact-checking for this essay, i discovered
this wonderful page and wanted to share it with you too. Check it out... -e.