Yule by Any Other Name

Webster’s Dictionary defines Yule as: the feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ. Many other dictionary sources cite similar definitions. So, at first glance, Yule doesn’t seem like it would be a holiday for Pagans to celebrate. After all, think of all the Christmas carols that speak of celebrating yuletide, and bringing Yule cheer!

However, Yule wasn’t always associated with Christmas, and the birth of Christ. Prior to the birth of Christ and the development of the Christian religion, many native peoples celebrated a winter holiday that occurred on or near the winter solstice. The winter solstice happens on or around December 21 (20-22) each year. The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year. Most ancient European peoples celebrated this holiday with festivals, each similar to one another, but very different.

The most well-known Pagan winter festival is the festival of Saturnalia- the birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The Romans celebrated this festival with friends and family in homes decked with laurel and holly. Evergreen boughs were brought into the home and decorated temples as a sign of the cycle of life. No criminals were executed during this time, and schools were closed, and the people rested. Good luck gifts were exchanged with friends and family, and the season was a time of goodwill. Parades and processions through the street were very common during Saturnalia.

In the area of Scandinavia, it would be dark for days during the winter months. During this darkness, scouts would be sent to the mountain tops to watch for any sign of the rising sun. Many people would light candles in their windows to help encourage the sun to return. Once the sun returned, the scouts would return to the villages with the good news. A great festival would be held. This festival would be called Yuletide and people would celebrate with bonfires and feast around the Yule log.

The people in the Mesopotamian area celebrated a new year’s festival around the Winter Solstice called Zagmuk. The peoples of Mesopotamia believed in many gods, but above all, they worshipped a chief god, Marduk. They believed that Marduk would do battle with the demons of chaos. During Zagmuk, the people planned to assist Marduk. According to tradition, during this 12 day festival, the King is supposed to die as a sacrifice, and return to fight alongside Marduk. However, instead of the king actually dying, the people would dress up a criminal and treat him as royalty for a day. Then, the criminal was slain, sparing the king, but yet aiding Marduk in his fight.

The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated their festival of Sacaea. Their festival was very similar to Zagmuk. One interesting highlight of Sacaea is that during the festival, masters and slaves would change places. Also celebrating a similar holiday were the Greeks, who made sacrifices to aid the God Kronos, who would be gearing up for battle against Zeus and his Titans.

For many years, Christmas was celebrated on various dates from December to April. In 350 CE, Pope Julius I decreed that the official date of Christ’s birth was December 25. Many scholars disagree, but since 350 CE, Christmas has been celebrated on that date. Even though most people no longer practice the ancient Pagan festivals, the winter traditions of olde are still evident and practiced each holiday season. Next time you see a Christmas tree, a pile of presents, or lit candles in a window, know that these traditions transcend centuries of celebrations.


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