In Defense of a December Yule

Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathen basics, Heathen worship, Heathenry, Reconstruction

Yule is one of our holiest tides and indeed our most well known holiday. It is also a holiday that almost all Heathens celebrate. Given its relative importance, it is a valid question to ask: When should one celebrate Yule? But that question is not as cut and dry as it might seem.

I have said before that as a general rule, the right date to observe any Heathen holiday is the day that is best for you. It is the act of celebration and worship that is more important than any date on the calendar or position of any celestial body. The mindset that the ancient ways are the only appropriate ways is a toxic one. Also toxic is the idea that there is only one correct way of doing Heathenry. There are a number of factors that can determine whether a specific date is right for you to celebrate any given holiday. Historical accuracy is only one among many. History gets a say, not a veto, after all.

And yet, it would seem that every December there is this special breed of Heathen which will crop up in most any and every online Heathen space and target anyone who mentions celebrating Yule on the solstice. Though these Heathens are typically Old Saxon Heathens, they will quote Norse sources in an attempt to prove to you that Yule should be celebrated mid January and any other date is wrong.

It's when the ancient Germanic peoples observed Yule, before Hakon the Good changed it to the Solstice! This is their claim. And since it's a historical claim, it's open to scrutiny. So how about we investigate this historical claim to determine its accuracy? (For a more entertaining look at this type of Heathen, see Wind in the Worldtree's The Grump That Stole Yule.)

First, let's start with the Anglo-Saxon context. It is clear from Anglo-Saxon sources that Yule was on the Solstice. Bede, the eighth century author of The Reckoning of Time, tells us:

The months of Giuli [Yule] derive their name from the day when the Sun turns back [and begins] to increase, because one of [these months] precedes [this day] and the other follows.

The Reckoning of Time, chapter 15

This tells us not only that Yule is on the Solstice, but that it is located between the new moons of Ærra Geola and Æfterra Geola. The Old English Martyrology also attests to this fact. In support of this conclusion, we have all the Yuletide customs and traditions of the Anglo-Saxons' descendants happening in the latter half of December rather than in mid January.

So what about other branches of Heathenry? Well, the opponents of the December Yule will point to the Norse Saga of Hakon the Good. It states:

He [Hakon the Good] made a law that the festival of Yule should begin at the same time as Christian people held it, and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted.  Before him, the beginning of Yule, or the slaughter night, was the night of mid-winter (Dec. 14), and Yule was kept for three days thereafter.

Hakon the Good

Notice that it identifies the original Yule as Midwinter. The translator of this passage helpfully identifies this as December 14. Why? Well, in the middle ages when the Eddas and the Sagas were recorded, the winter solstice was on December 14-15. I know this goes against the common misconception that the winter solstice in the Middle Ages was December 25, but you can see the evidence for it here: (We will address this common misconception in more detail in an upcoming blog post, in which it will be more consequential.)

The argument that Yule should be on the full moon of January comes from redefining Midwinter to mean the exact middle of winter, that is three months exactly from the start of winter (the full moon of October), since there's six months of winter. As logical as this may appear, Midwinter in Germanic cultures predominantly was defined as the winter solstice, just as midsummer was generally defined as the summer solstice. When Hakon the Good moved Yule from Midwinter to December 25, he was in fact moving it forward a week and a half from the Solstice (December 15/16, evidence here) to December 25.

For further evidence of this timing for Yule, we can look at the Old Icelandic month of Ýlir, which means "Yule Month". It began mid November and ran to the Solstice in mid-December. The Old Gothic month Fruma jiuleis means "Before Yule", and also began in mid November and ran to just before Yule. We can also recall the Anglo-Saxon months of Ærra Ġeola and Æfterra Ġeola, the first of which begins the new moon before the Solstice, and the other begins the new moon after the Solstice.

There are many reasons to celebrate Yule in January. Perhaps it is more convenient for you after the busy Christmas season is over. Perhaps it feels more appropriate because it feels more like winter in your locale than it does in December. Maybe your inhired/kindred celebrates it in January. While there are many reasons to celebrate Yule in January, historical authenticity isn't one of them. So I wish everyone a happy, joyous, and blessed Yuletide season, regardless of when you celebrate it. And when you see the haters of the Solstice engaging in their attacks, just remember: Their argument doesn't hold water any better than a cheesecloth can.