Yule: Word History Connections

Yule: Word History Connections

How did we get from a Christian holy day
marking the birth of Christ to a celebration involving evergreen trees,
feasting, and drinking, and reindeer? Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today, we’ll look at the word yule. (light upbeat music) Before it was co-opted to refer to Christmas, Germanic word yule meant a month-long holiday coinciding with the winter solstice, and specifically, a pagan midwinter fertility festival. The word yule comes from the Old English geol, and is related to other Germanic words like the Old Norse jol. We don’t know for sure where
this Germanic root comes from, but it might come from
an Indo-European word, yek, which means to speak, and also gives us words,
such as joke, juggle, and jewel probably through association with festivity. Or it could come from an Indo-European word kwel, which means to turn or move around, and also gives us words
such as wheel and cycle, probably referring to the turn
of the year that happens at yule. From Old Norse jol,
also possibly comes jolly through old French joli,
meaning pretty or cute, unless that comes from
Latin gaudere, to rejoice. Or maybe both sources are at play here. What is certain though is that Clement Clarke Moore famously refers to Santa Claus
as a jolly old elf in the poem commonly known as
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The combination of the words jolly
and elf, also from a Germanic root, starts us down the road
to the Germanic origins of so many modern English
and North American Christmas traditions, all because the early church
decided to mash up Christ’s birthday with midwinter festivals. If you hear the word yule today,
it might be in the phrase yule log, a particularly large log
traditionally saved for burning at Christmas, or a kind of log-shaped Christmas cake. It’s been suggested that the traditional
burning of the yule log has its roots in early Germanic pagan ritual. Trees seem to have been a big deal
in early Germanic belief. For instance, when describing the Germanic people, the Roman historian, Tacitus,
writes about the importance of particular types of wood
and sacred groves as places of worship And the Norse cosmology is based around the image of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. This emphasis on trees,
also important to early Celts, seems to have survived in England from the time of the earliest
Germanic peoples, who settled there. We see this also in the
tradition of Christmas decorations with evergreens such as Christmas
wreaths, mistletoe, and holly, all symbolically appropriate
for a midwinter fertility festival, since evergreens stay green
through the winter months. Christmas trees too seemed
to come from Germanic pagan roots, but aren’t from that continuous English tradition. The Christmas tree was popularized much later in the Victorian period by Prince Albert,
the German-born husband of Queen Victoria, after having been imported a little earlier by other German-born members
of the British royal family. And then there’s the
traditional Christmas ham, a custom that goes back
to the Germanic yule boar. The boar was associated with
the Norse fertility god, Freyr, and it was customary to sacrifice a boar as part of the pagan Yule celebrations
to ensure fertility in the coming year. This is reflected in the song “The Boar’s Head Carol.” Slaughtering most of your livestock before winter, of course, makes good sense, since then you don’t have to feed
them all when food is scarce, and a new set of animals
will be born in the spring. No wonder people often have
a large feast at that time of year, like our over-the-top Christmas dinners. So when you have to loosen your belt
two notches over the holidays, you can blame those old Germanic pagans. Wassailing, now most familiar
in the Christmas carol, “Here We Come A-wassailing,”
also seems to have roots in an Anglo-Saxon fertility tradition. Wassail, the drink, is similar
to mulled ale or apple cider. And wassailing, which is now commonly used to mean the practice of Christmas carol singing from door to door, also refers to
the ritual of singing in apple orchards to scare away evil spirits and ensure
a good apple harvest the next year. The toast itself, wassail,
is from the Anglo-Saxon Wæs þu hæl, meaning be thou hale,
or in other words, be healthy. But getting back to the word yule, Nordic countries have
a tradition of the yule goat, called a julbok in Scandinavian countries, or joulupukki in Finland, which might involve constructing
a large straw goat or dressing up in a goat costume to go
wassailing or give out gifts. Though the modern version of Santa Claus
has largely replaced the goat man, Finns still use the term you joulupukki
to refer to the guy in the red suit. The yule goat may have its origins in the two goats that were said
to pull the chariot of Thor, the north Thunder God. And this may also have inspired
the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh. And remember, two of the reindeer
are named Donner and Blitzen, which mean thunder and lightning. Incidentally, the term julbok or joulupukki is etymologically the same as yule buck,
and buck comes from an old Germanic word for a male deer or goat. Bock is a type of lightly hopped lager beer that is commonly associated with festive occasions, particularly Christmas It’s called Bock, because originally, it comes from a German town called Einbeck, which, when pronounced with a Bavarian accent, sounds like ein bock, meaning a goat. And so, beer labels on bottles of Bock
often feature a picture of a goat, particularly appropriate
given the Christmas association. But getting back to Santa’s reindeer
and Norse mythology, the chief god, Odin, rode his eight-legged horse, called Sleipnir, in the Scandinavian version of The Wild Hunt, a widespread European myth involving ghostly huntsmen on horseback riding wildly through the sky. And this is an element
of the Germanic pagan Yule festival, thus Odin’s eight-legged horse
may have led to Santa’s eight reindeer. And Odin, who is sometimes known
by the name Jolnir,or Yule figure, and often depicted as an old man
with a white beard and hat and cloak may have influenced our modern image
of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, in combination with the old English tradition of Old Father Time, as well as the
Mediterranean gift-giving Saint Nicholas. Yeah, it’s all a little complicated. Okay, back to Odin and The Wild Hunt. In Germanic pagan tradition,
Yule is a time of supernatural occurrences and is connected with the cult
of the dead and ancestor worship. Odin is, appropriately enough, a god of the dead. And this association with Yule,
may to some extent carry over to Christmas in the tradition
of the Christmas ghost story. Think Charles Dickens as
a Christmas carol with its ghosts of Marley and of Christmas past,
present, and yet to come Dickens is almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of Christmas as a major public holiday. Well, along with the popularizer
of the Christmas tree, fellow Victorian Prince Albert. Remember him? Before the Victorian period,
Christmas was in decline and not particularly popular. In fact, in what was
the real war on Christmas, Oliver Cromwell and his
party-pooper Puritan pals, tried to stamp out Christmas, as did many of the early
Puritan colonies in North America, passing laws forbidding its celebration
and requiring shops to stay open, since they saw all that feasting
and drinking and celebrating as rather too pagan. Well, as you can see,
they weren’t wrong. But then, where did Dickens’s version
of snowy festive Christmases come from? Well, oddly enough,
we have a volcano to thank for that. In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia
had an enormous volcanic eruption, which drastically affected world climate, making the following years
remarkably cooler than usual, with the so-called year without a summer in 1816 and at least eight snowy winters
in a row in England, not a common occurrence. As a result, winters for young Charles,
who was born in 1812, involved the iconic white Christmases that set the tone for
his Christmas writings, like a Christmas cow. Another literary outcome
of the Mount Tambora eruption, by the way, was the cool and rainy summer in Switzerland in 1816, where Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and his personal physician,
John Polidori, were holidaying. The miserable weather meant
they stayed indoors a lot, and this led to them having
a ghost story writing contest, which ultimately led to
Mary’s famous novel, Frankenstein. And what could be more Christmas-y
than reanimated corpses, right? Well, oddly enough, maybe
according to Germanic mythology. In Old Norse stories such as Gretta saga, it is said that the activity
of draugr increases around Yule. The draugr were the walking dead,
a bit like ghosts, but more corporeal. So maybe more like zombies. They dwelt in their burial mounds and sometimes came out to
make trouble for the living, attacking their homes and so forth,
particularly at Yule. In another Old Norse saga,
King Hrólfs Saga, one of King Hrólfs’ warriors,
named Bödvar Bjarki, fights off some kind of winged monster, which always attacks
xthe King’s Hall at Yule. This battle, along with a troll fight described in Gretta Saga, are often held up as remarkably close parallels
to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel in the famous Anglo-Saxon poem. Though Grendel’s attacks
aren’t specifically at Yule, as are the other monsters’ attacks,
Grendel does perhaps have a role to play in one of our modern Christmas stories, Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. like the Old Norse monsters,
The Grinch comes to the settlement at Christmas/Yule. Like Grendel and the Old Norse
monsters, he comes at night. And the attacks of both the Grinch
and Grendel are triggered by the sound of people singing and happily celebrating in their community, while the Grinch/Grendel is left friendless, out in the cold wilderness. Even their names, Grinch and Grendel, sound similar, so perhaps Dr. Seuss
was inspired by the figure of Grendel as well as by Dickens’s
Christmas-hating character, Scrooge in creating his iconic Grinch. So as we approach the season of Yule, don’t be a grinch, or Scrooge, or a Grendel,
and join me in raising a cup of wassail or a bottle of Bock to the fascinating
origins of the coming holiday. I’ll be back soon with more etymological explorations
and cultural connections, so please subscribe to this channel. You can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. If you have comments or questions,
I’m @alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comments section. You can also read more of my thoughts at my blog at alliterative.net.

25 thoughts on “Yule: Word History Connections

  1. Now this is one of the most lively and intriguing of them all! Goats and Zombies and Volcanoes — in Chistmas…??! Love it.

  2. Trying to figure out why my own account says I haven't seen this, when I have (same is true of some others). It is, of course, because I saw it on other computers and accounts! Did not however skip through it, but enjoyed the re-visit. I always pick up more the second time around.

  3. The scandinavian (swedish) word "Julbok" means "Christmas book". The correct spelling is "Julbock". "Bock" being the same word as the english "buck". Great video, though!

  4. Christmas has little to do with Christ, and is from pagan origin. That's why Jehovah’s Witnesses don't participate on this festivity.

  5. If you guys want to support Alliterative then do not skip his ads. He gets paid for people watching them! Just use the time to make some tea/coffee or something and let it run to the end!

  6. Fantastic video, as usual! I have a side note about *jehwla , *yek- and *i̯ek (Pokorny 503). Their meaning hangs strongly together with "feast of midwinter", "Yule-feast" or "Julfest" in north German. The words jōl and jól may have a relation to "good" or "bon" in French or "gut" in German, which means the same (> have a look at "jolly" Fr. for "bonny" (>nice/pretty). XD
    Please think about the French term "fête de Noël" too! If we have a closer look at the word "Noël", we can perfectly see the similarities to "joel"/"Yule"/"joul"/"jul" . XD
    Another link could lead to the old Greek word ""λαπ", which stands for "(gleamy, shining) > λαμπω (to gleam, shine) > λάμπας (lamp. literally "shiner, gleamer"). And here there might be a link to the celebrations of "Hanukkah" too. I say this, because "Hanukkah" is the Jewish "feast of the lights! XD As I know is Hanukkah also known as "feast of initiation". "Christmas" in German "Weihnachten" means in a direct translation "night of initiation". XD
    Have a look at the Jewish candlestick. Did this remind you to something? This candlestick is called "Menorah" (Temple), but looks with its seven, eight or nine places (> 8 resp. 9 candeled "Menorahs" are called a "Chanukkiya") for placing the candles on the branches, like on a tree (picture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menorah_(Temple)#/media/File:Fray_Juan_Ricci,_Menorah.jpg ) > link to Chistmas tree > candles.^^ Also think about the meaning of light > being enlighted /illuminated >> be aware of / be knowledged. And for speaking you need to have knowledge.
    And as mentioned in the video, it has a relation to "speak"/"say" too. Also think about the term "yodeling" > "jodeln" in German. XD This also hangs together with "jutze"/"juchtze" (Swiss Ger.), "jauchzen" standard German, which stands in that context for "cheer", "crow", "whoop", "rejoice", "exult" or "shout for joy", but sometimes also "to sing" in English. I think the next word to it in German is "johlen", which means to "yell", "brawl", "hoot", "howl" or "jeer" (Source: dict.cc and dict.leo.org ).
    In German , we need the word "jaulen" for "yelp", the sound of wolfs, foxes and dogs.^^ But there is also an other link to "rebirth". Below, I show up a listing of the different names of the "Yule-feast", in different languages. The source of the list is: http://www.wortbedeutung.info/Julfest/ But I worked a little bit on it. XP

    Danish/Dänisch: jul
    English/Englisch: yule
    Estonian/Estnisch:: jõul
    Finnish/Finnisch: joulu
    Faroese/Färöisch: jól
    French/Französisch: fête de Noël
    Friesian (west and north)/Friesisch (West-) (Nord-): 1) jül
    German/Deutsch: Julfest
    Icelandic/Isländisch: jól
    Italian/Italienisch: Yule
    Jewish/Jüdisch: Hanukkah / Chanukka
    Japanese/Japanisch: ユール (yūru)
    Nynorsk/Nynorsk: jul, jol
    Dutch/Niederländisch: joelfeest
    Norwegian/Norwegisch: jul
    Portugese/Portugiesisch: Yule
    Swedish/Schwedisch: julfest, jul

    © by Patric Hausammann

    P.S.: Happy Yule!

  7. Me: I'm not asking you to celebrate Yule, but since I'm pagan can we at least slightly acknowledge it?
    Parents: Merry Christmas!!! Time to eat ham and decorate a tree and have a nice fire and exchange gifts! Let's tell stories about Santa and his reindeer! Deck the halls with boughs of holly…!

  8. In southern Germany and Austria we have some interesting traditions referring to the wild hunt with the Perchten. People dressed as them hunt and haunt through the streets during the night. Among the Perchten you can find someone dressed as the "Habergoaß" literally meaning "buck-goat". Haber/Häberling is an old synonym to "Bock" in German, similar to old Nordic "hafr". This creature has supposedly a connection to the Julbock as its travelling companions also are supposed to being connected with the wild hunt.

  9. We still use these words: "Juletider" = "Yuletide" = xmas time
    We feast on pig. We drink yule beer. And we feast on multiple days during "juletiden"/xmas time.
    We have the straw goat as decoration.
    I think this feast was out of necessity, to get people through the cold dark winter, and to celebrate "the return of the sun" ( winter solstice) .
    In the Norse mythology, the end of times starts with a 1000 year of winter.. "Ragnarok", and getting full and drunk during the bleakest of winter days is a nice way to "get warm".

  10. Happy Yule in Germania and Norse Vikings to the North.

    Happy Saturnalia to the South In Italy and Rome. Peache and Noel Noel Noel

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