Yule falls every year essentially on the winter solstice. The evening before would technically begin Yule as time was reckoned differently on the evenings and not on the mornings as can be seen on holdovers like “Christmas eve”. Yule proper would then encompass the entire night before and day of. While this is the official beginning to the celebration, it could last as long as you can manage (12 days according to the laws of Alfred and 3 days according to the Saga of Hákon the Good). There are no real hard rules on this but you can celebrate as little or as much as you care to. (In my house we’ll be celebrating the nine nights before and three nights after to more or less accommodate both.)
As for hard evidence about the ancient traeditions of Yule? We have very little primary source material. Yet we do know that Yule fell on the Winter Solstice (Thank you Venerable Bede for your Reckoning of Time) and that it was a multi-day affair. In particular Bede mentions that Yule is properly the day that the sun turns back and begins to increase which is potentially the day of the solstice or the day after the solstice depending on your reading but either way the evening of the solstice is a safe bet. Yet the verdict is out as to if the celebrations should have been before or after as Alfred doesn’t give that direction and Hakon has his days off such that it makes it difficult to reckon properly. Generally we know just enough to know it was a very important holiday.
So are we left out in the cold with no information then? No, not at all. The Christians did a very good job of preserving our holidays and celebrations. They passed these traditions down, stripped of their religious significance to the modern times. Those folk traditions are many and varied. I’ll touch on a few.
What about Santa? Well we all know he’s definitely a heathen holdover, but who is he? Which god is most involved in Yule? Most will tell you that the answer to that is obviously Woden but in reality it is not so cut and dried. Different Yule customs point to the possibility of Woden, Thunor, or Ing being involved in the Yule season.
The case for Woden:
The eight legged horse and the eight reindeer… the stockings and the old custom of leaving boots outside with hay… the black helpers (Sinterklaas version) and Hyge and Myne (Hugin and Munin)… the evidence piles up. The beardy guy who transverses the world through magical means is in all likelihood a holdover from beliefs about Woden. They just modernly neglect to remember the reason why he’s flying around, the Wild Hunt; which completely legitimizes the fear all those children have of the man in the red suit.
The case for Thunor:
The Yule goat is a thing. A pretty ancient thing that remains popular even today in certain places. Yet its pagan origins likely link back to the god riding the goat-chariot, Thunor. The Yule goat brings presents or demands presents depending on the tradition. This even shows up in the Slavic heathen version of Yule, Koliada. Chances are that most demonized portrayals of goat things during this season are also related somehow.
The case for Ing:
That holiday ham you’re so fond of? It has its roots in pagan rituals because of the Sonargöltr which was basically a boar upon whose bristles Yule oaths were sworn. The boar in this case links back directly to Ing.
So which of these guys had a role in Yule? All of them, depending on local beliefs. Heathenry is regional and not at all standardized in this regard. That means it’s up to you which one you use in your celebrations.
Even something as Christian as Advent. How Christian is it? Jesus was not even born near the 25th. Also Advent picked up a lot of local practices and is not something that goes back to Christianity’s origins. The oldest Christian tradition was to fast, and this was the local Roman response, but as Advent spead outward it picked up strange other traditions like some involving burning bales of straw in the fields or toting around effigies and panhandling. These certainly were not Christian practices, so why do they do it? There’s no real telling for certain but it was probably pagan practices that were morphed into a form tolerable under Christianity.
This is not uncommon. Think of it like this – if the Christians weren’t doing it before they moved into an area and suddenly start doing something then it’s probably a pagan practice. This means that the entire Christmas season with the exception of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and all that jazz is lifted from paganism. Santa, the tree, the Yule log, the Christmas ham, and all the rest of it – those are pagan.
In all honesty, Yule is so intermingled with the western idea of Christmas that if you celebrate Yule it will seem very familiar to anyone you might invite over. Yule was appropriated by Christianity ages ago and they do a good job of celebrating it in pretty pagan ways.
One thing of note worth elaborating on though: the night of the 20th is Mother’s Night (Modraniht). This night is sacred and should be devoted to the honoring of your female ancestors and motherly goddesses. This was the night before the day of Yule, in this case the evening of Yule before the proper day of Yule. Take the time to honor your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother (collectively, your Modru) as well as known and unknown female Ides (Disir) from ages past. Devote time to be spent in reflection and prayer that night toward your female ancestors and to the goddesses. Maybe even take the opportunity to do some fibercrafts as the Wyrde (Norns) would be of great importance in the night’s feeling. It is a subdued night, not boisterous like Yule, but instead reverent and contemplative.
So, what can we do to celebrate Yule?
– leading up to Yule, the night before you could celebrate Modraniht (Mother’s night)
– give small presents on each of the days you celebrate Yule (12? 3? You choose)
– drink mulled cider, mulled wine, or mead
– find an apple tree and actually go wassailing
– throw a party for your friends on the 21st and introduce them to Yule
– offer in a ritual
– have a bonfire shaped like a goat if you care to, or just a bonfire, or burn hay in the field to get rid of evil wights that destroy harvest
– have a Yule log or a tree for inside
– enjoy your friends and family
– some folks do sunwait, it’s like advent candles but pagan.
– sing, be merry, eat, offer, pray, fill your day and night with joy
– If you have kids and were considering stockings you could leave boots filled with hay outside for Woden to feed his steed and fill them up afterwards with doodads. (This is an old equivalent to stockings but more pagan feeling, although there’s no proof it’s actually any more pagan.)
– It’s also a wonderful time for story telling about the gods and goddesses.