Yule & Its Etymological Associations
Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time” or “Yule season”) is a winter festival historically observed by the Germanic peoples. The earliest references to it are in the form of month names, where the Yule-tide period lasts somewhere around two months, falling along the end of the modern calendar year between what is now mid-November and early January.
Yule is attested early in the history of the Germanic peoples; from the 4th-century Gothic language it appears in the month name fruma jiuleis, and, in the 8th century, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included the months geola or giuli corresponding to either modern December or December and January. Scholars have connected the original celebrations of Yule to the Wild Hunt, the Norse god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modranicht, meaning “Night of the Mothers” or “Mothers’ Night.” It was an event held at what is now Christmas Eve by the Anglo-Saxon pagans.
While the Old Norse month name ýlir is similarly attested, the Old Norse corpus also contains numerous references to an event by the Old Norse form of the name, jól. In chapter 55 of the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál, different names for the gods are given; one is “Yule-beings.” A work by the skald (scholar) Eyvindr skáldaspillir that uses the term is then quoted: “again we have produced Yule-being’s feast [mead of poetry], our rulers’ eulogy, like a bridge of masonry.” In addition, one of the numerous names of Odin is Jólnir, referring to the event.
Later departing from its pagan roots, Yule underwent Christianized reformulation, resulting in the term Christmastide. Some present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others may have connections to older pagan Yule traditions. Terms with an etymological equivalent to Yule are still used in Nordic countries and Estonia to describe Christmas and other festivals occurring during the winter holiday season. Today, Yule is celebrated in various forms of Neopaganism.
Yule is the modern version of the Old English words ġēol or ġēohol and ġēola or ġēoli, with the former indicating the 12-day festival of “Yule” (later: “Christmastide”) and the latter indicating the month of “Yule,” whereby ǣrra ġēola referred to the period before the Yule festival (December) and æftera ġēola referred to the period after Yule (January). Both words are thought to be derived from Common Germanic jehwlą, and are cognate with Gothic jiuleis; Old Norse, Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian Nynorsk jól, jol, ýlir; Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian Bokmål jul. The etymological pedigree of the word remains uncertain, though numerous speculative attempts have been made to find Indo-European cognates outside the Germanic group, too. The noun Yuletide is first attested from around 1475.
The word is conjectured in an explicitly pre-Christian context primarily in Old Norse. Among many others, the long-bearded god Odin bears the name Jólnir (“the Yule one”). In Ágrip, written in the 12th century, Christmas, jól is interpreted as coming from one of Odin’s names, Jólni(r). In poetic language, a plural form (Old Norse jóln) may also refer to the gods collectively. In Old Norse poetry, the word is found as a term for ‘feast’, e.g. hugins jól (→ “a raven’s feast”).