There are only 17 more sleeps until Christmas so it’s time to start feeling festive with some seasonal word stories. The first interesting one I came across was Yule. We’ve all heard of yuletide and everyone likes the chocolaty goodness of a Yule log but does anyone really know what Yule itself is? Or why we celebrate with a log-shaped cake?
Unsurprisingly, it’s a fairly old word. It comes from Old Norse jol (plural) which entered Old English as geol. Yule was originally a pre-Christianity midwinter festival period which was connected to the Norse God Odin and celebrated by the Germanic peoples. In fact, in Old Norse, often the word was synonymous with feast. The earliest citations are found in the ancient month names Ærra Jéola ‘Before Yule’ and Æftera Jéola ‘After Yule’ which probably correspond to December and January. Bede, the man who provided the first historical accounts of the English, in the eighth century, even wrote about geola or giuli in his comments on the Anglo-Saxon calendar.
Ancient yule celebrations were not unlike our own: a feast, toasts, visiting the temple, and drinking lots of ale. Except for the custom of making animal sacrifices to the gods before serving the roast. That one didn’t quite stand the test of time.
As Britain converted to Christianity and since both festivals took place at around the same time, Yule was eventually absorbed into Christmas and the word fell into general disuse by the eleventh century. Oddly, the term stuck around in the Northeast, possibly because this was the area of Danish settlement.
The term was then revived by 19th century writers referring nostalgically to life in ‘Merrie England’, a supposedly idyllic and truly ‘English’ pastoral way of life which was supposedly led between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution.
The Yule log also allegedly originates from Germanic paganism although no one knows for sure since the first attestation comes from the 1720s. However, the original Yule log was not, of course, a chocolaty treat but a lump of wood. Traditionally, the large Yule log would be cut and dragged home while people walked alongside and sang songs. It would sometimes be decorated with evergreens and then it would be placed onto a fire which had been started using the remnants of the previous year’s log. This would bring prosperity and protection from evil and by keeping the log through the year, its protection lasted through the year too. The log would be burned for at least twelve hours and sometimes up to twelve days. Then the remaining ashes would be sprinkled onto the fields to bring fertility.
The modern-day Yule log or bûche de Noël is a chocolate roulade decorated to look like a log and the name was transferred to the cake as the log-burning custom was abandoned, probably in the first half of the 20th century. The cake was invented in France but no-one knows exactly when or by whom.
Another interesting spin-off of the original jol is actually another Christmassy word although it hasn’t developed so directly. Jol was loaned from Old Norse into Old French as jolif, meaning ‘festive, merry, amorous, pretty’ which then evolved into Modern French as joli, ‘pretty, nice’, but into English as jolly. So here’s to a jolly Yule!