Breaking up the darkness of midwinter can be very hard to do alone. There’s so little sunshine, and so much wind chill.
Our friends in ancient European times thought so, too. Every year during the winter solstice, they got through the coldest and darkest days with greenery, lights, songs, and merrymaking with friends, coworkers, and family.
We’re of course referring to the midwinter celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule.
(Christmas? That wasn’t til much later!)
For ages, Pagans across Europe and Scandinavia would join together in their communities to mark the winter solstice. On the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, they’d celebrate the journey from darkness back to warm days of light.
Yule is still celebrated around the world, and Saturnalia to a lesser extent- but their traditions have become part of many beloved modern festivities.
Saturnalia: Feasting and Upside-down Social Rules
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman winter solstice tradition honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture and also of time.
The Romans depicted Saturn as holding a scythe for the harvest, so because he was a god who represented the passage of time, this is likely where we get our modern image of Father Time ushering out the old year at the end of December!
Roman social order was turned upside down for everyone on Saturnalia. The masters and their slaves switched places, including clothing. Slaves wore rich cloth and masters dressed in serving garb. Everyone feasted, and masters served food and drink, like wine and mead, to their usual servants.
A Lord of Misrule was chosen when someone in the household found a coin or other trinket baked into a slice of cake- and the new Lord’s duty was to “rule” over the chaos and merriment during the holiday.
People also gave gifts to each other, including candles to represent the light coming in the new year, and small figurines.
Their choice of decor was greenery- to honor Saturn, the coming year’s growth and harvest, and to jolly up the place. People hung up evergreen branches, garlands, and wreaths on temples and homes.
Everyone partied for one and then many days, as the tradition grew over the years!
Nobody worked, and businesses and the government shut down completely.
They had music, and dancing, and generally got so loud that lawyer and writer Pliny the Younger had a soundproof wall installed in his villa so he could keep doing work throughout the celebration. He’s known today for his personal letters depicting Roman society in great detail– but he wasn’t the biggest on parties.
Christmas Traditions from Pagan Origins
Do any of these traditions sound familiar so far? Well, the connection between the Pagan traditions and Christmas are very strong, but it took a while to catch on. Back in 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine believed that the Christian God helped him win a battle. So, Constantine decreed that everybody under Roman rule had to convert to Christianity immediately! This covered huge swaths of the ancient world, in and around Europe.
Now, bear in mind that historians and Biblical scholars commonly believe that Jesus was born in the Spring. But Constantine– and the Christian governments and churches that followed– was possibly trying to make the Pagans more amenable to Christian conversion.
So, they piggybacked Christmas onto the winter celebrations people were already having. Nowadays, many of these Pagan traditions form the basis of very popular Christmas celebrations. Still, there are many unique and specific Yule traditions!
Celebrating Yule Across Europe
Yule, like Saturnalia, was a winter solstice celebration. Farther North, celebrating the turn of the year amongst bare, leafless trees and frosty, frozen fields could be a little glum. So, just like in ancient Rome, people decorated their homes and towns with evergreen branches.
Yule was celebrated originally by Germanic peoples, who lived across Scandinavia and the Northern regions of present-day Germany. The word Yule comes through many pre-Christian cultures, including the Old English geol and the Norse Jól, possibly from Jólnir, one of the names used to reference Odin.
During the winter solstice, Odin took his community of unearthly gods and beings across the skies, which was called The Wild Hunt. There are many interpretations of The Wild Hunt, but no matter what, you had to get out of the way of the gods.
Some say they were taking the souls of the dead off the earth, and you must hide to prevent them from sweeping your living soul away. In that case, you could stay as close to your hearthfires as possible for safety. There were also animal sacrifices you could make to ensure your safety against the whims of the gods.
The Yule Goat
There are some cheerier traditions from Scandinavia, too- in Sweden, they’ve kept up the tradition of the Yule Goat for centuries!
The Yule Goat is a gigantic goat sculpture made of straw. The goat stands out in the middle of town squares every year for the solstice. The tradition may have originated from representing the harvest with the last of the year’s straw, and it may also be a reference to one of the goats that draw’s Thor’s chariot through the sky.
In either case, in Gävle, Sweden, where the most famous Yule Goat sculpture goes up every year, locals have made an additional tradition of trying to set it on fire since the 1960s! The town tries to foil their attempts with gates and guards and such. This isn’t really part of any lore… just people having fun and being scamps.
Across Sweden, though, people celebrate with small Yule Goat ornaments made of straw and tied with red ribbon, and no one tries to see how flammable they are. Yule Goats most often hang out in windows or dangle from evergreen branches.
The Yule Log
A Yule Log is something Westerners have likely heard of- you may know the looping video of a cozy hearth on TV at Christmastime?
Well, there’s definitely a fire at the root of this tradition!
Celtic tribes across Northern Europe and present day Britain and Ireland had seen the sun hidden away in darkness for months. The solution? A big fire needed to blaze on earth in order to coax the sun to return with its warmth and nurturing light.
So, the tribes would build up a massive bonfire, burning entire tree trunks to call to the sun.
It was important to keep the Yule Log(or logs) burning for all 12 days of the solstice festival, because they believed the sun stood still during those days, and must be shown enough light on earth to return again. If the fire went out, it would bring bad luck.
Early Scandinavians did this too during their Yule Festivals, lasting 12 days. Amidst the other
traditions and feasting, they’d sit around the fires and keep watch for the sun during the longest of nights.
Mistletoe at Yule
This tradition comes to us in part from the Celtic Druids, and part from Norse mythology. Mistletoe commonly grows on oak trees, which are sacred in Druidic tradition. They believe that as the year fades in winter, the spirit of the oak tree continues to thrive in the mistletoe. Ancient Celtic Druids harvested the mistletoe with golden sickles and used it both medicinally and ritually.
In Norse societies, mistletoe was associated with Frigga, goddess of marriage, beauty and love. Her beloved son, Baldur, was born at Yule. She rejoiced, but soon found out from the Fates that Baldur was doomed to die young.
Desperate, Frigga went to every part of the world to beg for Baldur’s safety, and all the animals, plants, earth, water, and air swore never to hurt him.
She’d forgotten to ask one plant: lowly mistletoe, which she’d underestimated. Trickster god Loki disguised himself and found out Frigga’s secret to keeping Baldur safe. On hearing that mistletoe was his only weakness, Loki convinced another god to kill Baldur with a sharp mistletoe branch.
Frigga was heartbroken to find her son murdered, and the gods were aghast at the crime.
But Frigga took a sprig of the mistletoe, planted it into Baldur’s heart, and he revived, miraculously. In gratitude to the mistletoe, she declared it a blessed healing plant, and a symbol of love.
Thus, kissing under the mistletoe brings good luck, love, and health!
Wassailing With Mead
It’s still a happy Yuletide tradition across many countries(and really anywhere cold)to drink something hot during the chilly outdoor celebrations. In old Celtic traditions, especially in what is now Britain, it was called Wassailing.
The word “wassail” comes from the old English “waes hael” and the Norse version “ves heil,” which mean to be in good health, or to drink to your health.
The first thing to do with your wassail as you built up your Yule log fire was to bless the log with a splash of the drink. Wassailing also involved gathering with other townsfolk, drinking to everyone’s health. You’d raise your cup, or your bowl, and call, “waes hael!” to another reveler, who’d reply, “drink hael!” and drink up.
Everyone would roam around singing and being rowdy to scare off any evil spirits who may be lurking around.
One of the first forms of a Wassail drink began with heating mead and then mixing in crab apples that had been roasted so they’d burst open in the hot mead and create a tasty, warming alcoholic beverage. The burst apples in the mead were called “lambswool,” which is probably what they looked like floating around on top of it!
Wassail drinks more commonly became a mulled wine or mulled cider with added fruits, spices, or other alcohols, but mead is a fabulous option for drinking to your health.
In the mood to wassail as the folks of yore did, or just to relax as you please this winter? Here’s a simple recipe for hot mulled mead:
Take your favorite mead - we recommend Fafnir, Ladon or Storcie
Ideally you would want to pour it into a heat safe vessel and heat up a mulling iron in the fire.
Add your mulling spices.
Once it is nice and hot place it into the mead. It will flash heat the mead and make it so delicious.
If you don't have the ability to use a mulling iron you can also heat the mead up in at crockpot or sauce pan.
Add the mulling spices and heat.
1 medium orange
1 small lemon
2 cinnamon sticks, crushed
1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
1 tablespoon whole cloves
½ tablespoon cardamom pods
½ tablespoon whole black peppercorns