Monday, 21 December 2009


From the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore:

This word, in various spellings, means a loosely defined midwinter period (not a single day) in the early languages of most Germanic and Scandinavian countries. Bede, writing of pagan England, mentions two months, ‘early Yule’ and ‘later Yule’, corresponding to Roman December and January; after the Conversion, ‘Yule’ was narrowed to mean either the Nativity (25 December), or the twelve days of festivity beginning on this date. The word Christmas replaced ‘Yule’ in most of England in the 11th century, but not in north-eastern areas of Danish settlement, where it survived strongly till modern times as the normal dialect term for Christmas. Nineteenth-century writers took up the word as a way of denoting the ‘Christmas of olden times’, with its lavish food and secular jollity, situated in a largely invented ‘Merrie England’.

The medieval liking for pageantry and symbolism sometimes led to Yule being impersonated (cf. Father Christmas). In 1572 the Archbishop of York ordered the Mayor and Aldermen to suppress an annual parade on St Thomas’s Day (21 December) called ‘The Riding of Yule and his Wife’, because it drew ‘great concourses of people’ away from church-going, and involved disguising. The man representing Yule carried a shoulder of lamb and a large cake of fine bread; he was accompanied by his ‘wife’, carrying a distaff, and by attendants who threw nuts to the crowd.

The Yule Log (or Clog, or Christmas Block) is mentioned in folklore collections from most parts of England, but especially the West Country and the North. It would be the largest piece of wood which could fit on the family hearth, and was usually brought in on Christmas Eve with some ceremony, and put on the fire that evening; many writers, including Herrick, say it was kindled with a fragment kept from the previous year’s log. It was also generally believed that it would be very unlucky for the family if the log was allowed to go out on Christmas Day. It is not clear when the custom arose, since the first definite references are only from the 17th century, for example Aubrey’s “In the West-riding of Yorkshire on Christmas Eve at night they bring in a large Yule-log, or Christmas block, and set it on fire and lap their Christmas ale and sing ‘Yule, Yule, a pack of new cards and a Christmas stool’”.

Victorian illustrations of a medieval Christmas often show several men hauling huge trees or stumps in with ropes, but the antiquity of the word ‘Yule’ cannot prove the custom’s age. Less well known is the custom of lighting a Yule candle on Christmas Eve, first recorded by this name in 1817. These were taller than usual candles (‘half a yard in length’), and there was a tradition of chandlers and grocers giving them to their regular customers. The custom is reported chiefly from the north of the country, but its wider range is indicated by Parson Woodeforde’s diary entries, in Norfolk, such as: ‘I lighted my large wax-candle being Xmas day during tea-time this afternoon for abt. an hour’ (25 December 1790). The pre-Reformation Church made a particular feature of candles at Christmas, and strong connections between the season and candles persist to this day. It was thought unlucky to light the Yule candle before dusk on Christmas Eve, and once alight it was not moved. As with the log, a small piece was kept ‘for luck’ in the coming year.

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