As many are of you are already aware, today is popularly regarded as Yule Day, while tonight is Yule Night. Yet, although I too regard this day as the ‘New’ Yule, I must inform you all that this is not truthful! Long ago, Yule was likely celebrated on the first full moon after the first new moon after the winter solstice (most scholars agree on mid-January) — a mouthful, indeed!1 Many holidays have now been aligned as one: the Old Yule was aligned with Christmas, and a New Yule, in an attempt to recover the Old Heathen holiday, has since been aligned with the winter solstice. It is all quite a complicated mess, if you ask me! But while it is fine that we celebrate a New Yule, we should all be kept aware of the Old Yule and when it was originally celebrated. For this, allow me to tell you all a brief portion from the story of King Hakon the Good, who complicated Yule through his attempts to find a common ground between Heathens and Christians:
When Hakon was the king of Norway, the land was torn between the Old Ways and the New. Christians and Heathens dwelled together, and this created tension between folk. But King Hakon was a kindhearted man (or so our sources say). He did not intend to force folk to convert to Christianity, although he was one himself. Instead, he sought to persuade them peacefully. This was quite difficult for him though, for there were many powerful chieftains in Norway who still honored the Old Ways. Such ways were still popular among ordinary folk as well. Thus, the king was left with a troublesome situation. Christianity had begun to seep into his land, and this would not be stopped. He had to mend this tear before greater turmoil could plague his peace.
For quite some time, King Hakon observed Christianity in secrecy, observing Sundays and Friday fasts. But this would not last, for he could not rule a land that he had to hide from. And so he passed laws that attempted to bring the Old Ways closer to the New. The first step in this endeavor was moving the observance of Yule, which was around January 12th that year, to the same time when Christians observed Christmas. He also made it law that folk were to have a certain measure of ale during these festivities, which has been measured to around 16 liters per person, or else pay a fine. Both holidays then were to last as long as the ale did. Yule, however, used to be celebrated for three nights! Whether or not the ale could last three nights is difficult to say. But all of this was before King Hakon publicly declared that he intended to convert the folk of Norway to Christianity.
By bringing the two holidays closer, King Hakon hoped to gradually transition Heathens into the arms of Christianity. It was not long after these changes, after all, that King Hakon moved to gain support from other great chieftains who had persuaded to Christianity. Once he had their support, he made his intentions public. He went to Thrandheim to preach Christianity to the farmers, but their response was to take this matter to another assembly, the Frostathing. The story goes on about King Hakon’s continued negotiations and conflicts with Heathens, but that is a story for another time.2
While this tale does not tell us much about Yule itself, it certainly gives us an idea of how the time to celebrate Yule became so clouded. King Hakon the Good moved Yule to align it with Christmas, which was all a part of his plan to convert the common folk to the New Ways. While his intentions seemed well (he wanted to convert folk peacefully, and that is a good intention, I say), this has made us forget the true time that Heathen folk once celebrated Yule. The lines between the two holidays truly have become blurred. I certainly think that it is fine that we have established a New Yule that keeps the Old Yule’s spirit, but we should always be aware that our thoughts today may not align with the image of the past. But we should not be bound by such things! Awareness is one thing, and practice is another! Besides, I believe that we can all agree that celebrating our New Yule on the winter solstice is much simpler than celebrating the Old Yule on the first full moon after the first new moon after the winter solstice, já? I would certainly hope so.
Skál! (Cheers!) 🍻
— Fjorn the Skald
- One may get away with simply saying the second full moon after the winter solstice, but that is not always true! For more on how this was discerned, see this rather old book original written in 1920: Mary Wilhelmine Williams, Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age (New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971), 385-386. For more on the incorporation of Yule into Christmas, see Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia (London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1983), 401-402.
- Summarized and retold from Snorri Sturluson, “The Saga of Hakon the Good,” in Heimskringla, vol. I, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 88-119 (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2016), 97-8 (Chapter 13).