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Claiming Yuletide 2014

Welcome Yule! Or Wolcum Yole!  If you speak Middle English

The salutation heard across Medieval England heralded the most important festival of the year – one revered by their Celtic , Teutonic and Norse ancestors in  pre-Christian times.

Yole came from yoke, suggesting the yoke of the year.  It is also the shortest day of the year – Dec. 20, 21, or 22 when daylight hours might be limited from 9-10am to 2-3pm, depending on the latitude.  (We really can’t imagine how dark it might seem without electric lights everywhere.)

After Dec. 24, the days of sunlight would begin to lengthen – an affirmation that the sun would return.  To agricultural peoples, that was a significant cause for rejoicing.  And feast they did.  In ancient Scandinavian languages, jol or jul meant simply “feast”.  The feast usually lasted 12 days.  In Christian times the Twelve Days culminated with Epiphany (January 6).  The season of Yole ended February 1, Imbolc, later called Candlemass, the beginning of the spring quarter.

When I became a UU, I wondered how we would celebrate Christmas, because my feelings about Christianity had changed.  Curiously, I reasoned that regardless of theology, we would have a Christmas tree.

Dr. Holley Ulbrich, member of The UU Fellowship of Clemson,SC and longtime adult educator summed up her feelings  in a long  essay, “ Claiming  the Holiday.”  She comments  that sometimes UU’s  think we have no holidays to claim as our own.  Then she points out   “The Winter Solstice/Yule is the most Universalist of holidays, one that derives from Roman, Celtic, Germanic, and Norse as well as Christian and Jewish sources.”

(Yule)  is the birth of the unconquered sun, spelled both s-u-n and s-o-n.  And the most appropriate Universalist symbol for this holiday is the evergreen tree.  It is on that symbol of hope amidst the darkness that we hang the meanings of all of those traditions.

The tree itself is a Germanic custom via the Roman Saturnalia. The holly and ivy, mistletoe and Yule log are Celtic, Germanic and Norse of the Old Religion.

The Old Religion has much to teach us, even today.  D.H. Lawrence once defined “paganism”  as  “ a Nature venerating religion which endeavors to set human life in harmony with the great cycles embodied in the rhythms  of the seasons.”


Josephine Leach

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