The Christmas classic “Deck the Halls” contains the line “Troll the ancient yuletide carol” (to troll is to sing in a joyful or celebratory manner). Another line in the song says, “See the blazing yule before us.” We sing those lyrics, but often don’t know what they mean, since we never hear the word yule at any other time of year. So what does yule mean, and why is it a part of the Christmas tradition?
Yule was the name of a winter festival that occurred in December and January on the German lunar calendar. In the fourth century, the church decided to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ at that time with a 12-day feast, often called Epiphany or the Feast of the Nativity. They planned the feast to correspond with the pagan holiday, the feast of Sol Invictus, which celebrated the winter solstice and the gradually lengthening days of increased sunlight. Over time, these feasts merged to become the holiday we now know as Christmas. In today’s language, Yule is simply the feast celebrating the birth of Christ; Yuletide is the Christmas season. While many aspects of the story of Jesus’ birth are celebrated at the Yule season, remnants of the original feasts and celebrations also show up in many Christmas carols and traditions.
The yule log was a huge log that was part of European Christmas celebrations for centuries. The yule log was lit on Christmas Day and burned for the following Twelve Days of Christmas. A remainder of the yule log was kept to light the next year’s log. The yule log was thought to have the power to ward off misfortune, so it was kept in the home yearlong. Yule logs are now often symbolized by a cake shaped like a log.
The term Yule, although it has changed in meaning through the centuries, is a remnant of a secular holiday that has been overshadowed by the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Christmas celebrations in the West have become a hodgepodge of characters, traditions, and symbols that don’t necessarily go together but have been appropriated to serve a Christian holiday. Most people who burn a yule log don’t care about its origin or associate it with paganism. It’s just part of a traditional celebration.
However a family chooses to celebrate Christmas, it is important for Christians to remember that secular celebrations are enjoyable, but the meaning of Christmas goes beyond the feasts and glitter. The Yule we celebrate is the reality that God became man in order to bring man to God (2 Corinthians 5:21). And we should celebrate that truth all year long.
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