In only a few days, it will be Great Yule, the Winter Solstice.  This is the ancient holiday celebrating the rebirth of the sun when the winter night is longest.  It is a time of dark and cold, a time when light and warmth and cheer are eagerly appreciated.

The name Yule is very old English, but it is also the ancient name still used in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, though it has been generally shifted to refer to the later innovation, Christmas, which co-opted Yule and its popularity.  Nonetheless, in its connection with evergreens and mistletoe, we still see its pre-Christian origins.  In Scandinavia, Yule is spelled Jul, with the “J” pronounced as “Y.”

In the Scandinavian countries, Yule is still associated with the the creature called Nisse in Norway and Denmark, and Tomte in Sweden.  The Nisse is a kind of domestic spirit associated with a particular house and family, rather like the Russian Domovoi.  Nisser (the plural) are small, only about three feet or less in height, usually with a long beard and an often bright-red cap.  They are kind when well-treated and fed, but demand respect and good keeping of the house and grounds.  Another figure often associated with Yule in Scandinavia is the Julebukk, the Yule Goat.  We see both Nisser and a Julebukk on this old Yule Card (used for Christmas).  The Greeting on it is God Jul — “Good Yule.”

In Wales, the greeting at this time is Nadolig Llawen, meaning roughly “Merry Birth.”  Welsh Nadolig and Italian Natale are related words both derived from the word for birth in Latin.  In old Rome, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” was the Winter Solstice, so the “birth” in early times was not that of Jesus, but of the sun at Midwinter.

Photo: Matti Kovanen
Photo: Matti Kovanen

So for the Midwinter Solstice, one can still say “Good Yule” or “Glad Yule” or “Happy Birth” and mean something older and more Nature-oriented than the Christmas celebration.

We can see from the following illustration why the focus from ancient times was on the sun at Midwinter.  From the Summer Solstice — Midsummer — the highest point in the sun’s arc across the sky, the arc gradually gets lower and lower, and as it does so the places of its rising and setting also move farther southward.  Finally, at the Winter Solstice, the sun stops descending, and seems to “stand still” in its arc for a few days, that is, it gets no lower.  At this lowest point in its arc, the “old” sun seemed to the ancients to be reborn, once again to rise in its arc across the sky until reaching its highest point on Midsummer’s Day.

Though as seasonal terms “spring” perhaps originated in the “springing” of new plants from the ground, and “fall” perhaps from the falling of leaves,   If you think about it, the gradual elevation of the arc of the sun from Yule is its rising, its “spring” upward toward Midsummer.  That is followed by the sun’s “fall,” its decline in the sky from Midsummer’s Day back to its lowest point at the Winter Solstice.

solstice arc

As mentioned earlier, Yule was rather “taken over” by the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus — Christmas — though the latter came rather late.   In fact it seems to have begun just about the time Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and adopted as the State religion. So we can say that according to available evidence, the celebration of Christmas seems to have begun during or shortly after the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century c.e.

It also appears that the reason the date for the celebration of Christmas was placed on December 25th is that it was already the very popular non-Christian celebration, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.  That occurred on the Winter Solstice, which in those days was intended to be on December 25th. So that gives us our marker. Originally, Christmas was celebrated on (or very close to) the Winter Solstice in the Roman Empire, taking over the already existing non-Christian festival.

In those days there was no formal split between the Greek Eastern branch of the Christian Church and the Latin western branch. Both celebrated Christmas on the same day, December 25th. And even after the Great Schism that divided the two branches in 1054, both churches, Eastern Greek and Western Latin, continued to celebrate the Nativity on December 25th. That is because both still used the old Roman Julian Calendar.

There was, however, a serious flaw in the Julian Calendar. Every year it would inaccurately be off by another eleven minutes. That did not matter much at the beginning of its use, but after the passage of 134 years, all those accumulations of 11-minute error added up to the Julian Calendar being a full day off. Every 134 years, it was off by yet another day. So because of this error, the celebration of Christmas gradually moved farther and farther from the Winter Solstice.

in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered Roman Catholics to use a new and more accurate calendar, generally called the Gregorian Calendar. This was after the Protestant Reformation, so for a while the Gregorian Calendar was only used by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox continued to use the more inaccurate Julian Calendar.

The Gregorian Calendar, unlike the Julian, more closely reflected the natural cycles of the solar year, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. It was not perfect, but compared to the 11 minute inaccuracy per year of the Julian Calendar, the Gregorian inaccuracy was only about 30 seconds per year.

Over time the use of the Gregorian Calendar began to spread even into predominantly Protestant countries.

England adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1752. That was some 24 years before America declared its independence, so that meant America went on the Gregorian Calendar as well and has remained on it ever since.

Now, how does all this  talk of calendars relate to the gap of a few days in modern times between the Winter Solstice and the date of Christmas, December 25th?

By the year 1900 the Julian Calendar still used by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia had become off by 13 days through the inherent flaw in that calendar system. That meant that when the Western churches were celebrating Christmas on December 25th, The Russian Orthodox church was celebrating it on what by the modern Gregorian Calendar would be January 7th. Now (and until March of 2100) the Russian Orthodox date of Christmas is thus 13 days behind, meaning 13 days after, the date on which Christmas is celebrated in Europe and America.

Which is the more accurate date? Well, given that the marker originally was the Winter Solstice, both are off, because as we have seen, Christmas, in Roman times, was intended to be on the Winter Solstice. Today by the Gregorian Calendar, the Winter Solstice actually happens about four days before Christmas. But the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th is much farther off the mark, being thirteen days after the “Western” December 25th date, and even more beyond by the actual Winter Solstice. That is because Russian Orthodoxy still uses the Julian Calendar for the date of Christmas and other fixed festivals.

What all this means is that even though the Christian celebration of Christmas took over the celebration of the Winter Solstice, and even appropriated the ancient name “Yule,” nonetheless the date of Christmas and the Winter Solstice have not coincided for a long, long time.

All of this talk about calendars and Christmas can seem a bit confusing.  But it does not really matter, if you happen to be one of those who, like me, have no interest in religious dogma of whatever kind, and who prefer to celebrate Yule as the ancient and present holiday of the Winter Solstice — a natural holiday — a Nature holiday.  And what is behind celebrating the Winter Solstice is the “rebirth” of the sun in Midwinter, the return of light and warmth to the world after the “fall” of the sun to the lowest point in its arc — the time when it pauses in its decline before once more beginning its “spring” upward in its arc across the sky.  And for that we have the very old accompaniments of evergreens and mistletoe and lights and warmth and good food.

Glad Yule!