The traditional celebrations of Yule involve so many of the minor and major gods with their associated traditions/symbolism and multiple identities that to the casual observer it looks like a cross between a class reunion, a family party, and one of those horror stories where people go walking down long dark hallways and meet themselves coming in the other direction, and everybody goes mad in the end, and no wonder!
The occasion has been linked to the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King, some saying that the young Oak King represents the light of the new year, and tries to usurp the older Holly King, who is the symbol of darkness. Others see them as twin gods presenting as one complete entity, each of the twins ruling for half the year.
This twin god also has an aspect as the Horned God – leader of the Wild Hunt. He can be known as Odin, Herne The Hunter, the Horned Lord of Death and Resurrection, the Great Horned Hunter God, Krampus, or the Yule Goat amongst other things.
In Scandinavia the Yule Goat is still used in the traditional celebrations- although typically now just in the form of a simple straw ornament rather than in his earlier incarnation of a costumed, horned figure behaving in a rowdy fashion and demanding gifts. In the more isolated rural areas, this figure may still be seen, usually accompanying groups of Yule singers from house to house and generally speaking lurking in the shadows. The Goat has a great deal in common with his Austro-Bavarian brother Krampus the Christmas Devil, who punishes bad children rather than rewarding good ones.
There’s actually a Krampus movie out this Christmas, which I am totally looking forward to:
The Aquabats also have a good take on Krampus in this Christmas Special:
Thanks to Luke Pendrell for alerting me to the Aquabats.
The Sun God is also associated with this time, as Yule is a festival of the Sun, when the sun reaches its furthest distance from the equatorial plane. He would appear as the counterpoint to the dark Horned God – the one theme which runs as a constant thread is the contrast of light and darkness.
To mark this complicated and ancient festival it is traditional to weave wreaths of holly and ivy, to be worn on the head or hung on the door. Although Christianity later accepted the symbol of the wreath and carried it on, wreathes have been used for pagan rituals since the beginning of recorded history.
I personally prefer to roam the streets scavenging for materials, gathering whatever greenery I can find along the way. This way you introduce the element of chance and discovery, rather than buying evergreens from a market stall or florist.
A simple wire hoop is all you need for your base- you can buy these very cheaply online or from a craft supplies shop. Repurpose a wire coat hanger if you wish. Twine enough holly and ivy around the hoop that you have a ring of greenery, securing the ends with twists of florists wire. You are definitely going to want to get a nice big reel of this wire before you start, because it holds the whole thing together. It only costs a few pounds, you can buy it online and it’s an excessively useful thing to have around the house generally speaking.
To paraphrase the genius Spike Milligan: “String, is a very important thing. Rope is thicker, but wire is quicker”.
If you are wreathing with children, or want to make life easy for yourself you can spend a tiny bit more and get the type of base which has oasis foam built in. That way you can just stick greenstuff into it willy nilly and you will eventually have a lovely thick wreath.
Add to your greenery any festive bits and bobs you can lay your hands on. I have a weakness for gilding walnuts and monkey nuts with gold spray paint and sticking googly eyes on them but it’s all up to you. Cinnamon sticks, dried orange slices, dried rosebuds, crab apples, ribbon bows, pine cones both natural and gilded are just the start of it.
The traditional accompaniment to holly and ivy is mistletoe of course – do try to incorporate this into your decorations. Mistletoe is parasitic by its very nature, so adding it to the other sacred greenstuffs is most appropriate.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a lovely custom, the rate of which might be drastically stepped up after you have consumed a few of these of these- a fresh delicious concoction intended to encourage festive cheer.
1 shot coconut vodka
Swirl the vodka into the ginger beer, and dot with rhubarb bitters.
The coconut represents the light, and ginger represents the dark forces at work.
This creates a very drinkable potion which will induce affection into the frostiest heart.
When you have decorated the house with your wreaths and mistletoe, you may have worked up an appetite, which brings us to another Yule tradition, that of the Yule Ham.
Eating a large adorned ham at this season has been a custom for centuries, initially as a tribute to Freyr – one of the most important gods of Norse tradition, associated with sunlight, harvest, fertility and boars amongst other things.
The Ultimate Festive Christmas Ham Recipe
- 1 big piece of raw ham (gammon) preferably smoked
- 1 (500ml) bottle or can of dry cider
- 1 carton apple juice
- 8 whole peppercorns
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- whole cloves for studding ham
- 1 orange for juice and 3 tablespoons of honey
- Place ham in a large saucepan and pour water over. Leave in a cold place to soak overnight, turning occasionally. This takes out excess salt, leaving the meat sweet.
- Pour away water and replace with cider and apple juice. Slowly bring to the boil, adding the peppercorns, onion and bay leaf. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes per 450g (1 lb).
- Preheat oven to 220 C / Gas mark 7.
- Remove the ham from the saucepan, carefully peel off the skin leaving the fat behind and score diamond shapes into the fat with a sharp knife. Stand the ham in a roasting tin with a small amount of the cider to cover the bottom of the tin. Press a clove into the corner of each diamond shape.
- Roast the ham in preheated oven for 20 to 30 minutes until the fat is crisp and golden.
- Glaze the ham halfway through the roasting process with the orange juice and honey mixed into a paste.
- Allow to rest for half an hour before carving.
Thanks to Jane Maxwell-Hyslop for sharing this family recipe from darkest Devon.
Traditionally Freyr is depicted as riding on a shining boar. If you wish to pay tribute to this multi-talented god but don’t feel equal to an entire big ham, you may wish to compromise with a plate of sausage rolls, or better yet, cocktail sausages.
I think Freyr would especially appreciate the creation of a sausagehog for your festive board – wrap a large potato in foil, cover it with cocktail sausages on sticks, and give it eyes, so that it may see. To continue the theme of twins and doubling, make it a cheesehog brother with cubes of cheese on sticks in place of sausages.