Thursday, December 19, 2019

HGB Ep. 319 - Yule

Moment in Oddity - A Fateful Pair of Shoes
Suggested by: Mitch Riggs

There is a story about a fateful pair of shoes that dates back to the time of the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg to be exact. Members of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry were marching to Gettysburg when they came upon an obstacle in the road. There was a wagon full of stuff stuck in the road. The regiment quickly moved the wagon and then distributed the goods among themselves, which included thread, needles, pipes, tobacco and a pair of white canvas shoes. The cavalry private who grabbed the shoes used a pen to put his initials on both pairs of shoes, R.V.C. The next day, the regiment arrived in Gettysburg and participated in the battle. R.V.C. was killed in a skirmish and a Confederate took his canvas shoes. He put them on immediately, but didn't get to use them for long as he was soon killed. The shoes became Yankee footwear again as another of the 1st Massachusetts members took the shoes from the Rebel. He put them on and went to catch some sleep that evening as the fighting stopped. The battle began again early in the morning and the Confederates started gaining ground once again. The Yankee was one of the first killed in the battle. This time though, no one bothered to grab the shoes. Clearly, they had figured out that those canvas shoes were unlucky. Three men were killed wearing those shoes in a period of 36 hours and that, certainly is odd!`

This Month in History - Orville and Wilbur Wright First Flight

In the month of December, on the 17th, in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first controlled flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft in Kittyhawk, North Carolina. The brothers had not always been pilots trying to get a plane off the ground. They had started off as printers and then they opened a bicycle shop. But through all of that time, they had worked on various contraptions to attain flight. Three days before their successful flight, Wilbur had been at the controls and the plane had stalled and crashed. Orville would take over on December 17th with conditions that were perfect. Orville wrote of the experience, "The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles, 27 miles according to the government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope, the machine started off increasing in speed to probably seven or eight miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks… A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped)." The brothers would make three more flights that day with each one gaining more distance than the one before. The last flight covered 852 feet in 59 seconds. I've been to Kitty Hawk and seen the marks where the plane landed. It doesn't seem like very far, but when you think of the time period and that we now send people to space, it truly is extraordinary what mankind can accomplish.


We mentioned Yule briefly in the History Goes Bump Christmas Special in 2015, but we've never just focused on this set of beliefs, practices and traditions. On this episode we are going to peer into the darkness to find the light that will lead us into Spring. Because that is really what Yule is about for most people that observe it. This is an opportunity to take the time during the darkest part of the year and focus on the end of the year and what the future holds and to prepare for the rebirth that Spring brings. This is also a festival of rituals for which much of the traditions and practices of Christmas are rooted. Join us as we explore Yule!

The Winter Solstice is on December 21, 2019. Yule this year, 2019, starts on December 22nd and ends on January 2, 2020. The community that surrounds History Goes Bump is the best! We might be biased, but I just love the richness of beliefs, traditions, thoughts, ethnicities, locations and love that our members bring to the group. Suzanne put it so well in the Spooktacular Crew when she said, "Love reading all these traditions! I had no idea. Going to have to add some of them to my family traditions. Thanks guys! This is what I love about this group. I learn so much. (And for those that love Cemetery Bingo, you have Suzanne to thank for that.) I so agree with Suzanne. I learn so much from everybody. And we couldn't share about Yule without asking our community, for those that observe Yule, what are some of your traditions? That is what Suzanne was commenting about.

Melissa P: I make a Yule log and my family writes down their wishes for the coming year and we burn them in the fire. This is the Yule log I made for this year. We found the log, pine cones & pine needles during a family outing up to the snow. It may not be “traditional” but its what I was called to make.

Sb: We light candles to chase away the darkness and eat a pomegranate or two.

Shannon B: We usually have a feast with friends, fill a papier-mâché boar with wishes for the coming year and then burn the wishes (not the boar- he’s too cute.), and light candles for Persephone and to welcome back the light/chase away the darkness. We also do ‘commercial Christmas’ with the tree and the gifts, and minus the Jesus.

Jannae M: We have dinner with friends, and write down wishes for the coming year. Lighting a candle to welcome back the sun is a must. I light it as the sun sets and then let it burn (safely) on my altar which is in my bedroom so it’s glow can remind us of the coming warmer months. Lots of warmth, light, and love.

Sara E: The key one for me is lighting a candle and being sure that it burns through midnight in order to lend light to the world in its darkest time. If I could I would leave one burning all night to offer strength to the sun. I'll traditionally take a few minutes to consider the year to come as well, although Samhain is the end of the old year, I make my resolutions at Yule.
Beth V: Yule and Solstice coincide and it depends really on pagan type and geography. My grandparents were old country Eastern Europe, so we celebrated solstice. But there is a lot of crossover. For Solstice we celebrate the longest night and fires for warmth and stories are usually a tradition. Singing, too. The main gift, often handmade, is given on Solstice and then small presents following with only a stocking with fruit and candy of the 25th. But the 21st overnight to the 22nd was most important.

Diane V: Light a fire started with the Yule log from last year that has been on the hearth. Family dinner and candle lighting.

Alicia J: We are lucky enough to have a winter solstice lantern walk around a local lake. The path around the lake is lit with candles, people bring their lanterns - a lot of them are homemade and amazing, there was even a dragon shaped lantern one year! And at the end of the walk there is a big bonfire and mince pies. At home I light our fire and leave a mince pie and a glass of mead on the mantlepiece for any visiting spirits who stop by as it tends to be an active time of year, in fact we've had a few things happen already this season! We've heard someone moving around upstairs (there was no one, it's just the two of us and the cat was with us at the time) I saw a white shape move across the room reflected in the mirror (no car lights passing as it was the side of the house facing the garden), the same day I heard someone knock on our door but the street was empty and my partner saw our recently deceased cat twice in the space of a couple of minutes. It's been a bit busy in our house!

Jess from SBT: We usually eat a lot, including a yule log shaped cake and drink a lot of beer.

So the common practices here seem to be lighting candles and/or a fire and making wishes for the new year. And then there are other traditions based on personal preferences or location. But where does all this come from? First, let us just clarify that Pagan and Wiccan beliefs are a matter of personal choice and run the gamete. We have been joined on episodes by several Pagan practitioners and have found them to have eclectic practices. The term Yule is derived from the Old Norse jól, although it has also been referred to as miðsvetrarblót or midwinter sacrifice. First, we have difficulty establishing origins on our present calendar because there have been several calendars throughout history, obviously. We are now in the Gregorian calendar. One of the ancient lunar months was known as Jultungel, which translates to Yule Moon. There are those who maintain that there were two parallel calendars before the Julian Calendar. One was based on weeks for the quarters of the year and each quarter started four weeks after the astronomical solstices and equinoxes. This was called the Week Year Calendar. The other calendar was the Lunisolar Calendar and was based on lunar months within the solar year rectified to the winter solstice. So basically, the point is that traditionally the Yule feast was to be observed at the first full moon after the first new moon following the winter solstice. 

It is thought that the oldest yuletide feast was called Hokunott in Scandinavia and was first described by the 6th century Byzantine writer Procopius. This feast was to celebrate the return of the sun and was observed right after the Winter Solstice. The earliest reference to jól was in a 9th century Norse praise poem in honor of Harold Fairhair's victory at the battle of Hafrsfjorð, which unified the kingdom of Norway.

(Kelly) As we approach the Winter Solstice, we are moving from the darkest time of the year into the light. We are also moving into a time of the year where food is scarce for humans and animals. This was a time of famine and probably why this time was also called the midwinter sacrifice. The cattle would be butchered before this time because there would not be enough to feed them and the people would need them for food. So it was a time for meat feasting. The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. Thus it would be a good time for introspection. These are the pieces of Yule that have traveled through the centuries: a feast, fire or light, introspection and future planning.

There are deities connected to Yule and they include The Oak King, The Horned One, The Green Man, Mabon, Odin, The Great Mother, Diana, Brighid, Demeter and The Dagda. Brighid taught the art of fire tending and working metal to the blacksmiths. We talked about her a lot on the Imbolc episode. She is thought to be a Celtic triple goddess. She is described as a daughter of  The Dagda with two sisters having the same name by some, but by others these three personas are three aspects of a single deity. She is a goddess of hearth and home and helps with divination and looking to the future. The Dagda is an Irish deity looked at as the father-figure and controls the weather and crops and such, so you see his connection here. The Oak King is the counterpart to the Holly King. These two fight for supremacy and at Yule, The Oak King wins and Winter reigns. The Summer Solstice brings victory for the Holly King and Summer reigns. Some Pagan systems make them the opposite with them reigning on the Equinoxes and other traditions combine the two into The Horned One. The Oak King is sometimes called the god of the Sun, while the Holly King is referred to as the Dark Lord. The Holly King looks something like a nature version of Santa with sprigs of holly in his hair, dressed in red and driving a sleigh pulled by eight stags. The Oak King is thought to be a type of fertility god and can also be referred to as the Green Man. Most people know Odin is the chief Norse god, so makes sense that he is connected to Winter festivities and he bears a strong resemblance to Santa.

Activities for a village included wassailing to the trees and crops. The trees were mainly cider apple trees. This would be singing and uttering incantations to promote a good crop at the next harvest and to scare away evil spirits. This makes me think of us talking to our plants. You listened to that episode of Odd Tonic about plants, right? The one that covered the Secret Life of Plants. So clearly this understanding of talking or singing to plants is ancient. This singing is something Beth incorporates into her observance too. Many villages would have a wassail king and queen that would lead the procession and the queen would hold up a Claven Cup with toast soaked in Wassail inside of it, up to the trees as an offering. One of the incantations went like this:

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An' all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Folklore has tales about the Apple Tree Man, which is the persona given to the spirit of the oldest tree in the apple orchard. This is thought to be the spirit of fertility in the orchard. Ruth Tongue and Katharine Briggs wrote about the Folktales of England and one of these tales is about a man in Somerset who offered his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard on Christmas Eve. The Apple Tree Man saw this and decided to reward the man, so he told him where he could find some buried gold.

The wassailing could go house to house too and this is where caroling comes down from. Children would also take gifts from house to house. These would be baskets made from evergreen boughs, which were sacred to the Celts since they didn't die, and wheat stalks dusted with flour, which represented the harvest  with flour representing triumph, life and light. Inside the baskets were oranges and clove spiked apples. And drinks would usually be offered. Alcohol is a big part of the Yule celebration. You heard Jess mention that.

One of the most important symbols of Yule is the Yule Log. Traditionally, the Yule Log was made from a log found on the householder's land or given to them as a gift. The most prized log would come from an Ash tree, which was considered sacred by many tribes and Ash was said to be an herb of the Sun and thus it brings light to the hearth. The Vikings and Scandinavians believed that their tree of life that they called Yggdrasil, was made of ash. The roots of Yggdrasil were bound in hell and its branches were in heaven. The god Odin hung on this tree for 9 nights, so that he could gain the gifts of prophesy and divination. He lost an eye, but received those. The first man was said to have been formed from the Yggdrasil. Ash is also symbolically representative of the four elements.

This Yule Log was decorated with evergreen sprigs and boughs and doused with cider or ale. Flour would be dusted over it all. And these all symbolized what we mentioned with the gifts the children took around. The Yule Logs were saved from previous years and this was so that the fire that that year's Yule Log was to burned in could be started with the previous log. The fire would be kept burning through the night and left to smolder for the twelve days of Yule. Now in our present day, it is harder to observe this tradition because people don't have fireplaces, so many observers choose to drill three or more holes into a log and place candles in the holes that they can light. The decorating goes much the same. Candle colors range from the colors of the Sun God: green, gold and black to the colors of the Great Goddess: white, red and black to seasonal: red, green and white. I advise against the flour though because that is so hard to clean up.

And speaking of greenery, this is brought inside too to remind people of living, not death and to entice those nature faeries and spirits to come inside and celebrate. This is why holly, ivy and mistletoe have become a part of Christmas, this is just part of Yule. The mistletoe carried the added symbolism of fertility as the seed of the Divine and Druids would travel deep into the forest to find it in the middle of Winter. And you can probably imagine why people kissed under the mistletoe.

So you see the origins of Christmas in all of this. Bringing a tree into the house and decorating it with candles and bows. Christmas Carols carry many lines that leave people confused because they harken back to Pagan rituals. We light fires and candles. We make resolutions. We drink apple cider. And we give gifts. This is all very nice, but as you dig into the research, you do find some dark sides in the Pagan traditions. The English brought mistletoe into the house to ward off evil spirits. There is, of course, The Saturnalia, which was a week-long festival celebrating the Romans' agricultural god, Saturn. This festival lasted from December 17 until December 23 and the festivities were anything but a time for a child to get a sparkle in their eye as they dreamed of sugar plums and toys and tried to be good even though a crazy Elf on a Shelf was watching their every move like Big Brother and reporting back to jolly ole St. Nick. Come to think of it, Elf on a Shelf does add a bit of horror to the Christmas Season for kids. Anyway, Saturnalia usually involved gluttonous eating, drinking alcohol to excess, gambling and public nudity. I'm sure none of this goes on with any of your family festivities over the holidays. *wink, wink*

But Saturnalia could get even darker. There are those who claim that Saturn was the cruelest god of the Romans and demanded child sacrifice. This human sacrifice didn't last for long, but gladiator fights during the festival added blood. There is a return to talk of human sacrifice when looking at the candles on the tree, which some claimed was made from the fat of children who were sacrificed, but I would venture to say it was probably from the "sacrifices" of all the animals before winter set-in. And then Saturn has been said to be another image of Father Time and the New Year Baby is the sacrifice victim. And Saturn is also suppose to be like Santa and with a child on his lap, well, you get the picture. The balls on trees supposedly represent the heads of those conquered by the Sun God or his male genitalia and retrieving presents from under the tree represents parents sacrificing their children under the trees for the Sun God. Did any of these things happen. I'm sure there were cultures that participated. Human sacrifice did happen throughout history. But as for Yule for the past few centuries, it is all very tame.

Join us in observing Yule this year. Take a Solstice Walk and bring some greenery into the house and make yourself a Yule Log. Write down what you are grateful for in the past year. Visualize the next year and the path you want to walk. And kiss somebody under the mistletoe! We also want to remind you to join us on Christmas Eve at 8pm ET as we tell scary ghost stories in keeping with the old traditions. So have a Happy Yule, Merry Christmas and blessed whatever you observe at this time of year!

Show Notes:

Nordberg, Andreas. 2006. Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden. Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien för svensk folkkultur: Uppsal

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