20 December, 2007

Yuletide and Mothers’ Night

Welcome to Day 21 of the 2007 Advent Blog Tour, and a spot of Christmas history. Most of us recognise “Yule” and “Yuletide” as alternative names for Christmas. But where do they come from?

Yule is the modern spelling of an Old English word “giuli” or "geola", which was the name used by the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) for the months corresponding roughly to our December and January. We know the name because it was recorded by Bede, a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria (northern England), in a book written in 726 AD. That’s almost 1300 years ago, which probably makes Yule one of the earliest recorded English words.

Bede was a Christian, and his book was devoted to explaining the workings of the Christian calendar, but he very kindly (for us) took the trouble to explain how the English calendar worked before the conversion to Christianity. He tells us that Giuli (Yule) is called after the day when the sun turns back and begins to increase again – in other words, the shortest day of the year or the winter solstice. Even today in our technological society, with food in abundance and light on demand, most of us are pleased to see the days starting to get longer again, with its promise that the sun is going to come back (yes, even in damp and rainy Britain) and spring is going to come round again. It’s easy to imagine how important it must have been to the early English farmers, who depended on growing crops and raising livestock. They made it the start of their year, and celebrated it with a festival called “Modranecht”, Mothers’ Night. Bede says it was the same date as the Christian celebration of Christmas.*

Who were the Mothers of Mothers’ Night? Bede, naturally enough for a devout Christian, doesn’t explain. They were probably related to the goddesses of plenty and good fortune who were honoured in inscriptions in Germany, Holland and Britain in the first century AD.

What ceremonies were held in their honour on Mothers’ Night? Again, Bede doesn’t tell us, so it’s largely open to the imagination. Since they were goddesses of plenty, it’s a fair guess that a great feast was a central part of the celebrations.

What would a Yuletide feast on Mothers’ Night have consisted of? Well, not turkey, that’s for sure! A fragment of a will from Bury St Edmunds sets out a list of items required for a feast, and these include ale, bread, a pig, a bullock, three bucks [I presume this refers to deer, so venison was on the menu], cheese, milk and fish. So we can imagine an Anglo-Saxon pagan household settling down to something like roast pork, roast beef, venison, cheese and fish, all accompanied by plenty of bread and washed down with large amounts of beer. There might have been apples from the store, probably nuts, and perhaps sweetmeats made from honey. See The Blue Lady Tavern for a fictional 8th-century innkeeper’s Yuletide feast.

So when you sit down to the groaning table on Christmas Day, you’re continuing a tradition that stretches back a very long way indeed. Eat, drink and be merry, and best wishes for good fortune in the coming year!

* In the Julian calendar used in Bede’s day, 25 December was the date of the solstice. Since then the calendar has been modified, so Christmas Day no longer falls on the solstice.

Here are the other stops on the 2007 Advent Blog Tour:

1 December - Becky
2 December - Lisabea
3 December - Lady Tink and Marg
4 December - Valentina’s Room
5 December - Melissa
6 December - Laura
7 December - Wendy
8 December - Nymeth
9 December - Raidergirl, Chris
10 December - Dewey
11 December - Suey
12 December - Chris
13 December - Jill, Stephanie (Written Word)
14 December - Robyn
15 December - Alyssa,
16 December - Rachel
17 December - Literary Feline
18 December - Dev, Stephanie (Confessions of a Book-a-holic)
19 December - Callista
20 December - Tiny Little Librarian
21 December - Carla, Susan Higginbotham
22 December - Carolyn Jean
23 December - Booklogged
24 December - Kailana, Carl


Gabriele Campbell said...

Ok, now I'm waiting for a romance where the Saxon Amber falls in love with the Dane Wolf, and they'll have turkey for the Yule fest in 850 AD. :)

Thanks for sharing those tidbits. I didn't know about the Old English origin of the word. But I wonder how the Scandinavian Jul connects to this.

Marg said...

Very interesting post! Thanks for participating Carla!

Chrisbookarama said...

Very educational. Thanks. Great post!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating! Never knew all of this.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I bet someone's already written it! Remember when Susan invented Topaz Plantagenet for a joke?

Not being a linguist, I don't know how 'Jul' fits in, though I'd guess that it's related to the Old English term. 'Giuli' is Old Anglian, by the way, which one would expect to be a reasonably close cousin of the language spoken in Denmark, so it may be significant that it's the Old Anglian spelling that's closest to the Scandinavian word.

Marg, Chris, Susan - Thanks! Hope you found it interesting.

Juliette said...

Thank you Carla - it was great to read your post and learn a little more about Bede. Happly Christmas to you and yours

Literary Feline said...

How interesting! Thank you for sharing that bit of history with us. I love learning stuff like this. "-)

Ana S. said...

I LOVED this post! I love everything that has to do with history of language and old pagan traditions. Just the other day my boyfriend and I were wondering where "Yule" came from... we were going to look it up on Wikipedia, but then we forgot. Now, thanks to you, we know! Thank you for this wonderful post :)

Melissa said...

Fascinating. I feel so informed now. :) Thanks!

Carla said...

Thanks, everyone! I'm delighted you found the post interesting! Nymeth, I have an occasional series of posts in mind covering aspects of the non-Christian religions of early medieval Britain (what we know of them, which often isn't very much), so you may like to check back from time to time.

Happy Christmas and best wishes
for the New Year to everyone!

Constance Brewer said...

Interesting stuff. Nice to know why some traditions cling on and where they came from.

Bernita said...

I wish they hadn't altered the date of Christmas.More fitting to have it on the solstice.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Thanks a lot, I honestly had no idea of the true defintion or of the history behind it. What a great post!

I hope you and yours have a very Merry Christmas!

Carla said...

Constance - it's odd that some traditions survive and others die out, isn't it? I don't know if anyone's ever identified any rhyme or reason to it (a sort of natural selection process, I suppose?)

Bernita - I wonder when it became dissociated from the solstice and associated with a fixed date of 25 Dec instead? Though a few days doesn't really make much difference.

Carl V - Thanks, and I'm very pleased you found it interesting. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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