The Yule and The Wassail

In Northern Europe, Winter festivities were once considered to be a Feast of the Dead, complete with ceremonies full of spirits, devils, and the haunting presence of the Norse god, Odin, and his night riders. One particularly durable Solstice festival was "Jol" (also known as "Jule" and pronounced "Yule"), a feast celebrated throughout Northern Europe and particularly in Scandinavia to honor Jolnir, another name for Odin. Since Odin was the god of intoxicating drink and ecstasy, as well as the god of death, Yule customs varied greatly from region to region. Odin's sacrificial beer became the specially blessed Christmas ale mentioned in medieval lore, and fresh food and drink were left on tables after Christmas feasts to feed the roaming Yuletide ghosts. Even the bonfires of former ancient times survived in the tradition of the Yule Log, perhaps the most universal of all Christmas symbols.

The origins of the Yule Log can be traced back to the Midwinter festivals in which the Norsemen indulged...nights filled with feasting, "drinking Yule" and watching the fire leap around the log burning in the home hearth. The ceremonies and beliefs associated with the Yule Log's sacred origins are closely linked to representations of health, fruitfulness and productivity. In England, the Yule was cut and dragged home by oxen or horses as the people walked alongside and sang merry songs. It was often decorated with evergreens and sometimes sprinkled with grain or cider before it was finally set alight.

In Yugoslavia, the Yule Log was cut just before dawn on Christmas Eve and carried into the house at twilight. The wood itself was decorated with flowers, colored silks and gold, and then doused with wine and an offering of grain. In an area of France known as Provencal, families would go together to cut the Yule Log, singing as they went along. These songs asked for blessings to be bestowed upon their crops and their flocks. The people of Provencal called their Yule Log the trefoire and, with great ceremony, carried the log around the house three times and christened it with wine before it was set ablaze.

To all European races, the Yule Log was believed to bring beneficial magic and was kept burning for at least twelve hours and sometimes as long as twelve days, warming both the house and those who resided within. When the fire of the Yule Log was finally quenched, a small fragment of the wood would be saved and used to light the next year's log. It was also believed that as long as the Yule Log burned, the house would be protected from witchcraft. The ashes that remained from the sacred Yule Log were scattered over fields to bring fertility, or cast into wells to purify and sweeten the water. Sometimes, the ashes were used in the creation of various charms...to free cattle from vermin, for example, or to ward off hailstorms.

Some sources state that the origin of Yule is associated with an ancient Scandinavian fertility god and that the large, single Log is representative of a phallic idol. Tradition states that this Log was required to burn for twelve days and a different sacrifice to the fertility god had to be offered in the fire on each of those twelve days.

Few holiday traditions have endured as long or seen so many variations as that of wassailing. Its origins are unknown, but it is mentioned in texts dating as far back as the Fourteenth Century. In one such text, the leader of a group took a bowl and, raising it to the crowd, shouted "Wassail!" an Old English term meaning "to your health."

There are three variations of the wassailing. One is the filling of a common bowl or cup, often referred to by ancient clergy as the Loving Cup, which was passed around a room to be shared by all. Another variation calls for the bowl to be taken to each individual house, so that neighbors might partake of the wassail as friends. The third is a celebration of the apple harvest and the blessing of the fruit.

The earliest known practice of the wassail was to pour it onto dormant crops and orchards after the harvest to bless the ground for the Spring and ward off evil. Like many such customs originally devoted to defense against wickedness, wassailing has always been something of a festive activity associated with partying and making merry. In the past few centuries, the practice has tended to have more to do with good cheer and well- wishing rather than the blessing of crops.

Wassailing is almost always accompanied by the song: "Here We Come A-Wassailing," which is a Christmas classic loved by many but understood by few. It is often misinterpreted and likened to the act of singing...hence the frequently used "Here We Come A-Caroling" which is substituted for the first line of this popular carol.

The actual ingredients in traditional wassail are widely disputed. This could be attributable to the fact that festive bands who traveled from home to home often replenished the bowl with whatever liquid refreshment was available. While one home might have apple cider, another might have spirits of a stronger sort. There can be dlittle doubt that alcohol has played a storied part of wassail's history, but tradition does not dictate it to be necessary. In fact, the custom is not so much concerned with drink as it is with the good will and society that wassailing generates.

Although wassailing is classically observed during the Christmas holiday season, it is also practiced at weddings and other such similar events where community and family are celebrated.


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