Celebrating the old traditions

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by Heather Elvidge

Are we turning to Europe to refresh our Christmas? Scandi-style decorations and German markets with their exotic sausages and gluhwein are more popular than ever. Now supermarkets report that we’re giving up mince pies in favour of stollen, Germany’s Advent fruit bread.

It’s good that we’re trying to make our festive season a more satisfying experience, yet we could achieve that by looking back at our own traditions. There we’d find carol-singing, wassailling, sword dancing, and knockabout plays; toys and decorations carved from wood, spicy fruitbreads, knobbly sausages, hot, spiced wine or ale; and all the other things that we gave up because they were old-fashioned.

Until their conversion to Christianity, it’s thought that the heathens from the northlands had a lunar calendar that was also bound to the sun’s year. Their year was divided into winter and summer with four great feasts, including the midwinter Jul, which began on the winter solstice. Jul is still used for Christmas in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

The word survives in Yorkshire dialect as Yule, because here Danish settlers left their place names, and some of their customs.

Until 1572, York held a very popular parade called “The Riding of Yule and his Wife”. Yule carried a leg of lamb and loaf of bread, symbols of plenty, while Mrs Yule spun thread on her distaff, a tool associated with the Norse goddesses of fate.

More likely customs to revive would be the Yule candle, and the Yule log. The oldest person in the house used to light the tall candle at dusk on Christmas Eve, and it had to burn throughout Christmas Day. In spring the plough blade was smeared with the candle stub, which was kept in the house all year for luck.

The Log, also called the Yule Clog or Christmas Block, was the largest log that would fit in the hearth. It was brought in on Christmas Eve, toasted with ale, and lit with a piece of the previous year’s log, kept for the purpose.

In the days before matches, nobody let their fire go out between Christmas and New Year. It was impossible to beg a light from a neighbour, as giving a light was giving away your good luck.

Sun’s return

This Saturday brings the winter solstice when the midday sun struggles to its lowest point in the sky, before giving up and sliding back toward the horizon.

How we dread the retreat of the sun in the midnight of the year. Like our forebears we crave heat and light, food and drink, and bring in evergreens to cheer us.

Folklore says that if the 21st is frosty, the winter will be long; and whichever way the wind is blowing, that will be the prevailing direction for the next three months.

The Yule log and candle belong to the winter solstice and the re-birth of the sun; the Yule flame promises abundance of good things. For safety, keep your Yule candle in a glass lantern, and if you cannot burn your Yule log, tie it with red or gold ribbon.

Here at the gateway to the year,

May we strive to make good cheer.

In our revels shall joy abound,

And sorrow be cast underground.