Anyone who knows about the Germanic festival of Yule will instantly see its similarities to Christmas. This is not an accident. Many of the symbols popular in Christmas celebrations have their origin in Yule. During the Christianization of Europe, Yule traditions merged with the Christian faith.
A major attraction of any Christmas celebration is Santa Claus. Do you know that the character evolved from the Julebukk (Yule Goat) tradition? It originated in Norway when the native pagans used to worship Thor, who was said to travel in a chariot that was drawn by two goats. During the Yule celebrations, the pagans would visit homes wearing goatskins and a goat head. When the country became Christian, the tradition was also absorbed into the new faith.
“Initially the Julebukk was a goat slaughtered at Christmastime to celebrate the end of the agricultural work year. With time, it meant a person who led a costumed procession from house to house to entertain the residents and be rewarded with food and drink. In the early 19th century, the Julebukk also became the bringer of presents, the predecessor of the Julenisse, equivalent to Santa Claus in English,” according to The Norwegian American.
Some experts also suggest that Santa Claus has his origins in the Norse god Odin. In ancient times, Viking children used to leave a boot full of straw on the hearth of their homes at the end of the Yule feast. It was believed that Odin would visit the homes, take the straw to feed his horse, and refill the boots with sweet treats, fruits, cakes, and toys. Sounds very similar to our Santa, doesn’t it?
The modern Christmas tree also owes its origin to Yule. For Vikings, the evergreen trees of the forest were the symbol of a robust life. During winter when all the other trees would die, the evergreen trees alone would stand, fully green and healthy. During Yule, natives would decorate the evergreen trees with gifts and small carvings for the spirits residing in the trees. This was done to encourage the spirits of other plants and trees to come back and start the spring season.
During Yule, it was a tradition to burn a log. “The log was burned for two reasons: To guide Sunna [sun goddess] on her longest trip around the world, and to keep the family warm on this long night. The log would need to burn throughout the entire night and was to be visible through a window, so Sunna could see the guiding lights,” according to All Women’s Talk. This tradition is still followed in many European nations where the log is cut down on Christmas Eve morning and is set to fire in the evening.
Holly wreaths were initially a part of the Yule festival. Since holly is an evergreen plant that continues to grow even during winter, people took it to symbolize life and revered it the same way they revered evergreen trees. They made wreaths out of holly plants to represent the idea that life exists all year round and that warmer days would soon replace the harsh winter. As with other traditions, this too became a part of Christmas and spread throughout the world.