The Twelve Days of Yuletide: A History
Now, I know that we all sing about the Twelve Days of Christmas, but you might not have realized that the pagan celebration of Yule is twelve days long, starting with the winter solstice on December 21 and ending on January 1.
As we begin Yuletide I wanted to learn more about these traditions and share them with you!
Initially, it’s important to note that back when people followed a lunar calendar there were twelve days “leftover” at the end of the year. These twelve nights became a special time where the veil between the worlds was thin and celebrations abounded. Yuletide dates have varied just a bit through the years, but were almost always twelve days in length. Some articles say the pre-modern celebration often started on December 23 and went through January 3. In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia (honoring Saturn—the god of agricultural bounty) lasted about a week at this time of year. (Christmastide is also twelve days long from December 25 through January 6th —Epiphany.)
What Does Yuletide Celebrate?
Beginning with the Winter Solstice celebration, Yuletide kicks off with a celebration of the lengthening amount of sunlight that we welcome as we move away from the day with the least “daytime” during the year. Indeed, nearly every celebration has origins invoking the rebirth of the sun or the sun god in some way. This is also referred to as Mother’s Night, honoring the Mother Goddess (& the coming of spring) along with the protective female ancestors who watch over us.
There are many winter solstice celebrations across the globe. The most well-known are likely at Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, structures built thousands of years ago directly oriented to the sun. Here's a photo from the winter solstice at Stonehenge this year and a solstice photo from the interior of Newgrange (date unknown).
There is not a lot of information known about how the middle days of Yule were historical celebrated. Some references talk about it being a time of feasting where little or no work was done. (I find this interesting as someone was obviously cooking these feasts and that had to be a bit of work!) Modern practices include the nightly lighting of candles honoring the Nine Noble Virtues which come from Odinism or Asatruism.
Yuletide concludes with the celebration on the Twelfth Night, which often coincides with the modern New Year celebration—full of revelry, food, and drink. The Twelfth Night is also associated with the burning of the greens for good luck. This is not directly attributable to pagan culture or Yuletide, but seems to be linked more to Christian Epiphany. (However, I liked the timing of this so much that I adopted it as part of the pagan culture’s Twelfth Night in my Circle of Nine series.) Modern pagans often have a Yule tree as part of their celebration, although it is noted that pre-Christian pagans would likely not have done so. Instead, they would have only cut boughs of evergreens for decoration within their homes. These may have been left up until Imbolc at the beginning of February when they would have been removed and possibly burnt.
Other traditions that were initially part of the pagan or pre-Christian festival of Yule have come to be part of the Christmas tradition, including the use of holly and ivy and mistletoe as decorations, the burning of the Yule log, and gift giving, which was an important part of the Roman Saturnalia festival. And, of course, songs were sung in celebration at the time of the winter solstice and throughout Yuletide.
Here’s a Yuletide Carol to wish you a Blessed Holiday Season – whichever way you celebrate this special time of year!