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  Yule - The Midwinter Festival

Tammasmass E'en - the beginning of peace

Yule was a time of rest - a time when only the bare minimum of chores were carried out, around house and farm. This work-free spirit is one of the few Orcadian Yule traditions that made it onto the pages of an antiquarian's notebook.

Although this tradition was recorded as taking place on Westray, the author states that it was common throughout Orkney.  He explains that, at Yule, servants were granted a few days off, during which time they were expected to enjoy themselves. In addition, at Yule, the master of the house was honour-bound to keep a well-stocked table for his servants

In Christian times, December 20, the eve of the feast of St Thomas, marked the beginning of this time of peace in Norse lands. In the Northern Isles, Tammasmass E'en was regarded as particularly holy.

As soon as the sun had slipped beneath the western horizon, no work of any kind was permitted and no festive amusements allowed. Woe betide those who broke this taboo, for bad luck was sure to follow.

"The very baby unborn,
cross oh dul! dul!
For the breaking o' Tammasmass nicht
five nichts afore Yule."

A Norwegian tradition that women should not spin, or card, wool was echoed in the islands, with one old account explaining that from the beginning of Yule until twelfth night, neither spinning nor carding would be permitted in the household of any man who owned sheep.

Knitting, however, as well as sewing, was permitted until Yule Eve, at which time they too became forbidden activities until Yule had passed.

Baking and brewing was also forbidden, a custom that meant preparations for the year's greatest ale feast had to be completed well before the festival. To the early Norse settlers, and their ancestors, ale was a sacred drink and the Yule ale was usually particularly strong.

The importance of Yule ale was such that penalties were imposed on those who refused to drink on Holy Night. One unfortunate teetotaler, who refused to drink at Yule on three successive years, was stripped of his possessions, down to his last penny!

Byanna's Sunday

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