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  Yule - The Midwinter Festival

Yule Day arrives . . .

Yule morning saw islanders rising before the sun - not as arduous a task as it sounds as the sun only crawls over the horizon well after 9am.

Often they might rise to the sound of travelling fiddlers who wandered each neighbourhood wakening the householders.

Once out of bed, the guidman would head to the byre to tend to his livestock. In some cases he carried with him the lamp or candle that had burned all night in the house, or, as detailed in one account, the cow's skull with a lit candle stuck in the eye socket.

In the byre, the man would use the flame from his lamp to singe the hair of the animals within. This, it was believed, ensured that the animals would thrive over the coming year. They were then fed and watered, and being Yule, were generally provided with generous extra portions.

The chores out of the way, the man returned to his house where whisky was offered to all members of the household. This was for luck in the coming year so even the youngest child was required to at least taste the liquor.

Yuletide lights

Throughout the year the youngsters in every Orkney household gathered together and hoarded leftover bits of candle. One Yule morn these treasures were brought out and used to illuminate the room while the family ate their Yule breakfast. The Yule candles, like the Norse god Freyr's magical boar, transformed the darkness of a winter morning and no doubt celebrated the return of sunlight.

The Feast of the Dead

As well as eating pork, sheep were also slaughtered for Yule. The mutton was boiled and eaten on Yule morning. At this meal it was also customary for an extra place to be laid at the table. As mentioned previously in this section, this custom harks back to Yule's ancient origins as a festival of the dead. At Yule the spirits of the ancestors were permitted to return to the land of the living. As such they were welcomed back into the home to visit their kin and partake of the food and drink.

Yule bonfires were lit on the highest hilltops in an effort to dispel the evil that was abroad and also to return fertility to the fields.

In Orkney and Shetland Yule also saw the young men of the townships participating in a rough kind of mass football game. These games were common throughout the islands with each area having its own game.

The only remnant of the tradition found today is in the form of Kirkwall's Ba'.

Standing Stones at Yule

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Not only were the dead expected within the home and offerings left for them but people went out to pay their respect to the dead, albeit unknowingly in later years, by leaving offerings at nearby mounds and howes.
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