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  Yule - The Midwinter Festival

What was Yule?

Yule, or Jol, was the name of the midwinter festival of the pagan Norse and Teutonic people of northern Europe.

From the 8th century onwards, as the Norwegians settled in Orkney and Shetland, they carried their Yule festival with them. And they were celebrated for centuries.

In the Northern Isles, Yule lasted about a month - a period referred to as "the Yules" or "atween the Yules".

Using our calendar, this began somewhere around December 20 and ended on January 13. The dates from the surviving sources vary, however.

In earlier days, for example, it is inferred that the Yule festivities started on the eve of December 12 - Maunsmass E'en, the eve of the feast day of St Magnus.

Even the duration of the festivities varies according to recorded accounts, and which period they date from. One, for example, states that, although some people feasted for 12 days after Yule day, it was known for others to continue right up to the 24th night.

However long the celebrations lasted, we know that feasts and parties were commonplace throughout, with fiddling, dancing and drinking going on late into each night.

Within this section, I have separated various Yule traditions into manageable chunks, each dealing with individual elements of the festival.

Readers should remember that some of these traditions were not necessarily universal and may only have been found in certain localities. Along the same lines, there were undoubtedly other traditions that have long since been lost.

Bonfire celebrations

In Orkney, one of the few things we know with certainty is that Yule was one of the four great fire festivals of the year.

At Beltane, Midsummer, Hallowmass and Yule, massive communal fires were lit on hilltops across the islands. Click here for more details.

Yule greenery

A widespread Yule tradition, and one that persists in our Christmas festivities today, was the decoration of the house with greenery.

There are no surviving records of this taking place in Orkney and, given our lack of trees and suitable greenery, was probably left out. However, it may be that the tradition of dressing the house was so common that the early writers did not consider it 'remarkable' enough to record - but I doubt it.