Jul--or, as it is sometimes spelt, Yule--may come from the Old Norse Jol. Jol blot was a mid winter festival associated with sacrifice and the rebirth of the sun. Blot means "sacrifice," often of blood.
When Scandinavia became Christian around 1000 AD, King Haakon moved the festival of Jol to coincide with Christmas. The two have been intertwined ever since. Of course Christmas was originally developed to counteract Roman Saturnalia, and celebrations started about 200 years after Christ. There is a tradition in Coptic Christian Church of celebrating Christ's birth in May.
Where they could, the new religion incorporated the older traditions. However since Christ had sacrificed himself for everyone, the blood sacrifices died out. But very little is known of the actual meaning and celebration of Jul. Some believe that it was the time of Odin leading the Wild Hunt and that the veil between the world of the dead and the world of the living was very thin. Scholars are divided on the length of the festival. Some say three days, others twelve. In Iceland there is a tradition of Yule boys bringing presents in the 13 days before Christmas. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that it was a multi-day feast.
There are a few references in the sagas about Jul being broken or a berserk withholding a fight as he did not want to break Jul, so some believe that this period was a time of peace or truce. It was also a time of promises, unbreakable oaths and resolutions. These were often conducted over a boar sacrificed in Freyr's honour. Freyr was a god of the harvest and fertility.
Things like the Boar's Head Carol (English), where a Boar's head is bedecked with bay and rosemary or even the tradition of a Yule Ham, are thought to be related back to Viking tradition. It remains a popular tradition in Norway to give a marzipan pig at Christmas for good luck and prosperity.
Because the goat was special to Thor--another god honoured at this time of year--people would go around dressed in goatskins, singing and making merry. It is from here that some believe wassailing developed.
In Norway, there is a tradition of a Jul beer or a specially brewed beer for the Yule season. This beer was not brewed at other times.
The Yule log was important because it kept fire in the world and helped to ensure the next harvest would be good. Today it is more likely to be a cake eaten for good luck.
While the religion that inspired the traditions has long since vanished, the rituals remain. However you celebrate, may this season bring peace, joy and prosperity to all.
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