Before I begin, let us give thanks for a wonderful Christmas present, the coming home of the last troops in Iraq; after the death and wounding of tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, all in the name of George W. wanting to feel like he had a bigger dick than his dad. A shame Obama didn’t do it sooner, as he promised, instead of waiting till his re-election campaign, and scorn of the highest order on all the Republicans and Fox News scum, wanting the war to go on and not giving a damn for the American soldiers they clam they’re out to protect. Ana a special note of disgust to John McCain, who knows better than most what a waste war is, yet still wants it to go on. I hope Santa brings you all a big stocking stuffed with live hornets!!
Day Seven is seven swans a swimming, not much to work with, especially since we’ve had so many birds so far, although it is wonderfully alliterative; Day 8 is eight maids a milking, which makes me think of cattle. The ownership of livestock, cattle especially, was looked at for centuries in many cultures as a mark of nobility and success. A warlord, whether Celtic or Viking, was judged not just by how much gold he gave his followers, but by how well he feasted them. To get an idea of how important this was, the root of the word “daughter” is from an Indi-Aryan word meaning “keeper of cows”. Cattle represented stability and wealth, something only a powerful ruler would have, and could keep; thus, the butchering of cattle became synonymous with the noblesse oblige. One of the feasts on which this would take place was, of course, Yule.
Etymologically, we cannot pin down an exact meaning or beginning for Yule, sometimes called a month, other times a day; there is no doubt that it was chosen to be celebrated at the winter solstice, or midsvinterblot as the Norse would have called it, but we cannot be sure if it began with them, as histories and writings that mention it are scattered over many Germanic and Norse countries. During the Stone and Bronze Ages, the solstice was associated with the dead and the worshipping of ancestors in Western Europe, and it is possible that the Yule may have grown from that, as the religion of ancient cultures grew more complex, and they transferred the veneration of ancestors to the gods; both Vanir and Odin (one of whose names is Jolnir, “Yule figure”) are posited as the fathers of their people, and are associated with early Yule celebrations.
For some Norse, the Yule was a 12 or 14 day period of celebration that started with the solstice; since this was the darkest time, when the sun itself might die or descend to the underworld, a fire was needed to remind her (in the Norse, the sun and moon were both feminine) of her duty, and to help her find her way. The greatest log available to the tribe was placed in the ceremonial house, the (you guessed it) Yule log, and as long as it burned, all internecine quarrels and feuding were suspended. Some authors have suggested that Germanic kissing games popular around Christmas in the Victorian era (which featured mistletoe, more on that later this week), carried there with most of our current Christmas traditions, may have began as young folk from rival families might meet and romance at this time, free from worry that a glance or kiss might ignite a clan war. The cattle were slaughtered and the folk fed, though every farmer also brought foodstuff from his own farm to share with his clan, so a poor harvest might in some way be ameliorated.
In the oldest writings of Yule, a goat was symbolically slaughtered, and while this tradition is still found in Scandinavia, it hasn’t made the jump into many celebrations in the US and Europe; the goat is the symbol of the power of the gods, for mighty Thor’s chariot is pulled across the skies by two fierce goats, called Tanngrisnir (teeth barer) and Tanngnjostr (teeth grinder). Thor would slay the goats for supper every night, and then magically revive them in the morning with a wave of his dreaded hammer, Mjolnir (whose name, by the way, is not from the same root as Yule, but likely words meaning “smasher” or “thunderer”). The goat seemed to serve much of the function of Saint Nick in older times, sometimes a creature to frighten naughty children, other times it checked up on the Christmas preparations, and there are even some early depictions of Santa riding the goat. But it’s original role as a sacrific was not forgotten, as pantomime performances of a man dressed in skins being sacrificed and then rising from the dead were performed in Sweden up until the 1960’s, though today you are more likely to find the tradition in a small goat shaped ornament made of straw and wrapped with red ribbons. Straw goats of large size are often erected in towns and set on fire before the end of the Yule (ironically, this is illegal, yet happens without anyone seeming to care). As a young boy, I was told the story of how the Yule Goat was to be secretly left in a friend’s home as a prank, as a reminder of the omnipresence of the gods, and how that family would have to do the same, leaving the goat at another’s house, and I invite my kin to keep alive such ancient traditions in whatever form you choose…best of Yule!