Welcome to our new blog. (The old one was lost in some SNAFU at the hosting company.)
I think we’re all well aware that the decoration of the tree at Yule is a heathen survival. The custom spread to Victorian England from Germany because Prince Albert cherished it, and the German tradition was always to bring in and decorate the tree on Christmas Eve … at the start of the Xian version of the 12 days of Yule. There’s a legend ascribing the tradition to Martin Luther, but that’s transparently false. The original version of the tradition, however, was almost certainly to go out and decorate an evergreen tree where it stood, as a counterpart to wassailing one’s fruit trees, and in clear kinship to the tree of Uppsala and the Donner’s/Thor’s oaks of England and Germany.
Going back to an outdoor tree (possibly with garlands of cranberries and other things the birds might like, which was also a 19th-century tradition) is an interesting idea, although planning and serious ladders are involved, and I think most of us really like the light-laden indoor tree. Personally I use a fake tree since I can’t stand the idea of killing one for the purpose, and the potted ones that were promoted a few years ago as a living alternative find it hard to survive in our well heated, dry, and kind of dark living spaces … plus they can’t survive in pots forever and should really be planted in the ground after one Yule, and that’s a quick way to run out of garden space.
But as we all know, the tree has come to be a thing on which one piles lights, and ornaments that reflect light. And every year the competition gets tougher to have the most brightly decorated house and front yard. A lot of this is just fun: there’s a house near where I live where the guy loves inflatables: his yard is currently full of Winnie the Pooh characters, teddy bears, a pair of shivering penguins who are probably from some Disney movie, and a snowman doing a headstand; and lighting that throws kaleidoscopic patterns on the front of the house has apparently been selling faster than Home Depot can keep it in stock. Some of it’s obnoxious advertising that belongs in front of a church, if anywhere: nativity scenes, with or without Xian music, the big-box seasonal version of the virgin in the half bathtub that some Catholics feel compelled to have in their front yard. And some of it, in this neighbourhood, looks as if it may be meant to figure on an engineer’s LinkedIn profile: that screensaver pattern of streams of light on a grid that splash or explode when they hit each other – done in micro-wiring on the facade and porch columns, along with pools of static pinpricks of coloured light in the grass, all invisible in daytime.
One of the people I used to read on LiveJournal who have now decamped to Facebook or somewhere used to complain every year about the light pollution from front-yard Xmas displays mucking up his astronomy. I do feel sorry for astronomers. The Mount Hamilton observatory overlooking San Jose has a serious problem year-round, without throwing in Xmas yard displays intended to dazzle airline pilots.
But light at our homes is part of the essence of Yule. Yule is the cold turning of the year, when the Wild Hunt is riding and the weather is likely not fit for man or beast. It is when we hold our loved ones tight and when we celebrate togetherness, friendship, and especially family, when we keep our homes lighted against the darkness and tell news and stories and share knowledge, wisdom, and history of those who have gone before. We celebrate our ancestors, in dísablót and alfablót, we tell the stories of our forefathers, of heroes, and of the gods, we feast and sumble as well as blót and make plans and vows for the coming year. The tales of this time of year feature when to open the door, they feature lighted halls full of merriment, they feature toasts and oaths, and above all they feature the hearth: both the hall/hof hearth where the drink is passed over the fire to hallow it, and the home hearth around which kin are gathered. On Mothers’ Night, the first night of Yule and solstice night, the light was kept burning all night, and some heathens keep an all-night vigil.
As regards the home hearth, a major part of the tradition that is hard for many of us to keep up is the Yule log: a large piece of wood brought in from the forest, ceremonially lighted at the beginning of the twelve days (often with the remnants of last year’s), and kept alight at least the first night. This may go back to traditions of allowing the peasantry to bring home a piece of timber for their own fires at the same time as they were required to gather winter firewood in the forest for the lord. Just as the twelve days themselves have been seen as an annual holiday when peasants were not required to work. But surely that is the wrong way round and the traditions preceded the feudal relationship. The Yule log in one shape or form survives today in the oddest places – the South of France, Spain, as well as Germany and not only the British Isles (where there are Welsh, Scottish, and Irish terms for it as well as a host of regional names) but also apparently in the colonial American heritage. (Plus of course there is the French tradition of a cake formed like a log.) Tenacious custom, and the more one looks at it, the more it is clearly holy: there are traditionally rules against barefooted and bad-tempered people being around the Yule log fire, and in Provence they still apparently parade it around the house and then dab it with a twig dipped in wine before lighting it. The prayers associated with the lighting in some places are about joy. Some heathen groups have tried to revive the tradition, just as we have heathen Yule trees, and I think this is much to be encouraged. So long as neither burns the place down.
Joy and light to you for all twelve nights and days.