Yule, the wheel of the year keeps turning.
December was known as Ærra Geola, Before Yule. The word 'Yule' comes from the Old English 'Geola', meaning 'wheel'. The Yuletide celebrations lasted for twelve days and nights and came to an end at the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, and spirits can cross the threshold to return to their loved ones or to torment the living. The celebration of Yule was a time of great superstition. It was a Pagan celebration of one cycle coming to an end and the start of another; a turning of the wheel; a time when the Sun leaves the realm of the living, allowing darkness and ice to cover the land, killing livestock, plants and crops. It was a supernatural fire festival, where candles and bonfires were lit to brighten up the dome of the sky, in defiance of the cold, dark Winter, and to frighten away bad spirits and malevolent fairies. It was a twelve day celebration when sacrifices were made to entice the Gods to bring back the Sun, the giver of life, the true saviour of mankind. The bones of the sacrificed animals (those who couldn't survive the Winter due to a lack of food) were thrown onto bonfires (bone-fires) and the flesh was eaten in a great feast.
In Scandinavia, at the beginning of Winter, the lady of the household would make a blood sacrifice to the elves, called a Álfablót or Elven Sacrifice. It was a time when the crops had been harvested and the animals were fat and awaiting the Winter slaughter. It is likely that the sacrifices were connected to ancestors and fertility, a way to ensure the family was protected during the dark days of Winter. Elves are still associated with Christmas to this day and help Santa Claus prepare gifts for well-behaved children. Also in Scandinavia there was the Midwinter sacrifice, known as the Dísablót, a great sacrifice to honour the Dísir, the spirits of female ancestors, which coincides with the Anglo-Saxon Mothers' Night.
As well as feasting, Yule was a time for gatherings and fellowship, gift-giving and toasting. The first toast was to Wōden, the second was to Ing (also known as Frey), and the third was to the king, wishing him good health and hæl. Like the Irish Samhain, an extra place was set at the table for dead relatives. Memorial toasts were then made in memory of departed kinsmen. Toasting is believed to have been brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, who literally placed a piece of toasted bread in their drinks.
In Scandinavia, as the Winter Solstice approached, a boar, known as the Yule Boar, was chosen and sacrificed to Frey (Ing), God of peace, light and agriculture, in the hope he would bring back the Sun. Until the 17th Century, it was customary in England and Scandinavia to hunt wild boars, cut off its head and offer it to the God of agriculture.
'It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made,
all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part in the drinking of ale. All kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was called hlaut, and hlautbolli, the vessel holding the blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs. These were fashioned like sprinklers, and were to be smeared all over with blood, the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and served as food at the banquet. Fires were to be lit in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over them. The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as all the sacrificial meat.' - Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 12th Century.
The wild boar was the traditional meal at Yule until it was replaced by the peacock, roast beef, venison, goose, and finally the turkey in the 19th Century. In 21st Century England, the boar still has its place on the Christmas dinner table in the form of 'pigs in a blanket', pork sausages wrapped in bacon. Interestingly, the traditional Christmas pudding was, until quite recently, a bowl of porridge. It was also customary in England to leave out a bowl of porridge to appease the household fairies. This custom survives today, only we now leave out milk and cookies for Santa.
As mentioned earlier, it was customary in Scandinavia for children to fill old boots with hay for Odin's eight-legged horse when he visited during the Wild Hunt (see Wild Hunt). In exchange for the hay, Odin would leave a small gift as a thank you. Also, the German Goddess, Hertha, would come down people's chimneys to reward the good with gifts or punish the bad. She is the reason why we hang stockings over the fireplace on Christmas Eve.
Extract from The Supernatural World of the Anglo-Saxons:
Gods, Folklore and the Pagan Roots of Christmas and Halloween