yule

Yule comes from the Old English geola a name for the months of December or January. The English word is cognate with, but apparently not descended from, the Old Norse jól, a pagan solstice celebration.

The English term is attested to as early as 726 by Bede in his De temporibus ratione (About the Reckoning of Time, chapter 15):

De Mensibus Anglorum..Primusque eorum mensis, quem Latini Januarium vocant, dicitur Giuli… December Giuli, eodem quo Januarius nomine, vocatur… Menses Giuli a conversione solis in auctum diei, quia unus eorum præcedit, alius subsequitur, nomina accipiunt.

(About the English months [...] their first month, which the Latins call January, is called Yule [...] December [is] Yule, the same name by which January is called [...] the months of Yule take their names from the lengthening of the day according to the cycle of the sun because one of these months precedes it, and the other follows.)

The association with the solstice is also apparent in the terms ærra geola (before Yule) meaning December and æfterra geola (after Yule) for January.

Due to their proximity on the calendar, the association of Yule with Christmas festivities was inevitable and early. The Old English Martyrology, written sometime before 900, has this:

Ðam Eadbrehte uuæs gewunelic þæt he symle feowertig daga ær Eastran & eac feowertig daga ær Cristes acennisse, ðæt is ær geolum, he wunode on dægelre stowe on his gebeodum & on gastlicum weorcum.

(Moreover it was usual for Eadberht that he always forty days before Easter and also forty days before Christ’s birth, that is before Yule, remained in a secret place, in his in his prayers, and in his spiritual works. )

And the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written about the same time as the Martyrology, says this about Æthelthryth, an abbess of Ely (4.19):

Ond seldon in hatum baðum heo baðian wolde, buton þam hyhstan symbelnessum & tidum æt Eastran & æt Pentecosten & þy twelftan dege ofer Geochol.

(And she would seldom bathe in hot water, except at the highest feasts and seasons, at Easter, and at Pentecost, and the twelve days after Yule.)

Bede’s original Latin reads “paschae pentecostes epiphaniae” (at Easter, at Pentecost, and at Epiphany), so the translator is definitely associating Yule with Christmas—Epiphany follows twelve days after Christmas.

(Note this is not confirmation about the myth of bathing in the Middle Ages, or lack thereof, but rather a refutation of it. Bede is calling out Æthelthryth’s refusal to bathe in hot water because it is unusual and indicative of her saintly rejection of worldly comforts. And for another tawdry tidbit about Æthelthryth, see this.)


Sources:

Dictionary of Old English: A to G Online, University of Toronto, 2007, s. v. geola.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, second edition, 1989, s. v. yule, n.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton