Yule be Happy to Know…



As I’m writing a Saxon set story at the moment, I thought I’d do a quick post about Christmas in Anglo-Saxon England.

First of all, the period of festivities around the winter equinox wasn’t really called “Christmas” until very late in the Saxon era – the first time we have it recorded as such is 1043. Before that it had been known as Yule.

“Yule” was the Saxon name for a midwinter festival that had been celebrated by the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe since pagan times, and which fell somewhere between December and January. That is, the month of December was known as Ærra Geola – before Yule – and January was called Æfterra Geola – after Yule. (The ‘G’ in Geola is pronounced like a ‘y’ as in ‘yes’.)

The Venerable Bede tells us that 25th of December itself was known as Modranecht – Mothers’ Night, “when we celebrate the birth of our lord.”  Bede can be counted on to mention if there’s a link to Anglo-Saxon paganism in the naming of things, but he’s also dealing with stuff that was probably common knowledge to his readers, and he doesn’t give details. So although modern paganism has various theories as to who these ‘mothers’ are, the truth is lost.

As a Christian scholar of note, you might have expected Bede to be in denial of the fact that Christmas planted itself on top of older pagan celebrations. But at the time it was church policy to do so, and most people felt this was not only sensible but also generous – allowing people to keep the holidays they loved rather than trying to force them to give them up. Indeed, in 597ad Pope Gregory the Great wrote to Saint Augustine with instructions as to how to Christianise the English, and told him that churches ought to be built on top of earlier temples so that the people could continue to come and decorate their holy places with boughs of trees, and that whereas they had once sacrificed animals to pagan gods, they should be encouraged to do so in Christ’s name instead and then have a feast and eat the meat.

In other words – keep the holiday, just change the meaning.

We can tell from these instructions that the practice of decking the hall with boughs of holly is a very early Christmas tradition indeed. Since both holly and ivy are evergreen, not dropping their leaves or ‘dying’ in the winter, both are naturally appropriate to represent immortality during a time of death.

Apart from decking the halls, the tradition of the Yule log appears to date back to Saxon times – this was a log of ash wood, brought into the house and placed on the fire on Christmas Eve, which had to be large enough to burn until 12th night, with a little bit left over to start the Yule fire next year. Good luck to everyone if it lasted, terrible bad luck if it went out, or it burned up early.  Frankly, since ash is a steady, eager-burning wood, the size of the thing must have been huge, and probably would only fit in the firepit of a hall rather than the humble hearth of a cottage.

But that would be OK.  We know too that feasting was essential to the season, and most Anglo-Saxon feasting was communal and took place at the hall, along with much drinking, gaming, riddling tests of wit, singing, playing of musical instruments and, if you were lucky, listening to a professional scop (Anglo-Saxon bard) tell some of the great old stories that you might often have heard before, but never quite told exactly this way.

There’s no record of gift-giving particularly in relation to Christmas at this time, but that may be because it was the duty of the lord of any Saxon community to give gifts to his underlings at all special occasions, with the implication that the underling would pay him back in loyalty.

So, Christmas in Anglo-Saxon times? Pretty much a two month long period of preparations and celebrations, centring around 25th December to 6th January, and involving decorating the church, going to mass, eating and drinking around the fire until you couldn’t stand up, and being entertained by repeats of all the best old stories. Put like that, it sounds familiar 😉

Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years. Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two daughters in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.

Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.

You can find her on her website http://alexbeecroft.com

For slight whiplash in time, I’m offering a copy of my new Age of Sail novella By Honor Betrayed to one person who can tell me – what is the modern equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon month Winterfilleth?

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

23. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” what film was this song featured–sung by Judy Garland?

17 Responses

  1. Grand post. 🙂

    We had a New Years Log tradition, waaaaay back before we had kids. A bunch of us used to go away for a walking/drinking holiday at the new year and we’d get the biggest log we could find, jam one end of it into the fireplace and try to keep it burning for the whole time we were away. We too kept the end of it to kindle the fire the following year. It was a nice tradition.

    I was born in Winterfilleth! 🙂 But I have a copy of By Honour Betrayed 🙂 🙂 so I’m not saying when it was.

    • Thank you! I rather envy you the yule log. Having grown up with ‘proper’ fires, my parents were eager to put them behind them in favour of central heating, so that wasn’t something we could do. I wonder if I should revive it now we have an open fire? It would be interesting to try 🙂

      I was born in EreLithe, which doesn’t sound half as good. “Winterfilleth” is my favourite month name because just the sound of it makes me laugh. Lucky you!

  2. Ah yes, Winter Full Moon. Winterfilleth is the tenth month, October I believe. I love reading about how Christian festivals were ‘superimposed’ onto the old Pagan rituals and rites. I enjoyed this. Very interesting. Thank you. 🙂

    • I remember reading about the conversion of the Saxons at university, and being very impressed with how honest the church of the time was about their thought process re the date of Christmas. Nobody bothered saying “well, this was when it really happened,” presumably because they knew that they didn’t know and they didn’t care that they didn’t know, as long as it was celebrated at some point.

      Thank you!

  3. I promise I didn’t peek at other people’s answers before entering my own 🙂 Winterfilleth is our October since it was the 10th month of the Old English calendar. End of Sept/beginning of Oct was the autumn equinox and thus the start of winter.

    smaccall AT comcast.net

    • I should have figured out a work-around on that one, shouldn’t I? But it’s mainly going to be decided randomly by dice throwing anyway, so not to worry either way 🙂

  4. Looked it up too. 10th month of the year or October. Very cool. Terrific post.

  5. We have in common a love of Anglo Saxon England… I hope to get back to it in future work, though I have switched to the American past for my first M/M novel as it is cheaper to go visit the Mississippi River! Anyway. the answer is October. I sure look forward to your Anglo Saxon books! Will any be M/M? have you read Mel Keegan’s “East Wind Blowing”? She just republished it for Kindle etc. … when she couldn’t find a copy to use for a manuscript, I gave her mine.. it was a selfish gesture.. now I can — and have — read it!


    • *g* Thanks Nan! I’m not sure if there will be Anglo-Saxon books, plural, but there will certainly be the one I’m working on at the moment, which is a m/m romance between a scop and a warrior.

      I haven’t read “East Wind Blowing.” I’d probably better wait until I’ve finished mine before I do, just to minimize chances of influence – I have a tendency to soak up things that I enjoy like a sponge and then I find them leaking out next time I write. I thought Mel Keegan was a man, though? (It doesn’t matter either way to me, but it might matter to him?)

      There’s a great deal to be said for writing about your local area if you like it – research is certainly simpler. Now that I’ve fallen in love with the Fens, I expect to write more stuff set around here. I’m sure it’s a fascinating place even though St.Guthlac called it a howling wilderness populated by demons 😉

      • That’s the area, more or less, that “An Involuntary King” takes place. See yeserday’s story on http://historicallyoffcenter.blogspot.com, “An Invvoluntary Christmas.

        I have heard many authors say that about reading other books while writing.. I wonder if it is because I only “listen’ to books that I don’t have that problem. I would go insane if I didn’t have a book going almost all the time except when I am actually at the computer writing one.


  6. Familiar indeed. Very little changes, does it?

    • I think we get less aware of the darkness that surrounds us – the perilous nature of human life, and the triumph of surviving another winter – as we get further away from nature in its raw state. Maybe that takes some of the edge off the celebration. (Not that I would fancy a return to the days when you couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t starve before spring.)

      Sorry! Not very merry thoughts for Christmas, there.

      • Jim and I tried to livve as Pagans for a couple years, really connecting, as much as possbile anyway, to the growing year. Besides the darkness, as Alex says, the sheer availability of different types of foods is incredible. Imagine if you could only eat what you yourself grew and could preserve.. hamns smoked in the rafters. People complain about love scenes in the Middle Ages… because people did not bathe. How often would you bathe if it was around freezing, you had to tote the water, the firewood to heat it, in a drafty daub and wattle structure and just put your dirty single clothing item on again after? Especially since no one else did either?


  7. It’s silly, (IMO) to complain about characters’ hygiene. Cleanliness is a matter of comparison, not an absolute – so if you are clean by the standards of your society, you are clean. In a society where no one washes, why should anyone notice that your character hasn’t washed? They’re far more likely to be perturbed and dismayed if he does!

    • I have been told that it’s harder to sell medieval era romances because the women who would read them are freaked about the clealliness issue. Certainly the few I have read always seem to find a way to introduce a bathtub. I had a couple people complain about Elilsabeth and Maliha jumping into bed after Elisabeth has not washed in four months.. having been on crusade… but I put that in to show how healing lovemaking is and how much Maliha cared for Elisabeth. I was sorry people were freaked out but I wish they had looked into the meaning and not the surface.


      • Actually, I believe the medievals at home used bath-houses the way the Georgians used coffee-houses, so they were quite a clean lot, I think. (But obviously, they’d find that hard to do while on campaign.) I would just disregard any grumblings about poor hygiene, the way I disregard the comments about why I have to mention bodily fluids and diseases so much. Some people are just squeamish, and there’s no pleasing everyone.

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