Yule and Christmas

At Christmas time, I sometimes take the opportunity to look back on my life. I sometimes feel a bit sad as I settle down after cleaning and decorating, waiting for children and grandchildren to arrive. I have lived on my own since my wife died in 2012 and now, of course, memories of our Christmases are coming up. A memory from our last Christmas together makes me glad now. We had many common interests and were happy wondering about life and about language and philosophy among many other things.

At breakfast, six years ago my wife Eva and I sat talking. Although it was Christmas time, the sun rose and gave a feeling of spring, and great tits and chaffinches sounded as if they thought the winter was over. No christmas winter, but as the conversation came and went, we came to talk about Christmas, and it was the Swedish word for Christmas – jul – that we began to wonder about.

We say jul in Sweden and take it for granted that it is in some way about the birth of Jesus and the joyous message of Christians to pagans and others who walk in the valley of the shadow of death. We talked about the fact that in English you make that connection directly with the term Christmas, which can be translated as ”Christ Mass”. But, we asked ourselves – what does the word jul mean?

In the bookshelf we have an old etymological dictionary in new print, and I went to get it. Etymology is the science of words and their history, and my connection Christmas = Christ Mass is such an etymological link that shows quite clearly that the word has an origin in the Catholic Church with all its masses and that this was the great occasion to celebrate Christ’s memory and glory.

A Concise Etymological Dictionary of English Language

In this dictionary we also found another English word for Christmas, the ancient word yule. The word is the same as the present-day Swedish word jul, and when we read more carefully it turned out that the word came to English via the Angles and Saxons and their verb gýlan. The word means to have fun, to joke and party. To begild life with a party when the darkness becomes too stressful. We also found the word jolen. In ancient German, it was a word that signified falsetto singing and acting clownish. And we also found a connection to the word jól from old Icelandic, where they said jól referring to the big pagan mid-winter festivity.

”jåling” 2500 years ago. Cliff carving at Tisselskog, Dalsland, Sweden.

Eva and I did not originally come from Dalsland, but among the new words we encountered when we moved here in 1980, atel (disgusting) and jål or jåling (foolish/clownish behaviour) were among the most expressive ones. Never that we had been connecting jål with jul (Christmas) before, but now we thought it was quite clear that jul has long meant something like partying and playing and singing, much like the Dalsland dialect word jål. We continued reading the dictionary and then encountered the somewhat old-fashioned, yet contemporary, English word yawl. That means shouting, yelling, singing – maybe a little crazily too. And – it is still pronounced exactly like the Dalsland jål and probably also like the old Icelandic word jól, meaning yule.

Jul and Yule and yawl and jål, then. Words that the Anglo-Saxon immigrants took to the British Isles about 400 AD. And we talked about the word jål and jåla that have survived in Dalsland in their ancient sense and  giving us insights into what Christmas used to be at that time. The Anglo-Saxons were barely christened when they made their travels over the English Channel, so what they brought along was the old-fashioned winter party that could last for two months. They called December se ǽrra geóla (= pre-yuletide) and January se æftera geóla (= post-yuletide).

Christmas – a great festivity of play, party, glee and song – maybe we could ​​put Dalsland on the tourist map with  revival of Yule-tide as Winter Jål, Winter-Yawl, Yule-jål. A rave party with an ancient history. Jolly good, we thought!

And thus we wish our blog readers a very Merry Christmas

Ellington