Yule is the celebration of the Winter Solstice, when the dark half of the year gives way to the light. Beginning the next morning the sun hangs a little lower in the sky, therefore warming the land just a bit more.
In ancient times, living in the dark half of the year must have been near torture. Living with the cold (without insulation), limited food resources, and being confined to a small space generally overflowing with family and livestock. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the ancient peoples = who marked the passage of time by way of the sun and moon = would celebrate the dawning of the end of this risky time. No doubt conservation of food stores was also the way of life during the first half of winter. After such a time of illness and boredom, it should also not surprise, that they mark this day/night, with sacrifices, bon-fires and emerging from their homes to mingle with neighbors and grand feasts.
Darkness rules up to this day. For the ancient peoples, who lacked sufficient lighting systems, they would have to deal with only about 6 or 7 hours of daylight. The myths of the time, focused much of the evils on the night = also not surprising as falling temps would no doubt increase the rates of sickness and death. So, the Yule celebrations would also celebrate the light of the Sun and Sun Gods fighting and conquering the Moon and Moon Gods. The Oak King is a gain victorious (aka The Sun King) defeating the Holly King, thus allowing the warming of the land and strengthening of the Sun.
Each of the traditions still celebrated today, originated with our ancient Celtic and Scandinavian ancestors. The decorating of the Christmas Tree, the Yule Log, The Christmas Ham, the decorating with evergreens and holly - all (and more) originated with Yule Traditions.
The Christmas Boar/Ham originated as the Yule-Eve Honor Boar. The best boar would be brought into the meeting house where the peoples would lay hands upon it and re-make vows. The sacrifice of the boar would send their vows to the Gods, and the meat from the sacrifice was a form of the Gods honoring those vows.
Decorating with Evergreens had a few reasons behind it. First of all the evergreen was seen as a symbol of immortality - as the leaves and plant-life seem to 'die' during the winter, but evergreens retain their beauty and color throughout the cold dark time. Decorating the house with holly worked to reinforce this immortality concept - but it is also prickly, and therefore might be used to protect against evil spirits entering through the extended night. Holly was also set out on entry ways as a symbol of good fortune. Holly, Mistletoe and Ivy would decorate the outside and inside of homes, inviting the Nature Spirits to wake from their slumber and begin to thaw and fertilize the land.
Mistletoe. Mistletoe was (and still is) a sacred plant to Druids and certain Scandinavians. It was used by the Druids as an AllHeal, believing this plant holds the soul of the tree within its power. Pieces of the plant would also be cut on Yule and distributed to the people as protection against evil - hanging it in newborns cribs, hanging it in the barn of the first born calf of the year to protect the herd, etc. In some areas it was also considered a plant of peace - if two armies converged in a forest below mistletoe they would call a truce for 24 hours. The act of kissing under the mistletoe has long been thought of as an English custom, but its origins may come from much further back in history, all the way to Norse mythology. The Goddess Frigga had a son, Balder who become the most beloved of all the Gods. Frigga so loved her son she acquired vows form all natures elements - fare, air, earth and water - that none of their 'children' would ever come to harm her son. Loki, ever the evil prankster, found a loophole in mistletoe. He made an arrow out of the plant and gave it to Balder's blind brother Holder, guiding his hand in firing the arrow straight into Balder's heart, killing him. It was believed Frigga's tears became the white berries. She kissed her son, and he restored to life. Frigga was so happy she reversed the reputation of the evil plant - into one of love and happiness, promising she would bestow a kiss to all who passed under it.
The Yule Log. It should surprise no one that the Yule Log is also a tradition from ancient times. It was common for the Sabbats, Solstices & Equinox's, to be celebrated with the ceremonial burning of fires - sometimes to cleanse in preparation for winter as with Mabon, sometimes to cleanse the effects of winter in preparation for spring as with Beltaine, and sometimes just as a plea to the Gods for continued protection. Marking the end of the rule of the Holly or Oak king - the end of the rule of the sun allowing the earth its time of rest and recuperation of winter or the end of the rule of the nigh, welcoming the sun again to warm the land and its people, or the enduring battle between fertility and death in nature. This is true for Yule, which is also known as the Winter Solstice, commonly referred to as the longest night of the year, it marks the time when the night begins to shorten and the days to again lengthen - giving our ancestors hope of the end of the cold and suffering of winter. The Yule log (which oddly could not be bought, it had to be given or harvested personally by the family burning it). It was meant to represent the health, fruitfulness and productivity of the household. In ancient times the log, after being retrieved from the forrest by the whole family who would drag it home singing carols (livening the spirit often dampened through Winter), they would decorate the log in evergreens (representing immortality and the fruitfulness of the coming spring) and sprinkled with cider or wine (after all it is a party) and bits of red or gold fabric (both the fabric and wine represent the coming time of the Sun's rule). They would then uncover the remains of the previous year's Yule Log and add it to the fireplace with this year's log to be burned for 12 hours before being doused (with either Holy Water or Cider depending on the region). The the remains would be protected for the next Winter Solstice. Ash is the traditional wood for the Yule log as it is the 'World Tree' in many traditions - the center of the universe or doorway to other worlds.
Gift Giving. As this is the first major gathering since winter began (at Samhain, or Halloween) this time was often a great party - joy in surviving the harsh winter thus far. Children would often start the day by going house to house, or person to person giving gifts of apples, or decorated bows of evergreens as these are symbols of the Sun warming the land, and the immortality of nature. Wheat Stalks & Flour also made great gifts, representing the bounty of the last harvest (memories of a warmer, happier time), and a sense of accomplishment (of the successful harvest), triumph and the remembrance of the Sun's warmth. When Christianity took over the tradition of Yule, changing it to Christmas, they also took the opportunity of giving treats under (or sometimes on) the Christmas Tree.
The Christmas Tree is debatable in it's origins, although England's Queen Victoria made it a popular Christmas tradition, falling back onto her husbands Germanic roots. The origins of the Christmas tree as a Christian tradition date back about 1,000 years to St. Boniface. He supposedly came across a group of pagans celebrating the Winter Solstice by honoring (or 'worshiping') an Oak tree. He was so incensed to have the lack of Christianity's prevalence thrown in his face that he cut down the tree. A young Fir supposedly instantly replaced the desiccated tree, which St. Boniface took as proof of the existence of Christianity and made the Fir a symbol for it. But, a tree was not brought indoors by Christians until the rule of Queen Victoria - whose husband was a Germanic Prince. Many of the Christmas traditions preserved today were originated in Germanic countries - from the songs to the decorations - including the Glass Bulb decorations placed on the tree. In fact the book of Jeremiah in the Christian bible reads, "For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan people deck it with silver and gold they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it can't move." Where is obviously condemns the use of a tree in forms of worship (although, admittedly, it is most likely referring to the act of worshiping the tree itself). The use of pulling in an evergreen tree (usually an oak, pine or fir) and decorating it with apples, cloth bows/flowers, with the soul purpose of allowing children to collect 'dainties' during the Yule-tide season can be found in print as far back as the 16th century. Therefore, it is argued that this specific tradition can not be proven as descending from the Pagan religion of the Celts and Germanic/Norse. Although, it would make sense considering the honor the Celts placed on trees that a tree in their 'yard' would be decorated as they were also using free-fall (already on the ground) bows of evergreens to decorate their homes to celebrate Yule. The Druids have long used Trees in their practices, honoring their spirits. So, I can't think they would sacrifice the tree itself, to be used as a decoration. I can believe they would single out and honor a free growing evergreen as a symbol of the immortality of nature.
Christmas Spirits. We are all quite familiar with the Christmas Carol made popular by Charles Dickens. Even this tradition comes from long ago. In fact the history of Christmas Spirits ties in with the use of the Yule log by Scandinavian traditions. One of Odin's original names was Jolnir, and he was often celebrated at the Winter Solstice by Scandinavian ancients. Odin was the God of Wine and revelry, but he was also one of the Gods of death. It was thought he could be seen riding across the night sky collecting souls. As Yule is the celebration of the waning of the Night's strength, it is not surprising they honored Odin's night rides on this eve. It was further thought the ghosts were free to roam from Samhain (Halloween) until Beltaine (May 1 st) when the veils between the worlds was thin and spirits of the dead could pass easily through unto the Summerlands or Underworld.
No matter the tradition, location or religion celebrating this dark time of the year. A sense of celebration and accomplishment was and still is prevalent. After spending the last month's conserving food, and warmth, getting together for a feast, dancing and gift giving, as well as colorful decorations blesses all man. Turning the harsh cold of the northern countries into the warmth of the fire and love. This time is not only about getting. I believe it is important to remember the roots of the season to honor those who came before us. And to put our problems into perspective. If you have food and warmth than the Winter is no longer as devastating - but there are still those who don't have such necessities. I believe that the act of helping those without - will benefit ourselves 1000 fold.
Enjoy the Yule-Tide Season!!