Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Crying Yule

In 17th century Yorkshire, after the morning service on Christmas Day, people used to take hands and dance through the church shouting “Yule! Yule! Yule!”

I'll bet the vicar just loved that.

Crying Yule as a refrain to seasonal songs, chants, and dances is an old custom in the English-speaking world (as it still is in Scandinavia) with parallels in a number of non-Germanic cultures. To take just one example, a standard refrain in Latvian Midwinter carols is Kalado, Kalado; Kalado means “Christmas,” but it's yet another descendant of the wide-spread and influential Latin calendae, like Provençal Calena and Russian Kolyadá. The calends of January have much to answer for in the course of cultural (and linguistic) history.


Yule! Yule! Yule! Yule!

Three puddings in a pule! [= pool?]

Crack nuts and cry Yule!

Yule! Yule! Yule! Yule!


Yule! Yule! Yule!

My belly's full!

Crack nuts and cry Yule!

Yule! Yule! Yule!


Chances are, we've been crying Yule for a good, long while now. Old English Géol, Norse Júl, and Gothic Jiuleis are all descendants of the (unattested but reconstructable) Common Germanic *Jehwla-, circa 500 BCE. The original meaning is unclear. What we can say is that it's unrelated to yell, gel, or (surely the most mythic of the folk etymologies) wheel.


Like so many old pagan things, the word Yule has been hiding in plain sight for centuries. It didn't begin to be ousted by “Christmas” until the 13th century, and in some places—Shetland and the Orkneys, for instance—the newfangled word has just plain never caught on at all.

The re-adaption of the word by the new pagans of the English-speaking world is a brilliant stroke. Once labeled “archaic” in dictionaries and relegated to a few set phrases and space-saving newspaper titles, this fine old pagan word has, in our day, taken on new life, with a grace and authenticity wholly lacking to imports like “Ostara” or “Mabon.”


As for taking hands and dancing while crying Yule! Yule! Yule! after the big ritual: well, if you haven't done it lately, why not give it a try? 


It sure works for me.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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