Yule is a birth, and birth is a messy business.

In the old North, women used to give birth in straw. This was called the birthing-litter or the birthing-strew: cushioning, absorbent, and readily disposable.

In fact, straw and strew come from the same verbal root, apparently meaning “to spread.” It was once customary to spread the floors of the house with straw—called halm or haulm, from the same root as Greek kalamos, “reed”—to insulate and absorb spills. Generally the halm had fragrant herbs mingled among it, but even so it must have gotten pretty rank with use. So for many years it was the practice to lay fresh strew for Yule: the Yule-halm. In Sweden this was known as Julglädje, the “Yule-joy.” (The old stuff must have been pretty bad.) Some people would sleep in the Yule-halm so as to leave their beds for the visiting dead who rejoin the family during the holy tide. Straw-dreams were said to be of great omen.

The custom of strewing the floor with straw is long gone, of course; in Norway, it was even specifically outlawed as a fire-hazard during the 19th century. Even so, in Scandinavia and the Baltics Yule decorations are still woven from straw, and throughout the Slavic-speaking world it's customary to strew an armful of straw beneath the table for the Holy Supper on Midwinter's Eve. (The Holy Supper is a ritual meal with 13 courses, one for each moon of the coming year.)

 

A friend tells me that her Armenian grandfather always used to sow the Yule-halm under the table with candies and silver dollars to keep the grandchildren engaged while the adults enjoyed their meal and conversation. There would always be a 100-dollar bill mixed in there somewhere as well. Good old grandpa.

I'm fascinated by the way that religious practices, and holiday observances in particular, preserve ancient ways of doing things. Years after the advent of electric light, rituals worldwide are still enacted by firelight. We are a people because we remember, and better it be if our actions remember for us.

Soon comes Midwinter's Eve, the Mother Night, the night that gives birth to the rest of the year. Let the house be cleansed, let the golden Yule-halm be laid, if only under the table.

For Yule is a birth, and birth is a messy business.