In preparation for a special midwinter event and seasonal exhibition at the most famous early Anglo-Saxon archaeological site - Sutton Hoo, and building on an earlier article on this subject published in 2012, we embarked on a project to re-examine the evidence for Anglo-Saxon midwinter traditions. Though noting the existence of a well established image of a generalized early medieval Yule based on passed-down folk traditions and logical inferences is held dear by many people today, we found that many traditions assumed to be Anglo-Saxon in origin are absent from primary sources from the period and are first documented surprisingly late. On the other hand, we found evidence for surprisingly familiar traditions established during the Anglo-Saxon period which can be thought of as distant ancestors of aspects of modern Christmas we still observe today.
So don your warmest cloak, grab a horn-full of mead, and join us on a journey through time, back to the Anglo-Saxon midwinter festival known as Yule.
Without the aid of artificial lighting (save for the dim light of rushlights, oil lamps, candles or hearths) productive work was limited to daylight hours, which are, themselves, substantially limited during winter, and further diminished by gloomy weather conditions and the always somewhat dark conditions inside most buildings. Extreme cold and damp set physical restrictions on the amount that could be achieved by outdoor labour during midwinter. Diminished plant growth during these months meant potential scarcity of food both for communities and livestock. Midwinter, encompassing the winter solstice, was thus a time of enforced inactivity. when relatively little could be achieved except the hard slog of surviving these challenging conditions through to spring. The solstice then, from the Latin sol ('sun') and sistere ('to stand still') could be viewed as a time when not only the sun, but society, work, and life, stood still too. It's therefore not surprising that countless cultures evolved festivals to fill this time, providing something to look forward to, and providing an opportunity for folk to share warmth, cheer, and resources during this hardest part of the year.
The Unconquered Sun
The Winter Solstice provided the natural phenomenon around which to calibrate the timing midwinter festivities (Hutton, 1996), though the vagueness of pinpointing it by simple solar observation (at best, plus or minus a few days) probably encouraged the development of prehistoric midwinters a multiple-day long festivals.
The Winter Solstice also held some significance in the Mediterranean region into the Classical period. The Romans marked the winter solstice with the festival of Saturnalia (17th of December in the Julian Calendar, later expanded with festivities running up to the 23rd). Most of what we know of this festival of the ancestor god, Saturn, comes from later (4-5th century) sources when the festival was declining, but it appears to have been an important fixture of the Roman calendar at least as far back as the 3rd century BCE. Traditions associated with Saturnalia included revelry, gambling, gift-giving, and social inversion comparable to later medieval traditions of "misrule" (Hutton, 1996). In later Roman times this festival increasingly became associated with the Cult of Sol Invictus - the unconquered sun; a natural fit, with the winter solstice symbolizing the birth, or re-birth, of the sun, at the time of year when the sun begins to grow in strength again rather than fade. The Dies Natalis Solis Invicti - birthday of the unconquered sun - was a festival of lights, and appears to have somewhat eclipsed Saturnalia during the 4th century, though remained in the shadow of a grander movable feast to Sol Invictus that typically happened in autumn. There is abundant archaeology to evidence the export of these cults, and therefore, presumably, their associated festivals and traditions, to the Northwestern fringes of the Roman Empire, where they may have played some part in influencing the development of early medieval traditions there, but at least equally, if not more importantly, they formed a backdrop for the development of the devotional calendar of the early Christian church.
The winter solstice was a time when days began getting longer & brighter, and, especially for people in Northern Europe, although the coldest times still lay ahead, it represented the hope of coming spring.
From Winter into Winter
Winter loomed larger in the Anglo-Saxon imagination than any other season, with wintry imagery permeating a huge amount of the surviving corpus of Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature (Parker, 2022). Although Old English poetry acknowledges the power and beauty of the season, winter is primarily seen as an inevitable, but time-limited trial to endured, and then overcome, each year.
With survival through a harsh winter far from guaranteed, it is no surprise that years -of-age were commonly expressed in terms of how many winters had been survived.
'ic wæs syfanwintre þá mec sinca baldor
fréawine folca æt mínum fæder genam
héold mec ond hæfde Hréðel cyning'
'I was seven-winters (old) when me the lord of treasure,
the lord and friend of the folk, took (me) from my father;
held and looked after me, King Hrethel' (Beowulf, 2428-2430. 8-10th century CE )
While some Old English poetry juxtaposes such descriptions of grim winters with other seasons, often it is the warmth of the mead-hall which is offered as the antidote to "wintercealde" - not merely as a building which shelters one from winter's storms, but as a social institution which warms the spirit. The centrality of the mead-hall to Anglo-Saxon communities (represented archaeologically in the form of palatial early Anglo-Saxon royal great-hall complexes, such as those excavated at sites such as Yeavering, Rendlesham, Lyminge and Sutton Courtney, but also in the form of more modest 'community' / 'village' halls nestled among groups of houses at sites like West Stow, Chalton and Catholm, Blair (2018) is particularly emphasized in Beowulf, where the continual attacks of the demonic monster Grendel upon the mead-hall Heorot plunge the kingdom into "twelve long winters" and a metaphorical "endless night". The poet goes to great lengths to emphasise how the hall is so wrought that it cannot be physically damaged by the attacks, yet its social function, in bringing folk together to share in fire and feasting has been stripped away, plunging the kingdom into an unending bitter winter. Though created through different circumstances, the outcome of the Grendel-feud is the same as for 'The Wanderer'; the worst earthly fate that the Anglo-Saxon mind can concieve of - facing winter without the solace of the mead-hall. Just as in C. S. Lewis' Narnia, in Denmark besieged by Grendel, or in the lonely world of the Wanderer, it is "always winter but never Christmas."
The dating of the composition of Beowulf is controversial - the surviving text (the Nowell Codex) being of 10th-11th century date. It is unquestionably true, however, that the events it describes are set in the 6th century, and that its imagery provides a startlingly vivid and (as demonstrated by archaeology) surprisingly accurate description, by way of folk-memory, of the early Anglo-Saxon world.
The works of the Venerable Bede, written in the early 8th century provide us with the closest-to-contemporary example of the juxtaposition of the hardships of winter, with the warmth and shelter of the feasting hall. In his account of the reception of the mission of Paulinus by the court of King Edwin in 627 CE (Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter XII) Bede records how a pagan thegn of King Edwin, having listened to the case made by Paulinus for conversion to Christianity, spoke of his understanding of the nature of the world through the metaphor of a sparrow flying through the mead-hall.
'O king, the present life of men on earth seems to me, in comparison to the time which is unknown to us, as if you are sitting at dinner with your men and counsellors in the wintertime, with a good fire kindled on the hearth in the midst of the hall and all inside well warmed, while outside storms of winter rain and snow are raging. A sparrow comes swiftly flying through the hall; it enters at one door, and soon goes out through the other. During the time it is inside, the storms of winter cannot touch it; but after the briefest of moments of calm weather, it vanishes from your sight, quickly returning from winter into winter. In the same way, this life of men appears for a brief moment; what went before, or what will come after, we do not know at all. If, therefore, this new teaching offers something more certain, it seems worthy to be followed. ' (Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter XIII)
The centrality of the mead-hall to Anglo-Saxon in general is well recognized and well evidenced (Pollington, 2003) but together, these examples from their literature show how the comfort offered by the communal hall was never more important than in the midst of winter (Parker, 2022). Combining this with the already-discussed, deep, almost universal sociological underpinnings of such traditions, it seems very hard to imagine that early Anglo-Saxons did not have a well-established tradition of communal midwinter feasting.
[They called..] December 'Giuli' - the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word 'Modranecht', that is, ‘‘mother’s night’’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.
De ratione temporum, Bede, 725 CE (Wallis, 1999)
This word 'géol' (and its variants) are thought to be derived from Common Germanic *jehwlan, and are cognate to Gothic (fruma) jiuleis and Old Norse jól, (Danish and Swedish jul and Norwegian jul or jol), and appears to be related to Old English words gylian / giellan - to yell or shout. The uncommon Old English word gýlan, actually means ‘to make merry, keep festival’ (Thompson, 2012). It can therefore be inferred that the two midwinter months were a time of festivity and merriment. This need not necessarily mean that the whole two months were one continuous party, in the same way that other Anglo-Saxon months listed by Bede are named for a central event or activity which takes place within the month but does not consume it. The preceding month of November, for example, "Blod-monath", was, according to Bede, named because this was the month in which cattle were slaughtered, but we probably should not imagine the month was a continuous 30-day bloodbath.
It's highly likely that multiple feasts were held throughout the months of Yule, with the night of the solstice itself being the focal-point of the festive season. Bede is surprisingly upfront in signaling his own uncertainty regarding traditions for the solstice night itself, and the 'heathen' word he offers for it - "Modranecht" (mothers' night) is controversial and missing from other sources. While some scholars have suggested this may have been an occasion for venerating female deities and engaging in pagan fertility rites, this is highly speculative, and it is at least equally conceivable that Bede was conflating the occasion with veneration of the Virgin Mary on the corresponding occasion of the feast of the nativity. With so few clues to work from, it is next to impossible to say with any confidence what, if any devotional rituals or beliefs were actually associated with Anglo-Saxon 'pagan' Yule, much less the specific occasion of "Modranecht".
However, as the Anglo-Saxon day is understood to have begun at sunrise (rather than midnight, as today), the precise moment of the birth of the new year would be first light following midwinter's night. Just as folk today stay up until midnight on New Years Eve, so, too, Bede's suggestion that 'Modranecht' involved an all-night vigil seems perfectly plausible and reasonable.
As the festival in its broadest sense, and including, importantly, the word 'Yule' itself (which was not effectively replaced by the actually rarely-used Christian equivalent 'Cristesmæsse') survived well beyond the conversion period, it might be reasonable to infer that whatever form Yule took, among secular Anglo-Saxon communities in the 7th century, it cannot have been so inherently 'pagan' in nature that it had to be proscribed against by the church. Later clergy might pen sermons warning of excessive indulgence at Yule (see later) but they did not decry it as a pagan festival, or attempt to stamp it out. Instead it seems to have been part of secular life, running parallel with, and sometimes meshing with, celebrations of the Nativity. It might be more helpful, therefore, to view early to mid Anglo-Saxon Yule as a primarily secular social occasion; the foremost feast (or feasts) of the winter season.
The dual role of kings and chiefs, both as war-leaders and party-hosts is reflected strongly in the diverse array of grave-goods included in high status early Anglo-Saxon burials, including, most famously, those from the ship burial within Sutton Hoo Mound 1 (Carver, 1998; Pollington 2008), where the perhaps more famous items of weaponry, amour and associated regalia are outnumbered by the many feasting dishes, decorated cups, drinking-horns, bottles, basins, lamps, and hanging bowls gathered on the other side of the chamber. Also associated with feasting are the musical instruments- 'hearpe' / lyres found in Sutton Hoo Mound 1, the princely chamber burials of Prittlewell and Taplow, and elsewhere, which represent the place of performance at feasts, again vividly described in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
on béorsele benc gerýmed (...)
sé þe on handa bær hroden ealowaége
scencte scír wered· scop hwílum sang
hádor on Heorote· þaér wæs hæleða dréam,
duguð unlýtel Dena ond Wedera.
‘room was made on a bench for them, (...)
and a thegn bore to them an ornate ale-cup,
decanted pure sweet mead; the musician sang clearly there in Heorot; there was joy of heroes,
no small host; the Danes & Wederas together.’
Beowulf 492,495-8, 8-10th century CE (Slade, 2012)
The culture of the mead-hall, how Anglo-Saxon feasts were conducted, the various formalities, structures, known practices and rituals are huge topics in their own right and will only be briefly very briefly touched on here.
It is clear that feasts included more, and less formal phases (Pollington, 2003). Descriptions in Beowulf imply hierarchical seating, and, in particular, a phase in which drinks were served, ceremonially, in strict order according to the acquired status / seniority of individuals within the hall. Both can be seen as mechanisms for incentivizing, and rewarding service by retainers, and in establishing, clarifying and when necessary adjusting the social hierarchy, though perhaps at the risk of fostering rivalries within the court.
cwén Hróðgáres cynna gemyndig
grétte goldhroden guman on healle
ond þá fréolíc wíf ful gesealde
aérest Éast-Dena éþelwearde·
bæd hine blíðne æt þaére béorþege
léodum léofne· hé on lust geþeah
symbel ond seleful sigeróf kyning·
ymb-éode þá ides Helminga
duguþe ond geogoþe daél aéghwylcne
sincfato sealde oþ þæt saél álamp
þæt hío Béowulfe, béaghroden cwén
móde geþungen medoful ætbær·
grétte Géata léod· gode þancode
‘Hrothgar's queen, mindful of etiquette,
greeted, gold-adorned, the men in the hall
and then the noble lady poured out full cups,
first to the East-Danes’ homeland-guardian [king].
bade him be blithe at the partaking of beer,
beloved by the people; he took in delight
drinking and mead-cup, the victorious king;
then she went among them, lady of the Helmings,
to each veteran and then to each youth, a portion to each,
gave rich cups, until the time came
that she, to Beowulf, the ring adorned queen
blosoming in spirit, she carried the mead-cup.’
Beowulf 613~623, 8-10th century CE (Slade, 2012)
Many different alcoholic drinks were served at feasts, including at least two varieties / strengths of ale (called ealu, and beor), expensive mead (medu) made from fermented honey, and even wine (wín). The variety of different beverages served at Anglo-Saxon feasts may be the reason for the wide variety of drinking vessels, of very different designs, found together in high status burials such as Sutton Hoo Mound 1, Taplow, and Prittlewell, with a vessel of particular design associated with a particular drink.
Anglo-Saxons usually ate quite a plain diet of bread, stews, and weak ale, but food at Anglo-Saxon feasts was more exciting, including various meats, treats sweetened with expensive honey, and even luxurious imported spices (Hagen, 1995). Later sources suggest the foremost delicacy of Yule feasts was wild boar, hunted specially, and traditionally associated with fertility and renewal.
Performers (scopas) recited poems and epic stories accompanied by music from the Anglo-Saxon hearpe / lyre. This tradition of oral transmission of stories allowed history and mythology to be passed down, at a time when most folk were illiterate. The environment of the hall being too dark to read in, in any case, stories and poetry would need to be recited from memory, either word-for-word "perfect in telling" or, more likely, known stories were told in an improvised fashion assembled from a toolkit of known poetic phrases and kennings. The greatest of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poems, Beowulf, itself describes the performance of epic poems and stories at feasts, using these as opportunities to allude to, or describe the plot of other stories, in outline, many of which otherwise do not survive. Through this, we see glimpses of a tradition of highly networked storytelling with intersecting plotlines and recurring characters; a kind of 'Anglo-Saxon Cinematic Universe'. Beowulf itself, if indeed it was ever performed word-for-word in the form which has survived, was probably too long for a single sitting, and seems to naturally breaks into two or three roughly equal parts, so may have been performed over a series of nights. The much-debated first word of the poem "hwaet!" - which could be interpreted as a call for attention or quiet, is a clue that such performances probably were not always heard in polite silence, and may have formed part of the background noise of otherwise rowdy gatherings.
Other features of the feast described in Beowulf include the drinking of toasts, boasting, oath-making (Thompson, 2012), and a kind of formulaic argument or rhetorical battle, called flyting (flītan) taking place in the hall, fueled by strong drink.
The early to middle Anglo-Saxon feasts and gatherings in the two months of Yule described by Bede almost certainly mostly conformed to the general description of Anglo-Saxon feasting offered above, but clues informing our understanding of traditions specifically associated with Yule feasts are extremely scarce.
Specific traditions for Yule
It is considered highly likely Anglo-Saxons decorated their halls with evergreen plants – including holly, ivy, mistletoe, and perhaps yew – at Yule. Bringing cheerful colour inside during the darkest part of the year, this ancient practice is found across Europe, evidenced both in earlier Roman sources, and in the financial records of later medieval church parishes in built-up areas, which had to pay for boughs of winter greenery to be imported from the surrounding countryside (Hutton, 1992). Added to the traditional greenery may have been bundles of herbs available at wintertime, or harvested and dried in autumn, then soaked and re-hung around the time of the feast. Abundantly listed in Anglo-Saxon medical texts, herbs were certainly cultivated and used for culinary purposes but strongly associated with health, with their pleasant scents contributing to a sense of a healthy indoor environment, based on the ancient Hippocratic theory linking disease to bad smells and polluted air. Notably some texts, such as the Lacnunga, associate herbs to 'sacredness' and even, explicitly, to pagan belief, with the Nine Herbs Charm being one of only two surviving Old English texts to directly refer to Woden. It is thus very plausible that perfuming the air by hanging certain herbs to create a sense of 'sacredness' was part of pagan Yule practice, which (judging by references in the Lacnunga) survived well into the Christian period, perhaps analogous to the use of holy incense.
More than at any other time of year, well-stocked fires would've been essential for mead-hall gatherings during the months of Yule, providing both comforting and spirit-lifting warmth, and, importantly, also light during limited daylight hours. Firewood was likely seasoned, stockpiled and reserved specially for this occasion, with the presence of a roaring fire (where firewood might otherwise be used more sparingly) acting as a magnet to encourage folk to congregate and socialize.
In particular, the all-night vigil of Modranecht described by Bede (725 CE) would’ve required a roaring fire to be kept burning throughout. Recorded later, the tradition of a Yule Log – a special long-seasoned trunk saved specially to be slowly burned at midwinter – may have begun in Anglo-Saxon times. In some versions of this tradition, the log was kept burning continuously until twelfth night (Hutton 1992; Thompson, 2012).
Toasts were an important part of Anglo-Saxon feasts, often made with the greeting ‘wes hál / wes thu hál’. Later folk-traditions including processions / field-blessings, door-to-door well-wishing and carol-singing, collectively known as ‘wassailing’ are first evidenced in the high medieval period (Hutton 1992; Parker 2022), and may have begun, in some form, as part of pagan Anglo-Saxon yule.
Ælfric’s sermons (955-1010 CE) give a very familiar sense of how ordinary folk spent Yule – warning of the dangers of ‘over-eating and excessive drinking’. Although winter was a more restful time in the agricultural year, a successful yule probably involved weeks of preparation, including preparing the firewood, dressing the halls, brewing the various drinks, and preparing all the food.
Later poems preserve a deep sense that a good yule was essential to ‘sow the seeds’ for prosperity in spring.
wiste wynsume ær wintres cyme,
on rypes timan, þy læs hi renes scur
awyrde under wolcnum; þær hi wraðe metað,
fodorþege gefean, þonne forst ond snaw
mid ofermægne eorþan þeccað
wintergewædum Of þam wæstmum sceal
eorla eadwela eft alædan
þurh cornes gecynd þe ær clæne bið
‘There, they find solace in the joy of feasting, when frost and snow with overwhelming might bedeck the earth in wintry vestments, from which the prosperity of men shall again sprout forth (…)
When the gleaming sun and signs of life, in springtime, shall bring forth the earth’s wealth and, according to nature, fruits will be borne again.’
The Phoenix 245-52. C10th CE (Hostetter, 2013)
From the 7th century onwards Anglo-Saxon Yule merged with the feast of the nativity ‘Cristes mæsse’. Although the winter solstice had been associated with the birth of Christ since the 3rd century, the feast of the Nativity appears to have only developed as part of the Christian celebrational calendar very gradually through the 4th century, formally recognized in the mid 5th century under Pope Leo I, and even then, remained a relatively minor festival, effectively overlapping with remembrance of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, and, for many, overshadowed by Epiphany - the celebration of the Baptism of Christ- which had been established as a festival since at least 361 CE, and which, especially in the west developed a growing association with the visit of the three kings / magi to pay tribute to the infant Christ, with exotic gifts identified in the Gospel of Matthew as gold, frankincense and myrrh, each symbolizing an aspect of Christ's identity and foreshadowing his destiny.
Particular interest among the Anglo-Saxons in epiphany, and the visit of the Magi with their exotic tribute for the 'king of kings' is perhaps best encapsulated in the presence of the motif, among other scenes from Roman history and Germanic mythology, on the the Franks Casket - a Northumbrian or Mercian treasure-box intricately carved from whale-bone in the early 8th century.
The three figures, shown approaching and bowing to an enthroned Mary with Christ on her lap, are identified by an inscription above their heads in Anglo-Saxon rules as "MÆGI", and are juxtaposed with a representation of the pagan mythological figure Weland the Smith, all encircled by a runic inscription describing the fate of the whale whose bones made the box, which alliterates on the 'feoh' (wealth) and 'gyfu' (gift) runes. The front of the box thus playfully identifies the treasure it contains, both with the 'native' treasures and tribute made by artisans like Weland in the 'Germanic' world, and the legitimizing diplomatic gifts from distant countries like those carried by the Magi. The same division can be made of the treasures from Sutton Hoo Mound 1, where items of characteristically 'Anglo-Saxon' craftsmanship including the sword, jewelry and the famous helmet are almost outnumbered by items from distant lands, including Byzantine silver dishes and baptismal spoons, a coptic basin, hanging bowls of supposed 'Celtic' origin, and others, many of which, we believe, the East Anglian court had newly gained access to thanks to king Rædwald's flirtation with conversion to Christianity.
Among newly Christianised Anglo-Saxon kings and nobility, then, it seems reasonable that among all the various stories, images and festivals which the new religion had delivered, epiphany and the Adoration of the Magi motif may have resonated most strongly, reflecting their existing traditions of long-distance diplomatic gift-giving (as represented in the royal burials), the hoarding of sophisticated exotic treasures, and reflecting the arrival of new mysteries (Christianity itself) alongside its associated treasures from distant lands. It's reasonable to infer, then, that by the middle period, Anglo-Saxons had begun to associate Christmas with exotic treasures, if not the giving of Christmas presents per-se.
Almost three centuries later, Asser's Life of King Alfred (Cook, 1906) gives us our earliest account of what could be considered Anglo-Saxon Christmas Presents.
‘And when I frequently had sought his permission to return, and had in no way been able to obtain it, at length, when I had made up my mind by all means to demand it, he [King Alfred] called me to him at twilight on Christmas Eve, and gave me the two monasteries of Congresbury and Banwell and all they contained, together with a silken pallium of great value, and much incense - too heavy a load even for a strong man to carry, adding that he did not give me these trifling presents because he was unwilling hereafter to give me even greater.’
The life of King Alfred, Asser, 893 CE. (Cook, 1906)
Stories, Songs and Plays?
One strong possibility - the Battle of Finnesburgh is preserved briefly in outline as a digression in Beowulf, and was likely an epic poem in its own right. All that survives of this poem is a short section from the middle, known as the Finnesburgh Fragment, but we know from the summary in Beowulf that the plot concerned betrayal of guests at a feast, and the subsequent siege of a meadhall at midwinter.
Later, storytelling at Yule focused on the Christian Nativity & Epiphany. Late Anglo-Saxon texts (particularly the Regularis Concordia, 973 CE) describe practices of ‘dramatic liturgy’ on key festivals (Bedingfield, 2002)– a kind of ritual, dramatic re-enactment of Biblical events, performed by priests and monks, with laypeople sometimes participating too. This innovation may have occurred from the influence of mead-hall performance traditions on the Anglo-Saxon church, but was an immersive religious ritual rather than necessarily for consumption by an external audience.
‘Regularis Concordia’ describes the use of music, space, props, costumes, and gives detailed stage-directions. Timing is also emphasized (Parker, 2022). In Ælfric's Letter to the Monks of Eynsham (late 10th century) he describes in detail the rituals to be conducted, and hymns sung at Christmas, with an all night vigil on Christmas night, and stressing that the prayers and hymns should suddenly change at the moment of the sunrise (Bedingfield, 2002), arguably reflecting Bede's earlier description of Modranecht, and the ancient pre-Christian focus on the winter solstice sunrise as the precise moment the new year begins.
Anglo-Saxon dramatic liturgy would probably seem quite unfamiliar to us today, but the traditions described in texts such as the Regularis Concordia could, in a sense, be viewed as an ancestor of medieval 'Mystery Plays', and in turn, a distant ancestor of the Nativity Plays of today.
The growth of Cristesmæsse
‘The English people have been accustomed, in the full week before the Nativity of the Lord, and also up to the 12th day, to fast, observe vigils and prayers, and to give alms both to monasteries and to the poor.’
Ecgbert, Bishop of York, 732-66 CE
(Dialogue of Ecgbert. Cotton MS.VitelliusA.XII) (Spelman, 1871)
Although middle Anglo-Saxon charters rarely specify the time of year in which they were enacted, many of those which are dated (particularly from the reign of Offa (757-796 CE) specify that they were enacted at Christmas. It thus appears that from at least the latter 8th century, if not before, a tradition had been established that Christmas was a favoured occasion for royal courts to handle important matters of land and property - a tradition which was carried forward by later kings.
By the late 9th century, the full 12-days of Christmas – from midwinter’s day to epiphany – had become a recognised holiday among the English, enshrined in law by King Alfred the Great. Rigorous observance of the peaceful festive season in the winter of 877-8 led to disaster when Wessex was all but crushed by a sneak-attack by Viking forces on Alfred’s Yule celebrations at Chippenham - widely regarded as the most dangerous episode for Wessex in the entire war.
Later settlement, and integration of ‘Viking’ people, and their related festival of ‘Jól’ likely strengthened or re-seeded some old pagan folk-traditions, and added new ones, which lingered, even after they too became Christian. Many of the 'pagan-seeming' folk-traditions associated with Yule which cannot be traced further than the high medieval period, may thus have been of 'Viking' rather than Anglo-Saxon origin. Diverse midwinter traditions continued to evolve throughout the late Anglo-Saxon period, as they still do today.
The Anglo-Saxon Period lasted for around 500 winters, during which time, folk spanning as many as 20 generations celebrated 500 yules, During the last winter of the Anglo-Saxon age, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England at Westminster, on Christmas Day, 1066 CE. The Normans, too, left their mark on the festive season in Britain, adding to Old English “Yule’ and ‘Midwinter’, the French word ‘Noël’.
Blair, J., 2018. Building Anglo-Saxon England. In Building Anglo-Saxon England. Princeton University Press.
Carver, M., 1998. Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings?. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Cook, A. 1906. Asser’s Life of King Alfred – Translated from the Text of the Stevenson’s Edition. The Athenaeum Press. Boston.
Frazer, J.G., 1890. The golden bough: A study in comparative religion
Hagen, A., 1992. A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink; Processing and Consumption. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Hagen, A., 1995. A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink; Production and Distribution. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Hostetter, A. 2013. The Phoenix (Translation) [Online] [Url= https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-phoenix] [Accessed 30/10/2022]
Hutton, R., 1996. The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford University Press.
Parker, E. 2022. Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year. Reaktion Books.
Pollington, S., 2003. The mead hall: the feasting tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Pollington, S., 2008. Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds: Princely Burial in the 6th & 7th Centuries. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Slade, B., 2012. Beowulf: diacritically-marked text and facing translation. [ONLINE] [Url= https://heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html] [Accessed 30/10/2022]
Spelman, H., 1871. Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland (Vol. 3). Oxford University Press.
Thompson, A. 2012. Yule [Online] [url=http://thethegns.blogspot.com/2012/12/yule_25.html] [Accessed 30/10/2022]
Wallis, F. 1999, Bede: The Reckoning of Time (Translated Texts for Historians, Vol 29). Liverpool University Press
Wright, E., Viner-Daniels, S., Pearson, M.P. and Albarella, U., 2014. Age and season of pig slaughter at Late Neolithic Durrington Walls (Wiltshire, UK) as detected through a new system for recording tooth wear. Journal of Archaeological Science, 52, pp.497-514.