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Thank you and Blessings to you all,
From the dawn of time, the need to celebrate the winter solstice, and the subsequent 'rebirth' of the sun, was an absolute necessity.
An Orkney winter is long, cold and dark. It is a bleak time, when the weak, grey sun barely crawls above the horizon for a few hours each day.
Life goes on, but mostly in darkness.
Even today, the winter solstice remains significant to Orcadians, although, in most cases, subconsciously. Once the shortest day has passed, and although we know that the worst of the winter may yet come, it is comforting to know that the days are lengthening, once again, and that the light is returning.
The return of the light
By the winter solstice - the shortest day of year - the sun rises in Orkney well after 9am and is beginning to set again by 2pm. Assuming clear conditions, this leaves a mere six hours of weak daylight.
But the solstice marks a turning point.
The darkness has reached its zenith and soon the days will lengthen again. In this, the darkest time of the year, what better way to celebrate the return of light, and warmth, than to feast and make merry.
The midwinter traditions surrounding the festival of Yule were once strong in Orkney. So much so that even in the early years of the 20th century, in the more remote corners of the islands, the winter festivities were still referred to as Yule. It was rare indeed to hear folk speak of "Christmas".
Like the other festivals of the year, Yule was a great social occasion, relieving, if only for a brief time, the hardship and monotony of the islanders' subsistence living.
But Yule was not only about celebrating the return of the light...
The dead return...
Being the darkest time of the year, midwinter, and Yule in particular, was also a time when supernatural forces were able to cross to the realm of man, and the spirits of the dead would return to their families.
As such, most of the Yule customs we remember today were originally to protect the household against these paranormal influences.
Over the years, the pagan Yule traditions were overlaid with elements of Christianity, but, as is common in the islands, old traditions die-hard and some of the ancient customs persisted until the early 19th century.
Unfortunately, however, these are now all but forgotten, as practically no Orcadian Yule customs were recorded by early scholars.
But all is not lost.
We can at least get an inkling of what went on by referring to the documented customs found in Shetland, where the traditions of Yule were more extensively collected and documented.
What was Yule?
Yule, or Jol, was the name of the midwinter festival of the pagan Norse and Teutonic people of northern Europe.
From the 8th century onwards, as the Norwegians settled in Orkney and Shetland, they carried their Yule festival with them. And they were celebrated for centuries.
In the Northern Isles, Yule lasted about a month - a period referred to as "the Yules" or "atween the Yules".
Using our calendar, this began somewhere around December 20 and ended on January 13. The dates from the surviving sources vary, however.
In earlier days, for example, it is inferred that the Yule festivities started on the eve of December 12 - Maunsmass E'en, the eve of the feast day of St Magnus.
Even the duration of the festivities varies according to recorded accounts, and which period they date from. One, for example, states that, although some people feasted for 12 days after Yule day, it was known for others to continue right up to the 24th night.
However long the celebrations lasted, we know that feasts and parties were commonplace throughout, with fiddling, dancing and drinking going on late into each night.
Within this section, I have separated various Yule traditions into manageable chunks, each dealing with individual elements of the festival.
Readers should remember that some of these traditions were not necessarily universal and may only have been found in certain localities. Along the same lines, there were undoubtedly other traditions that have long since been lost.
In Orkney, one of the few things we know with certainty is that Yule was one of the four great fire festivals of the year.
At Beltane, Midsummer, Hallowmass and Yule, massive communal fires were lit on hilltops across the islands. Click here for more details.
A widespread Yule tradition, and one that persists in our Christmas festivities today, was the decoration of the house with greenery.
There are no surviving records of this taking place in Orkney and, given our lack of trees and suitable greenery, was probably left out. However, it may be that the tradition of dressing the house was so common that the early writers did not consider it 'remarkable' enough to record - but I doubt it.