Yule – Jul 

Words about words

Yule log

Image: public domain
In English-speaking countries, the tradition of the Yule log is celebrated at Christmastime.

Asker, Norway

Look up the word Yule in an English-Norwegian dictionary and you’ll find it translated to one Norwegian word, jul. Go the other way in a Norwegian-English dictionary and you’ll find jul translated to Christmas and several idioms associated with it. The reason for the imbalance lies in the disparate histories of the year-end festivals of the Germanic peoples that coalesced in the Christian reformation to the now widespread celebration of Christmas.

The earliest known mentions of the word Yule are in the old Germanic month names Ærra Jéola (“Before Yule”) and Æftera Jéola (“After Yule”). The dichotomy of mention exists to this day. Modern English dictionaries have two principal definitions of Yule: “December or January” and “Christmas and the festivities connected therewith.”

The Old Norse word for the year-end festival is jól, the direct root of the modern Norwegian word jul. The celebration of jól is connected to the Wild Hunt, an ancient European folk myth found in many societies across Europe. Oskorei, the Norwegian version of it, is understood to be a variant of Åsgårdsreia (literally “Åsgård riders”) in which Åsgård is the home of the Norse gods of Viking times.

Dialect synonyms of Oskoreia include Julereia that suggests Christian influence on the myth featured in literature and art, with the implied message that you should prepare to celebrate Christmas lest you risk being swept along should an Oskoreia or Julereia come your way. Norwegian painter Nils Bergslien’s Julereia painting of 1922 shows trolls and humans, one a fiddler riding a reindeer, and many apparently tipsy, in a ribald procession through a traditional farmyard. Its message is that being swept along with it might be naughty, enjoyable, or both.

Today the English word Yule and the Norwegian word jul are used in connection with celebrations of Christmas and its traditions, including the Julebukk (“Christmas goat”) of Scandinavia and the “Christmas Log” of English-speaking countries.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.