Yule has come to be synonymous with Christmas, but it historically refers to pagan winter solstice festivals that form the basis of some of the modern customs now associated with the Christian holiday.
To some Yule has come to be seen as somewhat synonymous with Christmas, and Yuletide referring to the Christmas season in general. Its relation to Christmas is really just a product of its proximity on the calendar.
Yule has its roots in Germanic and Nordic traditions which may have been celebrated for thousands of years.
Yule comes from a name for a 12-day festival, celebrated by Germanic peoples, around the winter solstice in December and January.
The Norse peoples, who called it Jul [jól], viewed it as a time for much feasting and merrymaking. In addition, if the Icelandic sagas are to be believed, this was a time of sacrifice as well. Traditional customs such as the Yule log, the decorated tree, and wassailing can all be traced back to Norse origins.
It’s worth noting that the history of Yule/jól is more detailed than we could cover here, and some assumptions about that history are in dispute. The Mental Floss article linked above provides a deeper dive into this somewhat murky subject.
Is Yule now the same as Christmas?
The answer to this depends on who you ask. Someone who recognizes pagan celebrations would regard it as very different. However, much of modern western society probably regard them as the same.
Christian celebrations have absorbed and adopted rituals and symbols from other cultures that it supplanted during its expansion over the last couple of thousand years. Christmas is probably the prime example of this, particularly because celebrations of the winter solstice were so widespread. In addition to Yule, Christmas borrowed heavily from the Roman festival of Saturnalia among other regional contributions.
Looking at the definition of Yule in several dictionaries reveals that the transformation of Yule to Christmas is largely complete.
- Merriam-Webster: the feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ : CHRISTMAS
- Oxford (Lexico): archaic term for Christmas
- Dictionary.com: Christmas, or the Christmas season
- vocabulary.com: period extending from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6
- Cambridge Dictionary: Christmas
Only one of the five dictionaries sampled above gives a definition that leaves out the word Christmas. Some do acknowledge the origin of the word, but none offer the pagan or historical definition as a secondary definition.
What about Yuletide?
The suffix “tide” is added to a festival name to indicate the period around that festival. So Yuletide would be the time surrounding Yule, much the same as the Christmas season is the holiday time period in general rather than Dec 25th itself.