With December nearing its end and the New Year drawing closer, it is high time to look into one of the most important and merriest celebrations in Hobbits’ culture – the holiday of Yule.
Celebrated in winter, Yule was the counterpart of Lithe (a midsummer holiday) and marked midwinter as well as the beginning of a new year. Alongside Lithe, Yule was a chief celebration for Hobbits. It consisted of two main Yuledays (the first one signified the end of an old year and the second – the beginning of a new one) and a festive six-day period known as Yuletide spinning the last three and first three days of an old and a new year.
Interestingly, Yuledays always fell on Friday and Saturday. In Hobbit’s tradition a year began on the first day of a week which was Saturday and ended on the last day of a week – Friday. The two Yuledays were between Foreyule (December) and Afteryule (January) and, as a consequence, didn’t belong to any particular month. This peculiarity is connected with the calendar adopted by Hobbits. In Shire-reckoning a year consisted of 365 days with 12 months – 30 days each, and 52 weeks – 7 days each. Thus a year could be easily divided into two halves. However, there was a necessity to deal with 5 extra days which did not fit in these neat arrangements. To make use of them Hobbits introduced 3 Lithedays (four in leap years) and 2 Yuledays which were not part of any month at all. They were special days of feasting, celebrations and great importance.
The custom to celebrate Yule was not common among Elves, as they had a different calendar and another approach to time reckoning, but the festival was known to the Northmen who formed a large part of Gondor population, and was later well-known in Rohan too. It seems that Rohirrim celebrated Yule too like their Northern ancestors had. Though the exact name of the holiday in Rohirric is unknown, it might have been very similar to the word Yule.
In Tolkien’s works Yule is only passingly mentioned in the main narratives of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In the first case the Hobbits managed to properly celebrate Yule after the War of the Ring and the devastation caused in the Shire by Saruman:
Great stores of goods and food, and beer, were found that had been hidden away by the ruffians in sheds and barns and deserted holes, and especially in the tunnels at Michel Delving and in the old quarries at Scary; so that there was a great deal better cheer that Yule than anyone had hoped for.
(Return of the King, p. 366)
In The Hobbit Bilbo and Gandalf dropped to Beorn’s house on their way back from Erebor and celebrated Yule with him: «Yule-tide was warm and merry there; and men came from far and wide to feast at Beorn’s bidding» (Hobbit, p. 339). While we don’t get any more details, it is still clear that Yule was usually a warm, merry festivity with a lot of good food, mead and merrymaking.
In Norse tradition Yule celebrations were very important. The Yule month (or Thor’s month) was sacred to Frey and to Thor: it began on the longest night of the year referred to as Mother Night and lasted for 12 days. It was the greatest feast of the year taking place at the end of December and coinciding with Winter Solstice. Falling on the period when days were the shortest and nights were the longest, Yule heralded the return of the sun and celebrated light.
In order to attract the sun a special tradition was observed. People assembled on a mountain, set alight a big wheel and sent it down the slope to plunge into water. This tradition hinted at the resemblance between the sun and a wheel and referred to the sun as to a fiery wheel traversing the skies:
Some others get a rotten Wheele, all worn and cast aside,
Which, covered round about with strawe and tow, they closely hide;
And caryed to some mountaines top, being all with fire light,
They hurle it down with violence, when darke appears the night;
Resembling much the sunne, that from the Heavens down should fal,
A strange and monstrous sight it seemes, and fearful to them all;
But they suppose their mischiefs are all likewise throwne to hell,
And that, from harmes and dangers now, in safetie here they dwell.
Myths of the Norsemen
from the Eddas and Sagas, p. 144)
Another important part of Yule celebrations in Norse tradition was a feast. Boar flesh was eaten on the occasion in honour of Frey. Associated with sacral kingship, prosperity and fair weather, Frey embodied the symbolism and importance of Yule: to honour the sun and be grateful for the bounty helping families through hard cold times.
With a lot of meaning surrounding Yule it was vital to make sure that the holiday was celebrated properly in order to attract luck, happiness, protection, prosperity and bliss to follow during the whole of the next year, so thus Yule festival always proved to be the grandest one of the year.
- H. A. Guerber – Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas; George G. Harrap & Comany; London; 1909 – printed by Ballantyne & Co. Limited (Ebook edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.