Did you know that yule and jolly are from the same root? According to some sources, both come from the Old Norse jol (that J would be pronounced like a Y–see my word of the week on the letter J), which was borrowed into Old French as well, as jolif, which originally meant “festive.” Modern French now has joli, which means “pretty, nice.” And English, of course, has jolly.
But what about this whole “yuletide” idea, meaning Christmas? The yule log? Well, way back in the days of Old English, that Old Norse jol was a heathen feast. As Christianity came in and took over, they applied the English cognate geol to the coordinating Christian festival–Christmas. Old English, you see, already had the word giuli (which sounded very similar)–the Anglo-Saxon name for the winter season (December and January). It wasn’t a specific festival, but rather a two-month stretch in which many feasts occurred. But upon conversion to Christianity, the meaning of giuli narrowed to the twelve day feast of the Nativity (beginning Dec 25). By the 11th century, Christmas became the more popular word in most of England, except the northeast.
How did it come back, then? Well, there had always been a few holdouts–evidenced by yule log being recorded in the 1600s. But we’re mostly familiar with it today because in the 19th century, writers began using it as a nostalgic way to refer to “the Christmas of ‘Merrie England.'”
Today we’re exactly a week from the start of the official Yuletide season. I hope you and yours are having a jolly time!
There's a famous story about how Guthrum the Viking attacked King Alfred the Great at Christmas. Twelfth Night according to tradition.
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