Yule at Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo in the snow

Mid-winter has been an important time of year long before Christmas was celebrated. In pre-Christian times it was still a time for gatherings and feasts and many traditions we follow today would be recognisable to Anglo-Saxons at this special time of year.

Sutton Hoo is open all winter in 2019 (excluding the 24 & 25 December) from 10.00am – 4.00pm so it’s the ideal time to not only stock up on Christmas treats for friends and relatives in our gift shop, and get out for a bracing walk followed by a warm cuppa, it’s also a great time to explore the stories of the Anglo-Saxon world and reflect on what this time of year meant to them.

In the Anglo-Saxon period the days around the winter solstice, believed to have been known as Géola (Yule), was one of the key feasts of the year. Whereas now the solstice commonly falls on the 21 or 22 of December at the time, under the Julian calendar, it fell on 25 December.

The actual customs of yule are believed to have involved decoration, feasting, drinking and sacrifice with honour being paid to ancestors. Three gods have been linked with the festival- Wóden, Fréa Ing and Þunor. One key element of Yule is the ‘Wild Hunt’- a group of supernatural hunters, led by Woden, riding through the sky. This image of man and beast was also reflected in the Yule Boar. In Germanic paganism Wild Boar would be sacrificed and roasted for the feast in honour of Fréa Ing.

In honour of the key part beasts played in the Yule feast we will have free beast inspired crafts in the Court from 19 December to 5 January, so let your imagination run wild and design your own beasts or have a go at colouring in some dragons!

One of the most prominent symbols of Yule is the Yule log. Nowadays we know this as a delicious chocolatey dessert but to an Anglo-Saxon a Yule log or géolstocc was the log from a tree cut to provide warmth across the dates of the feast. As the log slowly burned away it would be progressively pushed in to the fire. This burning was ceremonial in itself as such a large log would require several people to cut it down and manoeuvre it in to position. As part of this ceremony the lighting of the fire would always be started with the remains of the log from the previous year.

Woods in winter

Naturally any food would need to be accompanied by a drink or two. Toasting was a key feature of any Anglo-Saxon feast with drinks being raised to the gods thanking them for health and fertility and remaining hopeful of what the following year would bring in terms of peace and harvests. Fertility, and fertility of the land, was vital for ensuring survival of families and the Northumbrian monk Bede recorded the festival of Módraniht or Mothers' Night on the 24 December which honoured female protective spirits.

Another key tradition of Christmas which was also prominent in Yule was the decoration of houses. Evergreen leaves such as holly and ivy would be brought indoors serving as a reminder that whilst other trees may be bare the spring would bring fresh leaves and crops. Misteltoe was also used- hung above doorways to protect from evil spirits.

Snow covered gorse at Sutton Hoo
Snow covered gorse at Sutton Hoo
Snow covered gorse at Sutton Hoo