Very Best Wishes for Yule

Since we’re in the scattery days before Christmas and New Years, and things tend to get a bit fuzzy and lackadaisical, I thought it would be fun to break away from the story for a bit to talk about Yule, the winter-time celebration observed in The Shire.

Yule consisted of two days – the first and last day of the calendar. Curiously, the 1st day of Yule came at the end of the year, while the 2nd day of Yule came at the beginning (with January 1st following it). Though technically the holiday lasted only two days, in true Hobbit-fashion, the merriment lasted six. This was the Yuletide, which included the last three and first three days of the year. So important was this celebration that December’s true name was actually Foreyule, and January’s was Afteryule.

Just how these Yuletide days were celebrated was never published in Tolkien’s works. In Nomenclature of the Lord of the Rings, a sort of guide for translators, Tolkien delved into some wonderful explanations for many things, though not really Yule. All he really said was that he wished for the word to be left as “Yule” and not translated into whichever local language.

That it was also a modern word didn’t seem to bother Tolkien much, though he had to figure out a connection. In reality it had come from Germanic paganism before being swallowed whole by Christianity. Similar celebrations with names like jól, jul, joulu, etc., were found all throughout nothern Europe. Though he called their connection “an accident,” he allowed that it was possible that “a form of the same word [Yule] had been used by the Northmen who came to form a large part of the population of Gondor, and was later in use in Rohan, so that some word like Yule was well-known in Gondor as a ‘northern name’ for the midwinter festival.”

The origins of the Hobbit calendar can be traced back to Númenor, and more recently to Gondor and the Dúnedane, from whom they received the concept of weeks. Before that, when they were a wandering people, they went by the moon and had only months. But once the Shire was settled and things put in order, a new Shire Reckoning was drawn up and Yule was conceived.

Apart from feasting, Tolkien never explained what else happened over Yule. He compared it with Lithe, the summer festival, which was also described as a feasting holiday. Just what the Hobbits did apart from eating he never said. The same is true for Gondor and Rohan.

At the time of writing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien seemed fine with allowing Yule to be only a part of Third Age Middle-earth. But when it came time to return to the Silmarillian writings through the 1950s and early 1960s, he included it twice when talking about the First Age.

In 1951 or 1952, Tolkien returned to The Tale of Years, which was basically a timeline/outline for the Silmarillion stories. In one of the drafts, for the year 506-507 of the First Age, he wrote: “At Yule Dior fought the songs of Fëanor on the east marches of Doriath, and was slain. There fell also Celegorn (by Dior’s hand) and Curufin and Cranthir.”

This means that these four fairly important characters all died over Yule. In the published Silmarillian, the basic story is the same, and certainly no Yule was mentioned, but we’re told that the killers “came at unawares in the middle of winter,” so some of the Yuletide idea made it through till the end.

The second (and apparently last) place it was mentioned was in Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth – The Debate of Finrod and Andreth. Andreth was of the House of Bëor, and was Beren’s great-aunt. When setting up this debate, Tolkien put the time in the spring. “For at that time Boron, Lord of the folk of Bëor, had but lately died soon after Yule, and Finrod was grieved.”

In both, the timing – winter – seemed right, but it’s use as far back as the First Age is odd. No notes or explanations were apparently given, so whatever Tolkien had planned for Yule, if anything (and really, probably nothing), will never be known.

One explanation could be because Tolkien had planned for the Silmarillion to be an account of stories told to Ælfwine, a Man descended from Eärendil, by Pengoloð the Sage, an Elf. This was to have taken place around 900AD, so it’s possible it was just a way to connect the old date to something more modern. When Christopher Tolkien did away with the story’s framing, he also did away with such references. Again, this is just a theory, as no explanation seems to be available.

In The Lord of the Rings, Yule happened twice. The first came and went without mention as the Fellowship made their way south along the Misty Mountains after leaving Rivendell, while the second came at the end of the story.

The first Yuletide after the fall of Mordor and the scouring of the Shire, came about a month and a half after Wormtongue killed Saruman. There was some consternation that there wouldn’t be enough food to celebrate, but “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.”

Then, in 1972, when closing a letter mostly about language to Richard Jeffery, Tolkien wrote: “Very Best Wishes for Yule” before signing. No other reference was made to it, and whether he meant the Hobbity Yule or the normal, modern Yule is unknown.

But to make it even more confusing, the Shire calendar is “off” from our calendar by about eight days. We’re told that our New Year’s Day is actually January 9th by Shire reckoning. This would make the 1st and 2nd of Yule fall on December 22nd and 23rd. You’d think that the Hobbits would have been able to make Winter Solstice fall on one of the Yules, but since they seemed okay with Summer Solstice falling two-ish days before Midsummer/Midyear’s Day/1 Lithe (June 24th-ish in our calendar), we have to assume that they were pretty laid back with this sort of stuff.

Camera: Imperial Savoy Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D; expired 10/1994; x-pro

Camera: Imperial Savoy
Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D; expired 10/1994; x-pro

A Few Notes

  • In earlier drafts of Appendix D (where the calendars are explained), Yuletide was originally fourteen days long, comprising the last and first week of the year.
  • Tolkien’s first instinct for how the translators should handle the word “Yule” was for it to be translated into a “word of similar status” in the local language “so long as this has no recognizable Christian reference.”
  • After writing all but the last three paragraphs, I remembered that I had addressed Yule before on this blog. You can read all about that here. It’s a very different post (except for those couple of paragraphs, which I nicked).

About the Photo
I used this photo the last time I talked about Yule. Maybe this is a new tradition. Each year I’ll forget that I’ve already written about Yule and spend a couple of hours researching and writing it only to remember right at the end that I’ve already done this before. Fun!

  • Miles today: 10
  • Miles thus far: 1154 (240 miles since leaving Lothlórien)
  • 149 miles to the Falls of Rauros
  • 619 miles to Mt. Doom

Book II, Chapter 8, Farewell to Lórien. Drifting down the Anduin, February 20, 3019 TA. (map)


12 thoughts on “Very Best Wishes for Yule

    • Haha! Nomenclature is in Hammond & Scull’s Readers Companion to LotR. It’s pretty essential! Just wonderful, really. I wish there was one for the Silmarillion.

            • I decided early on that hardbacks were what was needed here. I bought almost everything used, so got paperback prices. Even the History of Middle-earth series was pretty inexpensive, considering. I wasn’t concerned about first printings or collectible anything (though wound up with a first US printing of the Silm, which isn’t all that rare). I’m pretty cheap.

            • Oh wow. That’s what I miss about being in the US. Sourcing local here is out of the question. But ordering online is too expensive, thanks to shipping. Yup, still feeling the acute bookcase envy.

            • Oddly, many of them came from the UK. I used abebooks and a few other sources that shipped cheap to the states for some reason. Maybe they’d ship cheap to wherever you might be. I do feel very fortunate to have what I have, though. I couldn’t do this blog without them. With some posts, I’ll have ten or more books that I’ve used piled up on my desk. It’s wonderful!

            • That’s the best place to be, tangled in books and reading up 🙂

              I think part of the reason shipping costs from the UK to the US is reasonable is the distance is shorter, plus the exchange rate is definitely more favourable than for me here. I’ll just have to wait for a chance to travel and get my act together and just order copious amounts of stuff (subject to luggage allowance).

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