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What’s The Difference Between “Yule” And “Christmas”?

Nat King Cole famously sang, “Jack Frost nipping at your nose / Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,” and when we deck the halls, we’re expected to “troll the ancient yuletide carol.” But amidst the merriness and fa-la-la-ing, did you ever stop to ask yourself exactly what a yuletide is? Or why some people use the word yule as a synonym for Christmas?

There’s more to yule than the goings-on of December 25. Let’s examine this word.

WATCH: Can You Guess What These Christmas Carol Words Mean?

What is yule?

Yule comes from a name for a 12-day festival, celebrated by Germanic peoples, around the winter solstice in December and January. By the 900s (yes, that long ago), yule was already mapped on the Christian celebration of Christmas and its surrounding festivities.

The word yule develops from the ge?l, with cousin forms in such other Germanic languages as Old Norse and Gothic. English speakers are most familiar with yule through associations dating to its original use. For example, the yule log, as in the lyric “See the blazing yule before us,” was originally a real tree limb or trunk burnt on the hearth, but now makes an appearance at Christmastime as a cake shaped like a log.

Yule also carries associations with a farm animal. The Yule goat carried Father Christmas on his back and is a symbol of Christmas throughout Scandinavian countries. The Yule goat may have associations tracing back to Norse mythology. The now-famous comic book god Thor rode in a chariot pulled by two goats that could also be eaten and magically regenerated into living creatures again.

Learn even more about the word yule in our extended article on the word.

What is yuletide?

Christmas can refer to December 25 itself, but it can also refer to the whole Christmas season. Other terms for the Christmas season are Christmastime and Christmastide, where tide refers to an old term meaning “a season or period in the course of the year, day, etc.” (In the Christian church, tide historically has a stricter sense of “a period of time that includes and follows an anniversary, festival, etc.”) 

Yule can work the same way: yule can refer to both Christmas and the broader Christmas season, which can also be called yuletide. That same tide, “season, period,” is at play here.

So, you can call “Christmas” yule and “Christmastime” yuletide, but you wouldn’t call “Christmas Day” itself yuletide.

Many Americans associate yuletide with singing carols, a tradition also known as wassailing.

Increase your festive knowledge by learning more about the word yuletide, here.

How to use yule and yuletide

In addition to saying “Cool yule” à la Louis Armstrong (which we sincerely hope you do), you can also use the terms this way:

 

  • Gathering at my grandmother’s house to share a holiday meal is one of our most beloved yuletide traditions. (Here, yuletide refers to the entire holiday season.)
  • Playing the role of Santa could fill even a grinch with the spirit of yule.
  • The real yule day surprise? The heavy snow that fell just before nightfall. (Here, yule refers to Christmas Day.)

Love Christmas carols? Read along as we crack these Christmas carol-y words.

Christmas is a time for celebration ... and synonyms. Is "Noel" a synonym for "Christmas"?

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