In Old English, Yule referred to Christmastide. Christian missionaries adapted the term from a pagan feast that lasted 12 days. Early on, it meant both December and January, possibly because the pagan feast spanned the end of one month and the beginning of the next. However, Chambers’ Dictionary of Etymology names November and December as the two months involved.
Earlier precedents are in dispute. The Oxford English Dictionary labels the ultimate origin obscure. John Ayto (Dictionary of Word Origins) suggests that it came from an Indo-European word meaning “to go round,” reflecting the fact that this season was at the turn of the year. Eric Partridge (A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English) speculates that yule is related to the Latin gelu, meaning cold, because in the northern hemisphere, this is the coldest time of the year.
It was once used as a shout of joy and celebration at the end of church services. People would then stream out into the lanes shouting Yule! This led to a folk saying recorded in John Heywood’s Proverbs: “It is easy to cry Yule at other men’s cost.”
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