Most of us recognise "Yule" and "Yuletide" as alternative names for Christmas. Where do they come from?
Yule is the modern spelling of an Old English word "giuli", which was the name used by the early English ('Anglo-Saxons') for the months corresponding roughly to modern December and January. Both months had the same name, or else it was a double-length month. We know the name because it was recorded by Bede, a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria (northern England), in his book On the Reckoning of Time, which was written in 726 AD. That's almost 1300 years ago, which makes Yule one of the earliest recorded English words.
Bede was a Christian, and his book was devoted to explaining the workings of the Christian calendar, but he very kindly (for us) took the trouble to explain how the English calendar worked before the conversion to Christianity. He tells us that Giuli (Yule) is called after the day when the sun turns back and begins to increase again - in other words, the shortest day of the year or the winter solstice. Even today in our technological society, with food in abundance and light on demand, most of us are pleased to see the days starting to get longer again, with its promise that the sun is going to come back (yes, even in damp and rainy Britain) and spring is going to come round again. It's easy to imagine how important it must have been to the early English farmers, who depended on growing crops and raising livestock. They made it the start of their year, and celebrated it with a festival called "Modranecht", Mothers' Night. Bede says it was the same date as the Christian celebration of Christmas.*
Who were the Mothers of Mothers' Night? Bede, naturally enough for a devout Christian, doesn't explain. They may have been related to the goddesses of plenty and good fortune who were honoured in inscriptions in Germany, Holland and Britain in the first century AD.
What ceremonies were held in their honour on Mothers' Night? Again, Bede doesn't tell us, so it's largely open to the imagination. Since they were goddesses of plenty, it's a fair guess that a great feast was a central part of the celebrations.
* In the Julian calendar used in Bede's day, 25 December was the date of the solstice. Since then the calendar has been modified, so the solstice now falls on 21 or 22 December.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.