Yule is a word of Germanic origin that refers to a holiday celebrated at and around the winter solstice from which many Christmas traditions were taken. The term Yule is now often used as a synonym to Christmas and other festivals celebrated around the same time today. See also Midwinter.
The word is descended from the Old English geol or geola through the Middle English yole which referenced Christmastide (which includes the 12 days of Christmas) and was cognate to the Anglo-Saxon name for the entire midwinter season giuli which included December and January, – all evolved from the Old Norse jol which rose from the Proto-Germanic *jehwlą, meaning “festivities” or “to play”. Thus the word Yule at its root means “the festivities” as related to the midwinter season.
The referenced pre-Christian winter festivities were celebrated by Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon peoples in some of the coldest and darkest regions of Europe during the midwinter season. Many modern Christmas traditions were absorbed from this festival, including that of the yule log, decorating with greenery, and getting drunk and being jolly (the word jolly may also be a close relative to the word Yule, via Old Norse rubbing up against Old French). Though ancient Yuletide customs probably included sacrifices as well.
Heathens who generally honor the traditions of ancient Germanic peoples often attempt to recreate ancient Yuletide festivities as closely as possible in a literal or symbolic sense as appropriate to modern sensibilities. Many modern Neo-Pagans reference their midwinter celebrations as Yule whether they are attempting to recreate ancient practices or celebrating new traditions based on them.