I'm by no means a scholar of pre-Christian European religious practices, but here's my rough mental sketch of what Yule was before the English language appropriated it as a synonym for Christmas:
Scene: A dark winter in Scandinavia
Bearded man with horned helmet: It sure is dark and cold and lonely out!
Woman with braided hair: Yeah. I know, let's throw a party!
Beardy Hornson: Yeah! We'll bring all the food and drink we can to one big pile!
Braidy Hairsdottir: And we'll just party until we run out of food and booze!
Hornson: C'mon and help haul stuff to the pile, everyone!
Lydia: I am sworn to carry your burdens.
According to this loose history that I probably made up in some dream after a long night of ale and Skyrim, humans have been celebrating the darkest time of the year for perhaps millennia now by building and consuming piles. In the beginning there were three piles: one for firewood, one for food, and one for booze. These are traditions that we still often observe today, scattered across the end of the year.
Earlier in human history, piles were built to mark important places, events, or people. These piles were not generally for consumption, though some piles became alters upon which consumables were offered as sacrifice. But there were also feasts.
These early piles demonstrate the importance of amassing the pile, of bringing our resources together. Whether the pile was for consuming or remembering, there is a social importance in bringing ourselves and our resources together. This community is part of the ritual, and the tradition, of piles.
Over the course of human history, we have increased our piles, both in mass and number.
We now build piles of presents during what was once Yule. We observe the old ways here, too, by siting around these piles until they are gone. This consumption is a little more complicated than ingestion or ignition. Gifts must be unwrapped and then responded to in some way that hopefully conveys some form of appreciation and avoids offending the giver. Some groups add further steps to the ritual of acceptance and appreciation.
But lo, we have devised new sorts of piles. Certainly we hoard newspapers, old notes, downloaded data, leftovers forgotten in the back of the fridge, stacks of records, tapes and CDs. Movies stored on a variety of media, sometimes duplicated.
We all know about the ritual of building our games piles, and the annual festival of pile building is fast approaching. The Steam winter sale is reported to be scheduled for the 20th, and holiday sales elsewhere will soon be followed by post-holiday sales. We then will, hopefully, begin the slow process of consuming our vast piles, alone and in groups.
This is a time-honored ritual we are about to enjoy together. Let us enjoy this festive season as comrades and mutual celebrants, appreciating the pile-building with the dubious solemnity it deserves.