Thanksgiving is over, and while I always enjoy that holiday, there is always something magical about Yule. It can be hectic, overwhelming and downright exhausting, but the pleasure I receive is from gift-giving and seeing the reaction of my family. It’s worth all the crazy time spent in a nearly all-consuming hunt for the perfect gift. Still, what is most important to me is spending time with family, cooking and eating and having a fun and meaningful time with those I love. Although this is a little off my typical blog post, I hope that you will enjoy our dive into the Norse traditions and learning about how Vikings celebrated Yule and perhaps it won’t surprise you that in many ways, it wasn’t much different than us.
Yule celebrations and traditions at the Winter Solstice pre-date Christianity by thousands of years. Many who identified as European, celebrated the light during the darkest of days of winter. It was often referred to as Mid-Winter Celebration and would include brewing beer, the preparation of food, visiting with family and yes, gift giving. Numerous references to the Yule in the Icelandic sagas, and in other ancient mythicism, testifying how Yule was actually celebrated. It was a time of feasting, giving gifts, drinking and dancing. Although the commencement of the Yuletide celebration has no specific date, it is traditionally 12 days long with the start of the festivities beginning at sunset on the Winter Solstice (which in the northern hemisphere is usually around December 20th). Even this was stolen forcibly by early Christian missionaries and became known the “12 Days of Christmas.”
Many of the traditions that are associated with the Christian holiday of Christmas are known to have originated within the Pagan/Viking culture. For instance, it is known that Scandinavians marked Yule (“Jul”), or the Winter Solstice, long before the Christians made their way within any of the Nordic territories. Yule is in fact derived from the Old Norse “HJOL,” which roughly means, ‘wheel,’ to identity the moment when the Wheel of the Year is at its lowest point, ready to rise again. Hjol has been inherited by Germanic and Scandinavian languages from pre—Indo-European language level and is a direct reference to the return of the Sun as represented by a fiery wheel rolling across the heavenly sky. Sun Wheels are sometimes burned as part of the folk festivities.
Winter was long and difficult for the Vikings. The celebration of Yuletide was the most important and most popular of all the native Germanic spiritual celebrations. Yule also marks the return of the God Baldur from the realm of Hel and the loosening grip of winter on the frozen Earth. It was a time of celebration welcoming the reborn Sun goddess, Sól, who was pursued and devoured by the Wolf of winter each year; a reflection of the Fenris wolf of Ragnarök. This is a fragile period and these rituals of fire and light dominate life to ensure the return of the Sun goddess and that the warmth of her light will bring the bounty of crops and animals come Spring. Although these rituals were an integral part in the lives of these Germanic peoples, Yule was also a time for dancing, feasting and family. But similarities stop there.
As we know, Vikings worshiped many Gods and Goddesses, and therefore made sacrifices and offered up both goods and animals to appease them, to ensure that spring would return. This was also the time of the Wild Hunt, when the King and Queen of the Underworld would ride through the night sky across the land with a band of spirits and beings from the spirit realm. Yule is also the season in which the gods and goddesses are closest to Midgard. Our deities were called ‘Yule-Beings’ by the Norse and Odin himself is called Jólnir, the “Yule One” and it is from here where the image of Santa Claus is derived from. Most of the symbols associated with the modern holiday of Christmas (such as the Yule-log, Santa Claus and his Elves, Christmas trees, Wreath, eating of ham, Holly and Mistletoe and the Star) are derived from traditional European Heathen Yule celebrations. When the first Christian missionaries began trying to force the Germanic people to Christianity, they found it easier to invent a Christian version for popular feasts such as Yule, and allow the celebrations to go largely unchanged, rather than trying to suppress them.
The 12 Days of Yule, is without question devoted to cookies, breads, cakes and pastries that we are able to indulge upon during the season. Many Heathen families have enjoyed creating beautiful decorations for their homes, including wooden toys, Straw Goats and Wild Boards to hand on the Yule tree. Each of the days and nights can be viewed as a microcosm of the months of the year. The first night of Yule is called Mothernight, when Frigga and the Disir (female ancestral spirits) are especially honoured. This day is aptly named as it represents the rebirth of the world from the darkness of winder. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year. There are vigils from dusk till dawn to ensure that the sun will rise again and to welcome her when it does. On Mothernight one can recount the past January and plan for the next January. On the Second day of Yule, remember the last February and so on and so forth until ending with December on the Twelfth Night.
It was the practice in these Germanic Heathen times to swear oaths on a Hallowed boar; while also particularly meaningful oaths were sworn on the horn of a cup while drinking at the Yule feast. This survived in Swedish folk-custom; a large boar-shaped bread or block of wood covered with pig skin was brought forth at Yule for this purpose. The ‘New Year’s Resolution’ is a lesser form of this holy Yule Oath. You could also sacrifice the boar after the Oath was made to Frey. Unlike our New Year’s Resolution, these paths are meant and expected to be kept.
The tree (Christmas tree) is Heathen in origin and represents Yggdrasil. Those who kept the old customs in places where they were surrounded by Christians, hid the tree inside so church authorities wouldn’t notice, but in England and Scandinavia, the trees and various spirits received their gifts outside. In the stead of a tree that would have outed them as Heathen, a candlelit and ribbons wreath, the ring which may have reflected the Oath-ring or the Yule Sun-Wheel, was brought inside to decorate the home. Many cultures integrate the mythos of trees that symbolise life into their beliefs, from the Tree of Judaism and Christianity to the great World Tree of Norse and Germania mythology, Yggdrasil.
In honour of Thor, a person was to take the largest oak log they could find (or handle) and kindle it either in an indoor fireplace or outdoor one. The Yule-log’s intent and purpose was to burn all night during the longest night of the year to symbolise life lasting, even during the time of great darkness; its fire rekindling the sun in the morning and the ashes or pieces remaining were used as protective amulets during the rest of the year. Besides this, you could use some of the saved, charred remains for lightening the next years log.
The Julebuuk or Yule Goat are an established symbol of Yule. Thor, the protective God of thunder was known to have two goats that he would slaughter and eat every night, resurrecting them the next day. Originally these goats would have been sacrificed to the god Thor to protect the people until Spring. Their meat was either preserved or eaten right away (boiled, pit-roasted or spit-roasted). This goat tradition remained but changed over time, connecting to the Krampus tradition. A man would dress as the Yule Goat and go house to house receiving offerings for the spirits, later giving treats to the well-behaved children. This was the harbinger of the Santa Claus and his reindeer delivering present. This Santa Claus was oft-times depicted riding a goat in early imagery. A job that in Northern traditions was performed by the gnome-like tomten. These small, magical men would be accompanied by Yule Goats. The Yule Goat tradition remains a popular custom in Scandinavia and straw goats of all sizes can be seen displayed as ornaments in people’s yards and left on neighbours doorstep.
In one way or another, there are many traditions of the Viking people that we continue on to this day, even if the original meaning has been lost to the ages. If you want to have a more, Viking inspired holiday but don’t want to sacrifice a boar, roast some pork and make or buy some mead. You can play Viking games as they were also a big part of the feast and festivities. Hnefatafl is a tabletop strategy game that you can play with friends and family. Theres also many drinking games you can play. Part of Viking festivities was all about boasting, oath making, poetry, dance and song.
Yule is also a time to honour Thor for driving back the frost etins, Frey to give us prosperity in the coming year, Odin as leader of the Wild Hunt and our ancestors. During the Yule we are closest to the Dead. Death is all around us in the dead flowers and plants that were vibrant with life only months ago. The trees all appear dead except for the evergreens. We decorate an evergreen with lively decorations as the Vikings decorated with sin wheels, runes and items of food such as cranberries and popped corn and other bright, pretty things to remind us of the eternity of Yggdrasil, the world Tree, as it lasts throughout the Winter- Ever Green.
As you gather with your family across the globe, take a moment to honour your ancestors. They walked before you, paving the way for you. You might never have met your ancestors, but even so, many of their choices influenced your life just as your choices influence those who may come after you. It is an easy thing to do, that costs nothing, to say thank you to the people who you are in some way, connected to. As someone who is adopted, I do not know any of my blood relatives, but some of their choices directly influenced me and if they hadn’t made those choices I might not be here living this life or I may not have ended up with the family I have today. I am grateful to them and I honour their memories.
I know this was not my usual post, but I have been in a writing drought recently because of my chronic illness and pain. I hope you enjoyed this, perhaps learned something that you might want to try. Please enjoy the holiday season; eat, drink, be merry and watch your spoons!