One of the great things about Christianity is that with festival and feasts, the early Christians did attempt to provide alternatives. Although very early sources for Christians (including Hippolytus of Rome in the second century) indicated that Jesus was 8 days before the calends of January in the forty second year of Augustus’s reign, 25 December was not universally accepted as Christ’s nativity until 376 AD. For pagan who embraced Christianity, the idea that Christ brought light into the world meant they could continue with their feasts and festivals with a slightly different emphasis. For the Vikings, winter solstice was the time of Jul. Depending on the source, Jul was either a the darkest two months of the year or a three day feast centring around the winter solstice. Haakon I of Norway who brought Christianity to Norway had the feast of Jul moved to coincide with Christmas. He also caused many of the Jul celebrations to be absorbed into the Christmas feast. Norway became officially Christianised in 1000 AD.
Because Viking sources were written during the 12th century in Iceland, it is difficult to say the precise nature of the Viking Jul. There are just snippets in various sagas. We know that it was a time of peace and good will. In various sagas, fights put off until after Jul. We know that drinking was involved (mostly ale), feasting and that there were probably fertility rites — possibly dancing as in long sword dancing or Morris dancing as well as singing.
Fire certainly played a part. The Yule log is a remnant of the celebration. Traditionally it burned for all 3 days of the Jul in order for the next harvest to be lucky. A bit of the old log was used to light the new log.
The Jul boar which remains in our Christmas ham was used to solemnise great oaths. Queen’s College Oxford still brings in a boar’s head for its Christmas feast. The bristles of a boar were supposed to give power to oaths and great misfortune would be fall anyone who broke the oath. In Scandinavia today, marzipan pigs are popular Christmas time treats. The boar was associated with Freyr who was the Norse god of fertility so it is possible the swearing of oaths had something to do with ensuring a good harvest for the next year.
A popular Scandinavian Christmas ornament is the Yule goat (I always think it looks like a reindeer). These are generally made of straw and go back to Thor whose chariot was pulled by two goats. Thor used to sacrifice his goats for feasting and then bring them back to life with his hammer. The Christmas goat was thought to bring good luck and presents (until Father Christmas/Santa Claus became popular in the 19th century). Originally though the Jul goat might have demanded presents. It is also associated with mischief and pranks, if the Yule celebrations are not done correctly.
Wassail or drinking from a communal bowl is thought to date from either the Anglo Saxons or the Vikings. Often times, it was associated with pouring libations on various trees (such as apples) to ensure a good harvest. Songs were sung and special dances performed. Some of these rituals still exist in various English villages. They do tend to happen after the traditional dates of Jul (more around mid January). It is where the tradition of singing carols comes from.
So while we may not know much about the precise nature of Viking Jul, various remnants remain and are enjoyed today.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a wide variety of time periods. Her next book An Ideal Husband? will be published in April 2013. She is currently writing stories set in the early Viking period. You can learn more about Michelle at www.michellestyles.co.uk.
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