In the North, Christmas is celebrated quite differently from the rest of the world. One reason for this is that the modern celebration of Christmas has been strongly influenced by an earlier feast, celebrated even before the Age of the Vikings, Jul !
The origin of the celebration of Jul is pretty much unknown. We just know that when Scandinavia adopted books and written Literature from southern Europe just after the Viking Age, Jul was already and age-old tradition. Jul, it appears, is rooted in the pre-Christian religion, worldview and way of life of the hardy people of the North and the traditions associated to it were so strong that its name is still used in all the Scandinavian countries to refer to the modern celebration happening between the 24th and 25th of December. In practice, Jul has become the Nordic Christmas, but it originally was a very different kind of celebration.
The oldest mention of Jul in the North can be found in a IXth-century epic poem, Haraldskvæði (´The poem of Harald´) written about the deeds of the Norwegian king Harald fairhair. In this poem we learn about Jól as it was then called< and how it was celebrated through drinking of various alcohols (1). In Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (´The Saga of the Kings of Norway´) written about 800 years ago, we find this concept associated with the midwinter feast, also called Midvinterblót. In Snorri, the drinking aspect of Jul is described in much more details: chieftains and heads of households were responsible for the brewing of beer (and sometimes mead) and the holding of a great feast during this period where the alcohol would be consumed and where the ancient Gods like Thor and Odin would be hailed, together with the family ancestors (2). Then as now, this feast was a way to create social link, and tie families together in honor of what they had in common, namely their Gods and their ancestors. In addition, the taste of freshly-brewed beer probably made the whole experience all the more pleasant, especially at the heart of the cold and dark winter.
An other important aspect of the Jul feast was to mark the middle of the Winter and the coming of longer and brighter days. Indeed, living in the often harsh North, Norsemen likely saw Winter as a dangerous and potentially deadly season ripe with blizzards, sea-storms, little food and the constant threat of injury -or even death- constantly looming. Holding a celebration in the middle of Winter, when the days were at their shortest was likely a way to celebrate the perseverance of life itself, and to foster people’s hopes for the coming of spring and summer. Midwinter, with its overbearing darkness was then sometimes seen as an embodiment of winter itself and a period where the non-human forces of the underworld -elves, trolls, giants and other spirits- reigned supreme – for a while- before being ultimately defeated by the coming of the sun. A Medieval account of a Viking age voyage taking place in Sweden describes how a Norwegian traveler was denied hospitality -a very important notion at that time- because it was the Álfablót (the feast of the elves) and no outsider could be brought in.(3)
In conclusion, it could be said that despite its ancient and somewhat unclear origins, the celebration of the age-old Jul wasn’t actually all that different from what people expect from Christmas today: a good way to gather as a family, celebrate what brings everyone together, talk about plans for the next year all the while drinking some fine alcohols. Having a good time looks like it has always been important for Northerners it would seem!
- (1) Mellbye, Anne-Lise (1995). Jul i Norge . Oslo: Gylendal Norsk Forlag. 34-35.
- (2) Hodne, Bjarne (1982). Glædelig Jul! Glimt fra juleferingens historie. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget. 22-23.
- (3) Snorri Sturluson (1930). Kongesagaer. Ed. Gustav Storm. Oslo: J. M. Stersens Forlag. 311 – 314.
- (I) Larsson, Carl (1915). Midvinterblot. Stockholm: National museum.
- (II) Malmström, August (1900). Disarblot.
- (III) Arbo, Per Nicola (1972). Åsgårdsreien. Oslo: National Gallery.