The numerous traditions surrounding Jul, the Nordic Christmas, are both unique and colorful. Some of the most remarkable and noteworthy ones are presented today.
As we established in the previous post of this series ( Jul, a Nordic Christmas pt 1 : The Ancient Sun Feast ), the origins of the Scandinavian Midwinter celebrations lay in the Pagan celebration of the passing of the seasons in the darkest days of winter. The traditions associated with this millenary feast have since then evolved and produced a lot of folkloric characters and practices which are unique to the region. Among those, the Lucia celebration, the hand-crafted Jul-Goat and the mischievous Nisser are probably the most interesting of all.
The origins of the now world-famous Lucia-celebrations are actually multifold, and are as different from one another as possibly imaginable. All over the North, the longest night of the year, the 21st of December, was said to have been the time when underground spirits were gathering to wreck havoc and cause trouble for the “overground” human populations. In the southern Norwegian districts of Hardanger and Setesdal, one female spirit was said to lead this pack, a trollish and threatening creature named Lussi. Leading her horde of odd creatures, she reigned over the night and most people decided not to leave their homes before sunrise. Because of this, they often gave extra food to the animals locked up in the barn. In Sweden, feeding the animals on the 21st of December was actually done by another female figure, Saint-Lucia, or rather a young local girl taking up the role. Saint-Lucia is a Catholic saint said to have been martyrized in the second century and which, over the course of the centuries, became associated with Midwinter, chiefly in Germanic countries. Wearing a white robe and a crown featuring candles, the girl playing Lucia symbolizes the returning light that will become more and more prominent after the fated Winter-Solstice on the 21st of December. She is also the one responsible for bringing in extra food for the farm animals before nightfall, a tradition that today has mostly switched to the offering of sweet bread buns to humans on December 13. While this version of the tradition is most fondly followed in Sweden, it is found to a certain degree in all the other Scandinavian countries, as well as Finland (1).
The figure of the Julbock (Christmas-Goat) is another very widespread feature of the Nordic Christmas. Its origin is both very ancient and connected to two distinct yet related Christmas items, the Goat and the Hay. The link between Christmas and Goats is possibly as old as the mythological Goats of the Old Norse God Thor who were slaughtered every evening but came back to life every morning. As such, they represented a powerful symbol of life in the darkness of the winter. From the XVIth century, it also became common for Scandinavian children during the Christmas period to dress up as animals and other monsters, including Goats. This disguise, and the processions that followed, certainly came from the belief that creatures of all kind roamed around in the dark nights of the winter and that dressing like them could somehow ´scare them off´. Similar traditions exist just everywhere else in Europe (2). Regarding Hay, it is also a very old tradition. Making ornaments out of hay is common everywhere in the North. Traditionally, one kept the first (or last) sheaf of hay from the field until winter to craft into various shapes like crowns, humans, stars, or even Goats. The use of hay during this barren period reflected ideas about fertility and agricultural plenty that was to come in the spring and the summer by “sacrificing” a bit of last years’ harvest (3).
Finally, one of the most recognizable faces of Jul in the Nordic countries is the Nisse, also called Tomte, Tunkallen, the Farm-Gnome. The Gnome, often said to be not higher than a foot, guards the peace of the farm and is generally quite timid, and hides in the barn or in other outer-buildings in order to avoid being spotted by humans. The Gnome has magical powers and can both be the origin of good surprises as well as less welcome phenomena. The key to keeping the peace with the Gnome was to regularly serve him food, especially porridge with cream. Such offerings were particularly important during the seasonal high-times, hence his association with Jul/Christmas: one had to be sure that the Farm-Gnome was having its own happy celebration, otherwise he could very well wreck the human one. Historically, the figure of the Farm-Gnome is probably a derivation of the age-old belief about ancestors and spirits who inhabit the farm and who must be honored, chiefly with food, and especially during the dark winter time when they gain in power and presence (4). Today, the Nisser (plural of Nisse) are most often used to represent the merry times of Jul as well as the various activities (skiing, baking, skating) associated with it. Interestingly enough, in Norway and Sweden, the words for Gnome (respectively Nisse and Tomte) have come to be used for Santa Claus himself! This nordic Santa is often described as hanging around a big, burly goat and handing gifts to well-behaved kids. This part at least, isn’t all that exotic or different from what children the world over associate Christmas with!
- (1) Mellbye, Anne-Lise (1995). Jul i Norge . Oslo: Gylendal Norsk Forlag. 50 – 52.
- (2) Berg, Knut Anders, Tessem, Liv Berit and Wiedswang, Kjetil (1993). Julen – I Norsk og utenlandsk tradisjon. Oslo: Gylendal Norsk Forlag. 80 – 83.
- (3) Mellbye (op. cit.), 76 – 77.
- (3) Berg, Knut Anders, Tessem, Liv Berit and Wiedswang, Kjetil (op. cit.). 50 – 52.
- (I) Bergslien, Nils (1922). Julereisa. Stockholm: National museum.
- (II) Picture of a Lucia celebration in Sweden by Flickr user tillsammans är man mindre ensam from 2012
- (III) Jul-Goat hay figures during a Christmas market in Finland, December 2011. Ⓒ Linnea Nordström.
- (IV) Jul-Nisser having a fun time. Unknown artist. Taken from Mellbye (1995); 144.