Every December most people on earths plane gear up for one of the biggest holidays of the year, Christmas. We celebrate on the 25th of December with feasts and presents to share. But where did this tradition come from? Christianity? The bible? As I am sure the Pope would like you to believe that, it is simply just not the truth.
What they don’t want you to know is the Vikings would celebrate a holiday in December that was very similar to Christmas, even thousands of years prior to Christians. The Vikings would celebrate Midwinter Solstice, which is the longest night of the year when daytime is its shortest. The celebration would begin on December 21st and last 12 days, sometimes extended till the 12th of January. These daily celebrations included drinking, feasting, songs, games, banquets, sacrifices for the gods and their ancestors. They called the celebration “Yule” which is pronounced the same as the word for Christmas in Norway today - “Jul”.
In modern day Christmas, we have many traditions such as Santa Clause, elves, Christmas trees, wreaths, mistletoes, caroling and the Christmas ham. We are going to break these traditions down to understand why we do them and where they came from.
During Yule, ghost or Spirit sightings as well as supernatural occurrences happened much more often than the rest of the year. Onlookers during the nights of Yule would see what is called “The Wild Hunt”- a procession of ghosts moving through the sky, led by Odin and his mighty stead, Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse.
Odin was an old wise man, with a long beard and looked just like our beloved Santa Clause. He was known to bring gifts to those who deserved them. On the eve of the Winter Solstice, children would leave their shoes out by the hearth (oven) with sugar and hay for Odin’s eight-legged horse. A local village man with a white beard was selected to dress in a hooded fur coat. This man was chosen to represent Odin and would travel around the community, joining in with the various celebrations.
The two most important ingredients in a Viking feast was mead – a honey based alcohol , as well as psychedelic mushrooms. This type of mushroom was known as the Amanita Muscaria mushroom. It was red with white dots and when ingested would cause hallucinations and out of body experiences.
This color scheme of the mushroom is where the inspiration for world renown Santa suit comes from.
Once again, we have Norse pagan traditions to thank for a well-known Christmas staple, the elf. Referred to as the álfar which means 'hidden people', these beings were often described as tall, pale, beautiful and magical. How did we go from the álfar to the short, pointy hat wearing elves in Santa's workshop today?
The nisse is a creature associated with the winter solstice/Christmas season. Best described as looking like a typical garden gnome, they were short and equipped with a red pointy hat. These little creatures lived in the stables and barns of a homestead, guarding the property and those dwelling within. Treat them well and they will be helpful to you.. but treat them poorly and be prepared for some mischief around your house. This gives explanations to the cheeky elves we have today, as well as the ever-popular Elf on the Shelf.
Christmas Trees and Yule Logs
Traditionally, Norse pagans would decorate evergreen trees on their homestead. They did this with statues, food, clothing, and runes as tribute to the gods. This was done to coax the spirits that once lived in the trees to return. They were known to flee their trees during the cold winter months.
Yule logs were decorated with carved runes and symbols. The log would be burned during the celebration as a ritual to protect the home. Oak tree logs were traditionally used, and it was vital keep the fire going and critical to be sure not to burn the entire log. Burning the whole log was known to be a dark omen and a sign of bad luck to come. The final unburned piece would be used during next year’s fire.
Why do we hang Mistletoes above a door?
First, you must know the story of Balder, Son of Odin and Freya. Balder is the
God of beauty, light and goodness. His mother ,Freya, was determined to prevent his death at any cost. After his birth, she secured an oath from each animal, plant, and creature in the world not to harm her son. Confident in Balder’s invincibility, the gods amused themselves by throwing weapons and any random object they found at Balder - leaving him unharmed.
Loki, the trickster god and adopted son of Odin, sensed an opportunity for mischief. He maleficently wondered if Freya had overlooked anything in her quest to obtain oaths. She innocently released information to Loki, stating that she had thought the mistletoe to be too small and harmless to bother asking for such a promise. Loki straightaway created a bow and arrow from the mistletoe and convinced the blind god, Hodr, to fire it at Balder. With Lokis guidance, the projectile pierced the god, striking him to immediate death. Though an extremely difficult talks, the gods were eventually able to resurrect Balder. Delighted at his revival, Freya declared the mistletoe to be a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it in her presence.
Known to the Vikings as ‘wassailing,’ this activity was traditionally done by the poorest of the community. They would visit homes and sing songs in exchange for gifts and treats. This gives new context to the saying, “We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here,” from the song We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Christmas wreaths, Sun wheels and Yule Goats
As we make/purchase wreaths, the Vikings created Sun wheels. Both hese traditional items obtain much resemblance. After crafting the Sun wheel, it would be burned and rolled down a hill to herald the coming of the sun.
As we find straw goats and reindeer as decorations, the Vikings idolized the last sheaf of grain from the harvest months, as it was believed to hold magical properties. It was for the Yule celebrations every year. They used the grain to weave the shape of a goat or Deer, called Julbocken or Yule Goat.
The Christmas Ham
Most of us have fond memories of their mother’s traditional ham every Christmas dinner. This tradition has deep rooted Viking origins. During The Yule celebrations they would sacrifice a wild boar in hopes of a bountiful harvest season in the coming months. The eating of ham ties deep into the Vikings life after death and their version of Christian heaven called Valhalla. You can only enter Valhalla if you die in battle. Once you wake up in Valhalla, you would fight in battle again, except if you died you would be resurrected. Every night in Valhalla, they drink mead and feast on a magical wild boar named Sarimner that was enchanted to never run out of meat. When the feast ended, Sarimner would be resurrected. The feast was attended by Odin himself alongside his son, Thor.
If you eat ham at your Christmas feast or participate in any of these traditions, you join in on a long line of time-honored traditions that originated with the Vikings. During your family fun this holiday season, be sure to play a game of Hefintafl, the original game of chess, or Mulkky the first form of bowling. Don’t forget to join in on the Viking fun with a glass of Mead, a sweet honey-infused brewed beverage, the first form of alcohol ever made - invented by Vikings.
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