A Very Viking Christmas? Yule be surprised!

With merchandise from Disney’s Scandinavian-inspired animation Frozen expected to top toy gift lists this year and the increasing popularity of Scandinavian-style festive jumpers, staff from the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies give an insight into how Viking culture has influenced Christmas traditions.

Yule Festival

While Christmas is predominantly viewed as a Christian celebration, many of the traditions associated with it are thought to have origins in Viking culture. Scandinavian people marked the time around the winter solstice, when daylight hours start to lengthen, long before Christianity came to Nordic regions. They would prepare food, brew alcohol and visit friends and relatives in the festival known as Yule, a term possibly derived from the Old Norse “jól”.

Dr Alex Sanmark, reader at the Orkney-based Centre for Nordic Studies, explains: “The meaning of “jól” is uncertain and no satisfactory explanation has been put forward, but suggestions have ranged from “the time of blizzards” to “joyous feast” and even “magic”.

“Drinking played an important part in “jól” celebrations. According to early Christian laws, all the farmers had to join together to brew beer for Christmas and this beer should then be drunk at a party for “peace and prosperity”. This is clearly a Christian version of a much older, pagan tradition relating to the fertility cult – a form of nature worship used to try to ensure that people, plants and animals were productive. One of the earliest usages of the word “jól” is in a poem probably composed around 900, where we find the typical expression “to drink jól”, again showing that alcohol was a central part of Viking midwinter celebrations.”

Singing, acting and Santa? 

A further Nordic tradition associated with Christmas involves dressing up, visiting houses and singing songs. Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, a researcher at the University’s Centre for Nordic Studies, reveals:

“Another custom surrounding Yule is that of dressing up in costumes and engaging in community drama. As a child in Norway in the 1980s, I remember dressing up to “gå julebukk” – to go Yule-goating. Julebukk involves dressing up with a mask and going to people’s doors to chase out Christmas around New Year time. You sing and carry a sack to collect cakes and sweeties.

“If we go a couple of hundred years further back in time, people used to walk in a group around the farms in the parish, dressed up so that nobody would recognise them. It was the custom for them to be offered something to drink and eat at each farm. These costumes could be rather frightening and represent fantastical animals, such as an effigy of a billygoat’s – or Yule Goat’s – head on a stick. Folk belief had it that supernatural beings were extra active at this time of year, so the costumes could also have represented the “Oskoreia” – a frightening collection of supernatural creatures chasing about. It was best to stay indoors when the Oskoreia sweeps across your farmyard.”

Another creature in Scandinavian folk belief was a small being known as the “tomte” or “nisse”, thought to live in byres and stables.

Dr Ljosland notes: “The “tomte” or “nisse” was an elf-like creature in grey clothing and a pointed hat. It was a good idea to be nice to this being, for example by offering him some food and drink now and then, as he could be helpful if you were kind to him and naughty if you were not. Nowadays, the “Jultomte” or “Julenisse” (“Yule-tomte” or “Yule-nisse”) is the one who brings presents on Christmas Eve. As a child living in a city, I remember putting out Christmas porridge for the “nisse” in our garage, in the lack of a stable. But it must have worked as it was all gone on Christmas morning!”

Aspects of these customs are echoed in aspects of the festive season we know today, including carol signing, Santa Claus and his elves, pantomime and first-footing.

Frozen

A more recent addition to many families’ experience of Christmas is the Disney blockbuster, Frozen. Loosely based on the fairy tale The Snow Queen by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, the film is full of references to Scandinavia and its traditions. The animation is set in Arendelle, a mythical kingdom inspired by the fjords, mountains and architecture of Norway. It features several items associated with Scandinavian history and culture, including Nordic runes, a maypole and trolls.

Professor Donna Heddle, director of the Centre for Nordic Studies, summarises the relationship between Nordic culture and Christmas: “There is no doubt the North has had an influence on the modern concept of Christmas and this is now being seen in popular culture, for example, in films like Disney’s Frozen.

“There is a real place in Norway called Arendal and Orkney gets our municipal Christmas tree from there every year – an interesting link which bridges the real and the imagined Nordic world.”

The Centre for Nordic Studies is part of Orkney College UHI, one of the University of the Highlands and Islands thirteen partners. You can find out more about its work and courses at www.uhi.ac.uk. The next intake for its Viking Studies course is January 2015. 

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