A Viking Network Info-sheet
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From a midwinter celebration to a Christian feast
Nils Steinar Våge and students at Skedsmo videregående skole
Jul is a Nordic name for the heathen feast that was celebrated in the middle of January. Since the word occurs in different variations in other Germanic languages, it is likely to believe that the "jul" celebration was a common Germanic feast. There were at least two such feasts or offerings every year in Scandinavia, one in midsummer and one in midwinter.
The meaning of the word jul is not clear. It is a word in the plural, and that indicates that there have been several feasts, a festival period. The first time we hear about the word is in the poem by Torbjørn Hornklove, Haraldskvedet, from about 900. He writes about "drinking jul". The saga tells us that people were gathering and brewing beer to be drink in memory of the gods. The beer-drinking in honour of the gods was to increase the growth and to make peace.
The scarce information about the heathen "jul" celebration in Scandinavia, has lead to disagreement about the content of the Norse jul. Therefore, there are many ideas about the feast. Some people mean that the feast took place to honour the return of the sun and that the days were getting longer. But more people tend to believe in the folkloristic explanation and the costumes according to that. In a folkloristic way the jul was a feast bound to agriculture. It was a feast of labour at the end of the year. Now, when all the job with the crop and the carcase was over, people could wait until the days were getting longer to start the winter work.
Many cult rituals played an important part in the juletraditions. Some people believe that the tradition with the julegoat is heathen. A goat was slaughtered to get a good year. Later the word was used about a person who was walking around at jul time with a goat mask and dressed in a woolen cape.
The Nordic countries made up distinct rules for the celebrations when Christianity came. Then the celebration was marked with hard as well as humanistic rules. For three weeks before Christmas and the thirteen Christmas days wedding celebrations were prohibited. Nobody was allowed to suit anybody, and all the people who were prosecuted were given personal security. The weeks before Christmas were supposed to be a Lent. In this period the Christmas peace was meant to be everywhere.
Christmas was probably a joyful time in the middle of the grey everyday life. People could eat and drink more than usual. Besides, people gathered together and they arranged parties and games. The Norse word raumheilagr tells us that the days between Christmas and New Year were holy.
The time for Christmas Eve, that is the birthday of Jesus, was set to be December 25 th. According to the Julian calendar this was the day when the sun turned. In the Christmas celebration three days were distinct: Christmas Day (the birth of Christ), New Year's Day and The Day of the Holy Kings (the thirteenth day).
Many of the traditions went on as for example the heathen ritual beer drinking. Now, they were drinking to honour Christ and the Virgin Mary. In heathen time it was said to be a drinking offering, but when Christianity came, the beer drinking was "christened". As early as in the oldest issues of the laws from Gulating and Frostating people were ordered to brew beer for Christmas. There it is said that the beer was to be blessed (drunk) as a thank from Christ and St. Mary, for peace and a good year. This memorial drinking was not to go away from the heathen tradition. The expression "at drekka jol", to drink Christmas, was the common expression for Christmas celebrations even in the 16th century. The god of jul had the name Jolne, and that was Odin. We can find this name in a poem called Jolna sumbl. It means intoxicant of Odin. The beer drinking gave people courage to turn to the gods. It was supposed to happen in intoxication because that made them closer to the gods.
In the darkest time of the winter people believed that the dead turned back to their old places of residence. These people came together in what was called Åsgårdsreien. The word means the dangerous procession. People believed that it was a crowed of ghosts riding around on black horses, eat all the Christmas food and drink the Christmas beer. People who had died in an unnatural way were in The Åsgårdsreien. As a protection against the ghosts there were painted black crosses above the entrance door and on the beer barrels, and iron was put in the grain. The church explained this riding by saying that these were people who were in the position before they were given the last judgement. But many of the dead persons who were ghosts, were peaceful. They were usually the ancestors who had died in a natural way. The tradition of letting candles burn on Christmas night, and leaving food on the tables, comes from the belief that these people were walking around. The beds were empty, so that the dead could use them. The people on the farm slept on the floor.
A similar procession to the Åsgårdsreien was lussiferden. Originally it has nothing to do with the medieval legends about St. Lucia on December 13th. The old Norwegian lussi can be compared to a female demon. Her main gift was to punish those who hadn't done all the jule preparations in the right time.
Åsgårdsreien and lussiferden are examples showing us that superstition was strong among people a long time after Christianity