Once again it is that festive time of year to gather round with friends and family, eat, drink, and be merry. Sing songs, exchange gifts, and bundle up and prepare for the new year as we pass the midway point of winter.
All over the world revelers of the Christian faith prepare holiday festivities including feasts, decorations of trees, wreaths, and yule logs, and much more as they celebrate the birth of their savior Yeshua Hamashiach, more commonly known as Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
By now many are aware that a number of these traditions did not actually originate with the Christian faith, but were rather later adopted by its practitioners as a means of converting indigenous populations as the faith expanded into other regions under the auspices of Roman imperialism after the christianization of the Roman Empire in 325 CE.
What many may not know is just how many of these traditions stretch back to the cultures of the Scandinavian people, specifically the winter festival of Yule. In fact, several of the most popular Christmas traditions are either of Norse origin or heavily influenced by the Norse. Starting with the most iconic Christmas tradition;
The Christmas Tree
Trees adorned for special religious celebrations is a custom that has stretched back for millennia. Particularly in the winter trees that remained green all year round held a special significance as they symbolized life and renewal in regard to the return of the sun and thus became associated with the rebirth of the sun God in various different cultures. It was believed that these kinds of trees and other plants held magical properties and bestowed blessings of health and good fortune and warded away bad spirits.
It is claimed that during this time of year the ancient Egyptians would fill their homes with green palms and papyrus reeds as a gift to the sun God Ra symbolizing his triumph of life over death. In ancient Rome the Romans held a fertility festival called Saturnalia in honor of the God of renewal and agriculture, Saturn as well as the sun God Sol Invictus during which they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. Similarly in Celtic culture the druids would decorate sacred temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life.
The tradition of venerating evergreens was highly popular in Scandinavia as well. The reverence of trees, and indeed all of nature, was and is deeply ingrained in Norse belief as animistic themes played a prominent role in Germanic spirituality. Chiefly among these being the veneration of the mythological world-tree Yggdrasil, said to be the tree from which the nine realms and all the cosmos were held together.
During the winter festival of Júl (Yule), held between the midwinter solstice and early January (with some speculating as late as early February), the Scandinavian people would adorn certain evergreen trees with carvings of the Gods, runes, and offerings of food. With these customs being the most recent practice of Pagan tree decoration relative to the advent of Christianity in the region, combined with the more ancient roots of the practice, carried over into the modern tradition of adorning Christmas trees with festive decorations that we know today with the popularization of Christmas trees in Germany in the 16th century.
Beyond just Christmas trees, other botanical customs of the Pagan Norse and others would also eventually find their way into contemporary Christmas traditions. Christmas wreaths have a similar origin to their tree counterparts. The wreath was originally popularized as a symbol of victory and power by both the ancient Romans and Greeks. In Greece crowns of wreaths made from laurel branches were worn by both Gods and champions alike, and decorative wreaths for seasonal celebrations were said to have originated from ancient Greek harvest wreaths. Whereas in Rome wreaths were similarly bestowed as a symbol of status and honor, and the use of holly branches as both a decoration and a gift became a staple of Saturnalia traditions. However the use of wreaths during Christmas festivities was also heavily influenced by the Norse.
While these ancient customs certainly played a significant role in influencing the tradition of wreaths used as decorative and celebratory adornments, it is the old Norse who cemented their tradition as being synonymous with winter festivities. In Scandinavia too the Norse would create evergreen wreaths and bring them inside their homes during yuletide festivities, a hopeful symbol of the coming year ahead. During this time bonfires would also be held with some suggesting that a large wreath or sun wheel was made and burned as a ritual symbolizing the return of the sun.
Which brings us to our next tradition, the Yule log. Nowadays in the Christian tradition the Yule log burnt at Christmas time is meant to signify the light that came from heaven upon Christ’s birth. But this too was a custom that was adopted from much older traditions of the pre-Christian northern Europeans. While the burning of winter logs was also a prominent tradition among the Celts, during midwinter customs in the north the Norse would light bonfires and burn logs for 12 days straight (which also gave rise to the 12 days of Christmas tradition). Partially in a similar fashion of burning the sun wheel to celebrate the return of the sun, and also partly to help guide the spirits who were said to roam during that time of the year. Including those of The Wild Hunt led by the chief God Odin, whom among his many titles was Lord of the dead, and one of whose many names was Jólnir, “the master of Yule”.
Plants such as mistletoe have been heavily revered by many ancient cultures throughout the centuries for its healing properties, as well as its ability to grow during the winter similar to the aforementioned evergreens. Eventually coming to be associated with health and vitality. The plant was considered sacred by Nordic peoples due to its association with the God of light, Baldur.
Baldur, a son of Odin, was said to be the most beloved among all the Gods for his joyous demeanor, and so handsome that he radiated light all his own. But he was plagued with terrible dreams of his death, and so his mother Frigg set out across all nine realms to get assurances from all beings that they would never harm him. All except for mistletoe, whom she considered to be too young and innocent to ever pose a threat. Upon learning this the trickster God Loki crafted a dart from mistletoe and tricked Baldur’s blind brother Hod into killing him. Thus the story goes that the white berries of mistletoe originate from Frigg’s grief stricken tears symbolizing her love for her son, and as such the Norse would hang mistletoe during Yule in remembrance of Baldur.
A later version of this tale claimed that the Gods resurrected Baldur, and Frigg overjoyed at the return of her son declared the mistletoe to be a plant of peace and love, vowing to grant a kiss to any who passed underneath it. Which would later become adapted into the romantic Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
Caroling is among the other Christmas traditions that can find its roots in that of the old Norse. According to the University of Plymouth Christmas hymns can be traced back to the 4th century, yet it is likely a Norse tradition that laid the foundations for what we now recognize as Christmas caroling. Noted by BBC Music Magazine caroling became popularized from the Victorian era custom of Wassailing, revelers traveling from door to door wishing good tidings in exchange for food and drink. A term which finds its origins in the old Norse phrase ‘ves heill’ meaning ‘be well and in good health’.
Yule feasts were an important staple for the annual celebrations which inspired the now customary Christmas dinner. Even the kind of food we eat was inspired by Norse beliefs. The Christmas ham that we partake in today is rooted in the Scandinavian custom of eating boar for Yule. Boars were a common animal feasted upon by the Nordic peoples and held special reverence in their beliefs. In Valhalla, the hall in Asgard in which slain warriors feast with the Gods, there resides a magical boar named Sæhrímnir which is eaten every night and regenerates the following morning to be eaten again. Additionally the God of agriculture Freyr was one of the most widely loved and worshipped deities of people during the Viking age and was said to be accompanied by a magical boar, Gullinborsti. As such every Yule a wild boar was captured, sacrificed, and eaten in his honor in the hope he would grant a plentiful harvest the following year.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all one of the most popular associations of Christmas with Norse folklore is actually a complete misconception, that being the association between Santa Claus and Odin. The modern image of Santa Claus that we know today as a plump and jolly gift giver was popularized in the 1823 poem ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and later commercialized by the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s, adopted from the 4th century legend of the benevolent St. Nicholas of Myra.
The legend of jolly old Saint Nick is often conflated with folklore revolving around the chief of the Norse gods Odin, who would ride through the sky on his eight legged steed Sleipnir, allegedly said to have left gifts to those who left out offerings for him. However no evidence of any of this can be found in the historical record, and in actuality what we do know about old Norse beliefs regarding Odin are essentially the polar opposite of what we associate with Santa Claus, as explained by old Norse specialist Dr. Jackson Crawford.
In any case, evidence does attest to the fact that many a Christmas tradition find their roots in ancient Scandinavia and elsewhere dating back hundreds if not thousands of years and demonstrates a melding of cultures as traditions and customs evolve over time. Despite much of what we know about these people being lost to time due to the destruction of indigenous practices under the incursion of Christianity it is both comforting and fascinating to see how a number of their traditions carry on into the modern era, both in the co-opted form of adapted monotheistic customs, and in their more authentic form as paganism as a whole undergoes a resurgence.
No matter what you celebrate, this time of year is a time of reflection, togetherness, and looking forward to the year ahead. Of eating and drinking, gift giving, and surrounding yourself with loved ones. Concepts which despite divisions and cultural barriers have survived and persisted throughout millennia, reminding us all that no matter your religion or ethnicity the most important tradition of all is to spread cheer and love each other.