Yule - A Merry Viking Christmas?
Merry Christmas! You could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is a Christian festival. After all isn't it pretty obvious by the name of the holiday that it comes from Christianity? Well not so much, modern Christmas is very close to the Viking version, Yule.
Ancient cultures were not all that stupid, they figured out the cycle of the seasons and the best times for planting crops, for harvesting and even for going to war. Have you ever wondered why March is called March? It is in fact named after the Roman god of war Mars, as it was the month to start wars.
Both the Romans and the Vikings had festivals based on the cycle of the seasons, along with most other cultures too.
The idea of a midwinter festival to celebrate the fact that from here on in things got lighter and warmer was not unique to any one culture, but the Viking version seems very familiar to modern Christmas.
In fact, there is some pretty good evidence that the Christians adopted a lot of the Pagan festivals, not just Christmas, in order to ease the transition for people from one religion to another.
The Viking Yule started on the 21st of December and lasted for 12 days, seem familiar? Well there were a few other things about Yule that seem oddly familiar too!
O Christmas tree
The evergreen trees of the Scandinavian forests were a potent symbol of life for the Vikings. When all other trees and other plant life were apparently dead in midwinter, the evergreen tree still looked healthy and green.
To the Vikings it represented the promise of life that even in the midst of winter at the death of the year there was still a seed of life to begin the new cycle.
As the evergreen trees were so revered, at Yule they would be decorated with small carvings and gifts for the spirits of the trees and plants to encourage them to come back soon and start the new spring.
Decorating evergreen trees did not stop with the Vikings though, through their Germanic descendants it spread to England and America and to the rest of the world. Decorating a Christmas tree is a Viking ritual that is performed worldwide every year!
The wheel of the sun
Vikings would use holly leaves and berries to make into circular wreaths, these wreaths would then be used to decorate their houses during the Yule festival. Holly is an evergreen plant and continued to grow during the winter, so it represented continuing life in the same way the decorated trees did. The Holly formed into a circular wreath was to illustrate the yearly cycle, that winter flows in to summer and back to winter.
Using an evergreen plant to make the wreath meant that life existed all year round. It was a powerful and reassuring symbol to have during the long dark Northern nights. The holly wreath is a promise of warmer days to come and another Viking ritual that is still performed worldwide yearly today!
Ho Ho... Odin?
Santa Claus is Odin, no really. At the end of the Yule feast, Viking children would leave a boot full of straw on the hearth of their house for Odin's 8 legged horse Slepnir, Odin in return for the gift for his horse would refill the boots with toys and sweet treats, small cakes and fruit. Odin was also the Lord of Alfheim, the land of the elves.
A big bearded man who lives somewhere in the frozen North, with an army of elves as helpers, filling hearth placed footwear with presents for children at the end of a midwinter festival. Pretty similar to jolly old Santa, wonder where he keeps his battle axe these days?
The most wonderful time of the year
The Vikings liked to party as much as anyone else did, and Yule was one of the biggest. Twelve days of feasting and drinking would have been enough to test the stamina of even the toughest Viking warrior! Because it would have been so cold outside and the sea was not too safe for sailing, Viking winter activities would have been mostly indoor.
Yule would have offered a rare chance in the cold winter months for large gatherings, for competitions and games and for making plans for the summer. A great deal of fun combined with a great deal of games, food, drink and talking about the future. Seems just like modern Christmas!
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