Yule – The Viking Predecessor Of The Contemporary Christmas Holidays

Christmas is one of the most important Christian holidays that is observed most commonly on the 25th of December on all of the continents of the world. Nowadays, this celebration brings people together in many ways, inclusively by attending various Christmas markets around the globe.

Artist's impression of a Christmas market.

Artist’s impression of a Christmas market. Image source: www.pixabay.com

However, what some people might not know about Christmas is that, if traced to its roots, this Christian holiday was initially celebrated by pagan Germanic peoples since ancient times. Yule, Yuletide or Yulefest (literally meaning ‘Yule time’ or ‘Yule feast’ respectively) was a midwinter festival celebrated by several Germanic-speaking populations including the Norsemen, the Goths, or the Anglo-Saxons.

With respect to the festival which was celebrated by the Norsemen in the time of the Viking Age, Yule was observed in the middle of January and was characterized by feasts, sacrifices to the Norse gods, and gifts given to each other. Beer and pork were also pivotal features to the celebration of Yule during the feasts.

In the wake of the Christianisation of Scandinavia as well as of other Germanic-speaking areas in Northwestern Europe, the Yule festival was subsequently Christianised into modern day Christmas, yet it did preserve some notable characteristics of the former pagan celebration, albeit with a different name, such as the Yule boar (the Christmas ham), the Yule goat (an ornament still used in Northern Europe), the Yule log (the Christmas block) or the Yule singing (modern Christmas carols).

Winter afternoon, painting by Norwegian Romanticist artist Hans Gude (1825-1903). Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

To these days, the word for Christmas in the North Germanic languages is a variation of the term Yule, and the spirit of the old winter solstice festival has been well preserved in the Nordic countries. Jul is the word for the Christmas season in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, whereas Jól is the counterpart used in the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

Additionally the name of the gift bringers in the Nordic countries are the following ones:

  • Denmark: Julemanden (meaning the Yule man/father in Danish)
  • Sweden: Jultomten (meaning Father Christmas in Swedish)
  • Norway: Julenissen (meaning Father Christmas in Norwegian)
  • Iceland: Jólasveinar (meaning the Yule lads in Icelandic)

In Iceland, 13 Yule lads are the embodiment of Santa Claus. They are said to travel around Iceland during the Christmas season, bringing with them good gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on the behaviour of the receiver. The first Yule lad arrives on the 12th of December and the last one departs on the 6th of January.

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