Yule – The Viking Predecessor Of The Contemporary Christmas Holidays

Christmas is one of the most important Christian holidays, being observed most commonly on the 25 December on all of the continents across the world. Nowadays, this holy celebration brings people together in many ways, all the more by attending various Christmas markets globally.

Artist's impression of a Christmas market.

Artist’s impression of a medieval 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 that was celebrated by the Norsemen in the time of the Viking Age, Yule was observed in the middle of January and was characterised by feasts, sacrifices to the Norse gods, and gifts given to each other. Beer and pork were also central 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: Wikimedia Commons

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 said to travel around Iceland during the winter season, bringing with them good gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on the behaviour of the receiver. The first Yule lad arrives on the 12 December and the last one departs on the 6 January.

Documentation sources and external links:

Liked it? Take a second to support Victor Rouă on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

10 Responses to Yule – The Viking Predecessor Of The Contemporary Christmas Holidays

  1. Ron says:

    Thanks for posting this. Very fun to learn about – and quickly! Very Jól-ly! : )

  2. Sarah Jane Christopher says:

    I’m fascinated by history and the Anglo Saxons, Danes and Vikings in particular, who have had such a huge impact on the culture of my homeland Yprkshire. I wish I had time to do historical research. Thanks for your work!

  3. David Mottram says:

    Christmas – the celebration of the birth of Christ, Natalis Christi – on December 25th originated in Rome sometime around 300AD, perhaps earlier. This was centuries before Christianity reached Germanic peoples to any great extent. Hence no Germanic feast has any claim to the roots of Christmas. Yule itself is simply the word for Winter so holding Yule was having a winter feast. Essentially this was a celebration put on by a lord for his warriors. According to the sagas, the first Christian king of Norway decided to hold his winter feast on Christmas Day. Christmas Day became identified as the Yule feast and Yule became synonymous with Christmas. There is no evidence that any of the “Yule” things mentioned go back to pre-Christian Yule.

    There is also a contradiction in you article about the dates. You say “Yule was observed in the middle of January” but later on you identify as “the old winter solstice festival”. Can’t be both, can it? There is actually nothing in the historical record, such as the sagas, to suggest that Yule had anything to do with the Solstice, though the date of Christmas may well have. Germanic people, by the way, used a lunar calendar, not the Roman solar one.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hmm… very interesting and insightful comment. Thank you very much for voicing your opinion here and for your readership and time spent on The Dockyards! 🙂



    • Victor Rouă says:

      I understand the confusion because while indeed they are little ones, just like small elves or better said leprechauns, they still serve the role of Santa Claus, each and every one of them individually. It was a bit confusing for me as well when I initially read about them several years ago.

  5. Jacqueline Camejo says:

    I remember the Yule Log. can anyone tell me about that? In school, Christmas was celebrated (before going home) by the Revels…. Time maybe about the 1600s…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.