The Man Who Was Wednesday: The Norse Origin of Christmas
Christmastide traditions are a glorious amalgamation of customs and practices that have been appropriated wholesale from other belief systems, primarily those of Ancient Rome. But Rome is only part of the story because over the centuries Christmas has also acquired a number of key traditions drawn from the pagan Germanic and later Norse peoples who dominated Western Europe in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This connection is all the more pertinent this year as Christmas Day falls on a Wednesday.
Christmas with the Yule Log. Illustrated London News 23 December 1848 (Public Domain)
Have a Cool Yule
Today the words Yule and Yuletide are frequently used as an alternative to Christmas or the Holiday Season. “Happy Holidays”, “Merry Christmas”, “Have a Cool Yule” are just slogans used on Christmas cards and gift tags without a thought to their origin. In brief, Yule was a midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples of post-Roman Europe, the people now called the Saxons (or Anglo-Saxons in Britain). There is linguistic evidence to suggest the concept of the Yule festivities dates as far back as the fourth century AD but given these were primarily pre-literate cultures who left behind no written records, its origins may be far, far older. Yule was later adopted by the Norse people of Scandinavia, the people better known as the Vikings – the Norse term was yulblót.
To these peoples, Yule was a period of celebrating the Winter Solstice, that turning point in the year when the nights stopped getting longer and the days began growing longer. It was a time of hope, a recognition that winter was coming to an end and that summer would eventually return. It was a time of feasting, when livestock would be sacrificed and eaten, and it was a time of communal drinking, singing and merrymaking.
Feasting with Odin in Valhalla by Emil Doepler (1905) (Public Domain)
Although there is some debate as to just how long the Yuletide celebrations lasted – some sources suggest two months (from mid-November to mid-January) whereas the 10th-century monarch King Hakon the Good of Norway said three days “or as long as the ale lasted “– it is widely believed it was a period of 12 days running from either the winter solstice or Modranicht (Mothers’ Night). So, for example, this year Yule runs from Sunday December 22, 2019 to Thursday January 2, 2020.
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Charles Christian is a UK-based barrister and Reuters correspondent turned writer, journalist, radio presenter, podcaster, and sometime werewolf hunter. He writes the monthly Ritual Year column for Ancient Origins Magazine. His blog and his Weird Tales Radio Show podcasts can be found at www.UrbanFantasist.com and he is on Twitter at @Christian Uncut
Top Image: The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872) (Public Domain)