Ýlir. The second month of winter. The fifth Monday in winter. That’s about all we know. We don’t know the origin of the word. We don’t know what it means, either. What we do know is that Icelandic ethnographer Árni Björnsson discovered the word in two medieval Icelandic sources. The Bókarbót, a text that dates to the twelfth century, and Snorri’s Edda.1 Some have tried to connect the word to Yule or Jól. Yuletide. You will have heard of it. Its origins go deep into ancient Germanic lore. It’s not the same as Christmas, but there is a link. And that has all to do with royal decrees and shifting calendars. Here is how the story unfolds…
Origins of Modern Christmas
Christmas, according to the Christian tradition, is about the birth of Jesus. Yet, another story remains immensely popular. The one about a guy on the Northpole. Santa Claus. In December, he flies through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeers to bring presents to children. And does anyone remember he also gives coals to naughty children?
The Tropes of Christmas
The tropes of Santa Claus; the white-bearded man, the journey across the night sky, presents for good children and repercussions for naughty ones have analogies in other December celebrations. For example, hardly anyone disagrees that Santa Claus probably derives from the figure of Saint Nicholas. This bishop of Myra lived during the early days of the Roman Empire and was known for his charitable work. Today, we know him to arrive sporting a long white beard, red robes, and riding a white horse across the rooftops, throwing presents down the chimney. He givens children presents on his birthday, 6 December. As for the naughty ones, well, they go in the sack and back with him to Spain.
To stay with the saints for a moment… did you know Saint Nicholas resembles another saint? He’s called Martin of Tours. He was a soldier during the days of the Roman Empire, and gave his clothes to beggars and gifts to children. Only, Saint Martin’s feast is held on 11 November. In the Netherlands, for example, it has evolved from a feast of charity to a feast of light. Children walk the dark, afternoon streets carrying lanterns and singing songs.2 More tropes that rather sound like the December month festivities.
The last analogy I want to mention here is that of Norse mythology. For there too, are stories about a white-bearded man who rides through the sky on his horse. This is Odin, known as Jólnir, visiting Midgard on his horse Sleipnir during wintertime. The children who leave food for his horse, receive presents from Odin in return.3
With these tropes accounted for, let’s dig deeper and get confused by
shifty shifting calendars!
The Midwinter Solstice
Now, Yuletide is not Christmas. You probably know that by now. Yule is pre-Christian and connected to the Midwinter Solstice. And, as solstices go they do not take place at a fixed time or date. The use of different calendars at different times makes it even more difficult to understand when and why something was celebrated during the Viking Age.
What the Calendars Say
First, there is the old Icelandic calendar. Ýlir starts late November and ends about four weeks later, just after the Midwinter Solstice. The solstice is the shortest day, the longest night of the year. It also marks an important change in the year, in the season. The next day will leave the darkness behind. The days will get longer and more light will come. That is what is celebrated.
With the arrival of the Julian and Gregorian calendars in the course of the Middle Ages, the darkest day falls later, between 20 and 22 December.4 There is an example of a feast once held during the solstice, but now on 13 December. This the feast of Saint Lucia of Syracuse, another feast of light with girls carrying candles that is mostly celebrated in Scandinavia.5
Yet, its original celebration is pre-Christian and called Lussi Long-Night. Lussi was a female spirit, mischievous to some and evil to others. Whichever the case, she came with an array of trolls and other frightful creatures. They would ride the skies at night during the solstice and come down chimneys to take naughty children (recognise the trope?). On this darkest night, adults and children alike were warned not to venture outside!
The flight through the sky, in all its sound and appearance, closely resembles a mythological story, the Wild Hunt. During this event, the Old Norse gods led by Odin, would tear through the skies on their horses with “a tumultuous racket of pounding hooves, howling dogs and raging winds”. Scholars generally connect the Wild Hunt to Yuletide.6
More on Yuletide Rituals
Yuletide is one of the most important blót feasts during the Viking Age. There were rituals such as:
The Yule Log you will find in Scandinavia and Great Britain. The idea behind it is that the log is kept burning, in parts, until 6 January.7 Now, you often also see it as a delicious cakeroll!
During Julebukk people in Norway go from door to door. Sometimes in disguise, sometimes singing songs, sometimes asking one from the house to join them on to the next door. Its origins lie in the ritual of the Yule Goat referring to the goats who pulled Thor’s chariot. During Yuletide, the disguise of Julebukk would be a goatskin, and a goat’s head would be carried from door to door.8
The Yule Lads are a phenomenon. It all started with their mother, Grýla, a very ancient figure in Iceland. She is the metaphor of the harsh and rough living conditions in Iceland and lives up (or is the personification) of the mountains. Over time, however, she becomes synonym with Yuletide through her sons, the Yule Lads. She, too, steals naughty kids, takes them into a sack (and eats them). Her sons are mischievous and arrive one by one on the twelve days leading up to Christmas.9
Times of Transition
The modern celebrations are packed with roots of ancient traditions. Amazingly enough, we can still pinpoint the time when the Christian tradition of 25 December and Yuletide were mixed. When Christianity spread across Europe in the early Middle Ages, kings and leaders adopted the new faith and tried to convert their subjects too, with soft or hard measures.
In Norway, we know that Haakon the Good (c. 920-960) made a law to celebrate Yule at Christmas. Despite the good example he tried to give, his jarls strongly opposed his ways and even forced him to take part in pagan rituals. In Snorri’s Heimkringla, the king is noticeably furious, but in politics the alliance of his jarls is too important and Haakon leaves things as they are.10
How different things is when Olaf Tryggvason takes the crown. He has no such qualms or necessities and forces the new religion on his subjects. It is said he “abolished blót and blót-drinking, in place of which, as a favour to the people, he ordained holiday drinking at Yule and Easter, St John’s Mass ale and an autumn-ale at Michaels mass.” 11
Core of the Ancient Myths
Now it is one millennium later. Our modern winter feasts are about light, presents, family. How do we look back at the Viking Age celebrations? As more about darkness, evil, facing the elements of nature. Or is that too easy? Because Yuletide and the solstice was so very much about new beginnings, too. Of new light, looking toward new seasons of fertile fields (and thus, food). Haraldskvædi, for example, the poem about Harald Fairhair, connects Yuletide to the god Freyr,
“Fain outside would he drink the ale at Yule-tide,
the fight-loving folk-warder, and Frey’s-gameplay there.”12Haraldskvædi
Freyr, is the god of fertility, and also of the dísablót feasts. The dísír were female spirits, some mischievous or evil like Lussi, others more benign. Most importantly, they were strongly linked to fertility, childbirth (though with death and warfare, too).13 And many of these rituals were mostly performed by females, or the mistress of the household.14
As an ultimate idea of fertility, new life and birth, I leave you with a remark by Bede himself. During the eighth century, he refers to a pagan feast called Mōdraniht or Mother’s Night. He bemusedly tells of a pagan ritual he has heard about that lasts the whole night to celebrate the gift of motherhood. With a new birth not far away…15
The Feast of Light and of New Beginnings
Just visualise someone looking through a medieval window into the twenty-first century to our Saint Martin’s, Saint Nicholas, Saint Lucy’s, Santa Claus feasts. I think they will probably be just as confused with all these events as we are, trying to understand all the different blót celebrations!
What impressed me about the ancient feasts is that the acknowledgment of the paradox of light and dark, of death and life, of ends and new beginnings. Their lives then were so tied to core emotions. Is it so different one millennium later? Yes, we live our lives very differently, but there is also a pandemic raging across the globe. Governments are asking us to stay at home and not venture outside this Christmas time. Somehow it feels as if The Wild Hunt and Lussi’s Night have returned.
Tomorrow is also 21 December and the winter solstice of 2020. The longest night will pass after that. Let’s look forward like also to that new light, the longer days, the hope of a new and better year for all…
- Guðrún Kvaran, ‘tvímánuður,’ Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum Last Accessed 5 December 2020. https://english.arnastofnun.is/page/ordpistlar_tvimanudur ↩︎
- Redactie, ‘Sint–Maarten, feestdag van Martinus van Tours: De achtergrond van Sint–Maarten,’ Historiek Last Accessed 19 December 2020. https://historiek.net/sint–maarten–feestdag–van–martinus–van–tours/38459/ [transl. ‘Saint Martin, the feast day of Martin of Tours: The background of Saint–Martin’, Dutch language]. ↩︎
- Sarah Pruitt, ‘Don’t Forget Santa‘s Cookies and Milk: The History of a Popular Christmas Tradition,’ History.com Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://www.history.com/news/dont–forget–santas–cookies–and–milk–the–history–of–a–popular–christmas–tradition ↩︎
- ‘When is the Winter Solstice? The Shortest Day,’ Royal Museums Greenwich Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/when–winter–solstice. ↩︎
- Alison Eldridge, ‘7 Winter Solstice Celebrations From Around the World,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica* Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://www.britannica.com/list/7–winter–solstice–celebrations–from–around–the–world. ↩︎
- ‘The Wild Hunt,’ Orkneyjar Last Accessed 20 December 2020. http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/hunt.htm.
Prof. Geller, ‘The Wild Hunt,’ Mythology.net Last updated 14 January 2017. Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://mythology.net/norse/norse–concepts/the–wild–hunt/.
Joshua Rood, ‘The Festival Year: A Survey of the Annual Festival Cycle and Its Relation to the Heathen Lunisolar Calendar.’ [Master’s Thesis, 2013] https://www.academia.edu/8691572/TheFestivalYearASurveyoftheAnnualFestivalCycleandItsRelationtotheHeathenLunisolar_Calendar. ↩︎
- Scott Richardson–Read, ‘The Burning Heart of Scotlands Yule Charring the Old Wife.’ Folklore Thursday Published 13 December 2018. Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/the–burning–heart–of–scotlands–yule–charring–the–old–wife/. ↩︎
- ‘Julebukk’ My Little Norway Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://mylittlenorway.com/norwegian–christmas/julebukk/. ‘Viking Masks’ The Viking Answer Lady Last Accessed 20 December 2020. http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/masks.shtml. ↩︎
- Rachel Newer, Meet the Thirteen Yule Lads, Iceland‘s Own Mischievous Santa Clauses,’ Smithsonian Magazine Published 13 Decmber 2017. Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart–news/meet–the–thirteen–yule–lads–icelands–own–mischievous–santa–clauses–180948162/. ↩︎
- Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla | Hakon the Good’s Saga | Chapter 15–17. Project Gutenberg Last Accessed 20 December 2020. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/598/598–h/598–h.htm#link2H40059. ↩︎
- Joshua Rood (2013), pp. 11. ↩︎
- Thórbiorn Hornklofi, ‘The Lay of Harold’ Sacred Texts.com Last Accessed 20 December 2020. ↩︎
- Joshua Rood (2013), pp. 46, 55. ↩︎
- Cristina Spatacea, ‘Women in the Viking Age. Death, Life after Death and Burial Customs.’ [Master’s Thesis, University of Oslo, 2006], pp. 71–74. ↩︎
- ‘Mōdraniht,’ Wikipedia Last Accessed 20 December 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C5%8Ddraniht. ↩︎