Swedish is often a very literal language. Today, the 26th December, is a good example of that.
In the UK, the 26th December is known as ‘Boxing Day’. In many countries it’s St Stephen’s day – in Finland, it’s ‘Stefani Day’. In Ireland it’s ‘Wren’s Day’. In South Africa, it’s the ‘Day of Goodwill’.
Long before the Christianity swept over Europe, the Norse people celebrated the Midwinter Solstice in a festival called Yòl. (Yule/jul). Eventually this festival blended with Christmas and gave us many of the traditions we have today.
So, what are 5 ways in which the Norse traditions impacted Christmas?
1) Father Christmas – Odin, King of the Norse Gods, was a bearded old man in a hat and cloak. He rode Sleipnir – an 8-legged horse – across the night sky and delivered gifts to those below. This morphed into the Christian St Nicholas, and 8 reindeer to complete the saga of Santa.
2) The Twelve Days of Christmas – the ancient Norse celebrated their midwinter festival for twelve days, beginning on the day of the winter solstice. It was believed that Odin rode the sky for these 12 days so it was forbidden to hang out laundry in case he got entangled. This was known as ‘the Great Hunt’.
3) Christmas Tree – many of us know that the indoor Christmas tree originates in Germany and was made popular in the Victorian era. However, it in fact pre-dates this. The Norse people believed that evergreens were the divine plant of their sun God Balder (the son of Odin) because they remained green though-out the winter. They took this as a sign that spring was advancing. To encourage the oncoming season, they would decorate the branches of the trees with ornaments, runes and offerings of food. With Christianity, these decorations became stars, and other biblical symbols.
4) Christmas Elf – no story of Santa’s workshop is complete without his little helpers. In Norse mythology, there is the ‘nisse’ or ‘tomte’. These little creatures were small, bearded and wore little pointy hats. They were believed to live in the barns in the farmstead and they would guard the property and the inhabitants, and even fix broken things. They were loyal and industrious but you had to treat them with respect, otherwise their vengeance would be swift and angry. They also loved playing practical jokes and mischief, rather like the elves in Santa’s workshop. The word ‘elf’ comes from the Norse word álfar, which means ‘concealed people’.
5) Mistletoe – ever kissed somebody under the mistletoe? In doing so, you have fulfilled a Norse legend. In the legend, the God Balder had been prophesied to die. His mother, Frigg, in desperation, secured an oath from everything that they would not hurt him. However, she forgot to ask the mistletoe. The envious God Loki carved an arrow out of mistletoe and killed Balder. Frigg’s tears of sorrow fell onto the mistletoe turning the red berries white, and resurrected her son. She then vowed to kiss anybody who passed underneath it, and the plant came to represent love and renewal.
Another Norse influence on our Christmas celebrations is the Christmas Goat. The goat has lost its significance in most countries, but is still a symbol in Scandinavia, where it is a decoration made of straw. The goat originates in Norse tradition from the kid goat that was sacrificed in honour of Njord, the God of the Sea, the Weather and Prosperity. Later on, in Sweden, the Yule goat was believed to be an invisible spirit that would appear before Christmas to make sure that the holiday preparations were done correctly. Eventually, the goat took on the role of the gift giver, instead of or together with Santa Claus (called Jultomten in Swedish).
Other traditions that originate from the Norse jòl are the Christmas Ham, the Yule Log, the Yule Wreath, and Christmas caroling, or ‘wassailing’.
So, while the message of Christmas is the Christian story, many of the surrounding symbols and traditions are in fact from another source altogether.
While the English word Christmas (Christ’s mass), and the German Weihnachen (Holy Night) are clearly connected to the celebrated Christian birth, the Swedish word ‘Jul’ has a much more vague origin.
Like with the English word ‘yule’, experts do not fully agree on where it originates. However, it is deemed likely that it comes from the Proto-Germanic word ‘jehwla’ which could have meant ‘party’ or ‘celebration’.
The word was taken early into the Nordics via the Old Finnish language in the form of ‘juhla’ meaning ‘festival’, and then again as ‘joulu’ meaning ‘jul’. There was already a big celebration of the winter solstice and the winter hunt around this time that was given the name ‘jol’ in Old Norse.
After the surge of Christianity through Europe in the 900’s, England and Germany aligned their word for Christmas, but in the Nordics they kept word ‘jul’. Instead they scheduled their pagan celebrations to occur at the same time as the Christian one, and eventually the two melted together. In the Nordic countries, we still see elements of the pagan ‘jol’ at Christmas time with the ‘Christmas goat’ for example.
In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Christmas is called ‘jul’. In Finland, it is called ‘joulou’. In Iceland it is called ‘Jol’ and in Estonia, ‘joulud’.
At the darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning on December 13th. Lucia has candles in her hair and is surrounded by her handmaidens and boys, and shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.
Santa Lucia is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a martyr’s death in Syracuse, Sicily around AD 310. She was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes, in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result of this, Lucia became a devout Christian and refused to compromise her virginity in marriage.
Officials threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her, even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her instead and set light to it, but she would not stop speaking.
One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop her, but to no effect. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. Lucia was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrement.
The tradition of Santa Lucia is said to have been brought to Sweden via Italian merchants and the idea of lighting up the dark appealed so much that the tradition remained. The current tradition of having a white-dressed woman with candles in her hair appearing on the morning of the Lucia day started in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 19th century.
The modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. The initiative was then followed around the country through the local press. Today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread.
Not only does Lucia represent tradition, but there is also a symbolic meaning. Never more important than this year when the world is in turmoil. So remember, it might be cold and dark right now, but after the darkness comes the light.