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.