The holidays and December bring so many memories. Many are linked to traditions and rituals which happen year after year. For me, as someone who grew up in California but who has lived in the UK for the past 30 years, one of the things I have been interested in for a long time is where do the traditions come from and why are things often the same but very different. For example, when I first moved over, the UK version of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, wore red bishop’s robes and was thin, rather than plump Santa suit that I was more familiar with. But I do find comfort in tradition and sometimes in making new traditions or reviving old ones.
When I wrote A Christmas Wedding Wager back in 2007, my then editor called it super-Christmas as I went to town on researching and including lots of Victorian Christmas traditions. Some people say that Dickens was the man who re-invented Christmas with his story A Christmas Carol. However, that is not entirely true, some holiday traditions stretch back into the mists of time. When I came to write my latest, Sent as The Viking’s Bride, I researched traditions that go back to the Viking concept of Jul.
Jul for the Vikings was about the rebirth of the sun — every year the sun goddess was swallowed by the wolf and re-born. The Viking Jul lasted longer than Christmas festivities, starting in November and lasting to the middle of January when there would be a sacrifice or Julblot. When you consider the sun disappears entirely in the Scandinavian region during this period, you can understand why bringing the sun back was so important. When Norway became Christian in 1000 AD, it was declared 25 December was henceforth Ju or Yule in that country. Parts of Britain (particularly Northern England and Scotland) were under Viking rule at this time. Christmas or Christ’s birth being celebrate in December dates from the third century common era and may be a way the early Church tried to combat various mid-winter festivals. Coptic Christians still celebrate Christ’s birth in May.
What I was surprised to find was how many traditions, particularly those practiced in the Scandinavian countries stem from the Jul practices. You may have heard of Yule logs burning during the dark days or wassail/Christmas beer but did you know that eating ham or pork stems from the oaths the Vikings swore to their leaders at this time of year? Or that the wreaths came in part from the flaming wreaths the Vikings used to roll down a hill to help the rebirth of the sun goddess?
Why the boar? The boar was sacred to the god Freyr. He possessed a specially made golden boar which could run faster than any horse. Warriors would put the boar symbol on their helmets and shields to bring good luck. Swearing on a boar was supposed to be an unbreakable oath. In Norway, people still give marzipan pigs at this time of year for good luck.
The goat was sacred to Thor and played a part in the rebirth ceremony of Jul. The red and white Scandinavian figures which look like deer are in fact goats and harken back to this ancient tradition. A small confession, for years I thought they were reindeer until my sister who did her university degree in Norway put me straight.
Mistletoe was also sacred to the Vikings and features heavily in their myths, particularly the myth of Baldar’s death. Mistletoe is one of the few evergreens in the dark winter. And the Vikings used to decorate their halls with evergreens. The Germanic tradition of Christmas trees is supposed to be related in some way to this.
One special tradition which I used in my book, Sent as the Viking’s Bride is that of the nisser. What is a nisser? He is the elf/good spirit that guards farmhouses and makes them prosper. Nowadays he wears a bright red-pointed cap. He is also very fond of porridge. The photo is a spoon which my sister who did her BA at the University of Oslo gave my eldest son when he was a little boy to encourage him to eat his porridge. The belief in the nisser is probably where we get Brownies and elves from as they do not seem to feature in British folk tales which pre-date the Viking invasion. Even today in Norway, at Christmas eve, a bowl of rice pudding with butter on top is put out for the nisser. A brand of butter recently did a really adorable Christmas advert in which a family was surprised by one who came in and demanded proper butter.
I loved being able to research this time period and to see the origins of various traditions. It is just interesting when you see various traditions and realise that people were finding comfort in them for thousands of years.
However and wherever you celebrate the holidays this year, I hope it is full of good cheer and traditions which make you smile.
Sent as the Viking's Bride