So then its nearly Christmas and the annual cries of “put christ back in Christmas” can be seen all over facebook. However most people sharing this sort of thing have no idea of the history of Christmas. Long before it was hijacked by christianity several different civilisations had celebrations at this time of year – some with remarkable similarities to what became known as christmas. In the Viking tradition Yule was a big feast and piss up which happened in December and lasted into January. It lasted for 12 days.. or 3 weeks depending on which source you read (3 weeks is more common and i suspect the sources that mention 12 days only do so to piss people off thinking about the 12 days of christmas – I am not bothered enough to dig deeper) and which culminated in a big feast known as jólablót.
During the 10th century AD, King Hákon the Good, who was a Christian, demanded that the jólablót should be held on the 25th of December in accordance with the continental Christmas celebrations, a decision which was part of a political process of trying the Christen Norway. Yet this was not the original date for Yule. Yule, or Jól (pronunciation: “yoh-l”) was the name of the time between the Winter Solstice and the Jólablót – “Yule Sacrifice” – which originally occurred in January. It means that Yule begins today with the Winter Solstice and lasts until the 12th of next year, if you are a follower of the old Gods
The Yule celebration as a whole was often referred to as “drinking jól”, as in “to drink” yule. This descriptive term strongly suggests that drink was an important part of the celebration. We also know that apart from drinking a lot, there would also be feasting, banquets, games and song – and sacrifice to the gods and other powers of winter. It is uncertain what exactly was celebrated during the Yule drinking. It has been suggested that they sacrificed for a good new year, for the dead, or that it was a sun – or light celebration to counter the darkness of winter. We can but speculate, and speculate I will, taking a mythological approach.
The actual days of the great drinking and eating banquet associated with Jól did not last for more than three days although the time of Jól certainly did, lasting for up to three weeks. It would appear that the actual Yule banquets would last for three days and nights, and probably closer to the day of the Sacrifice on the 12th of January than to the Solstice – as such the sacrifice and the banquet may have been a way of celebrating and giving thanks after three weeks of expectation, beginning with the Solstice and the gradual brightening of days.
Also linked to this time of year was the old Roman celebration of Saturnalia which started on the 17 December and ran through to the 23rd December. Celebrated by sacrifices, banquets and gift giving there are several similarities with modern “traditions”.
Big bloke, beard, flying through the sky, leaving presents? – that will be Odin then. Yule was when Odin led a hunting party, known as the Wild Hunt, in the sky with an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. The 13th century Poetic Edda said the mythical horse could leap great distances. Children would leave their boots by the chimney filled with carrots and hay to feed Sleipnir. Legend has it that whenever Odin flew by he would leave gifts by their boots.
Like to decorate a tree? Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, to remind them of the spring to come and The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia.
There are many other but tbh having ruined Santa and the Christmas tree i feel my work here is done.
However one tradition today i particularly like is the icelandic one known as Jolabokaflod. It involves the giving of books on 24 December and then spending the night reading.
A lot of pagan traditions were hijacked by early christianity as a means to help with converting people. Getting people to convert was going to be much harder if you were going to ask them to not only renounce their gods but also to pack in having a good party. So its no co-incidence that Christian festivals tend to coincide with Pagan ones.
So anyhow, when you are sat down to your huge dinner on the 25th December and have opened your presents whilst sat around the tree remember the origins of the festival you are celebrating.