How Did Vikings Celebrate Christmas

How did Vikings celebrate Christmas? Norse Yule traditions

Have you ever wondered “How did Vikings celebrate Christmas?” While Christmas is technically a Christian holiday, it’s far from the first example of a winter festivity. For centuries, cultures and communities all around the globe held feasts, banquets, and parties around the end of the year.

Indeed, Norse Yule traditions held by the Vikings of eons past have helped to shape some of the more common elements of Christmas we know today. Without the Vikings and Nordic people, we may not have the Yule log, evergreen tree, or even mistletoe!

Experts believe winter celebrations were common among early civilizations because many of these communities believed in offering something to the gods as a way of convincing them to banish the cold weather and bring back the sun.

A huge celebration at the close of each year was the Vikings’ way of saying farewell to the darker, colder days of winter.

Did Vikings celebrate Christmas?

So, did Vikings celebrate Christmas? The simple answer is “yes” — but it wasn’t the Christmas you’d recognize today. Rather, every December, the “Viking Christmas” would begin at the start of the Midwinter Solstice, on the longest night of the year.

Viking Yule traditions had a lot in common with the modern Christmas festivities we know now. Communities would take part in epic feasts, drinking, songs, games, and decorating.

What’s more, Viking Christmas traditions took place over the course of 12 days, similar to our “12 days of Christmas”, counting down to December 25th.

What did Vikings call Christmas?

While the Vikings did celebrate Christmas to a certain extent, the celebration had a unique name, unrelated to the Christian religion. Christmas was known as “Yule”, which is pronounced the same as “Jul”, the word used for Christmas in Norway, and various parts of Scandinavia today.

The Viking “Yule” was a time of music, drinking, and celebrating the God, Odin, who Vikings believed would ride through the night sky, visiting them in their homes.

Indeed, the idea of Odin flying throughout the cosmos to visit Vikings is similar to the image we now have of Santa Claus. However, Odin would be riding on the back of an eight-legged horse, rather than using a sleigh and reindeer to deliver gifts to children.

Since Christianity reached Europe at the same time Vikings were still roaming the earth, Viking Christmas traditions and Christian concepts quickly became intertwined. This may be why we continue to celebrate Christmas today with a range of “Pagan” festivities.

How Did Vikings Celebrate Christmas

How did Vikings celebrate Christmas?

Viking Christmas traditions informed many of the components of the Christmas celebration we know today. In fact, Vikings helped to inspire a number of common seasonal events, including Halloween.

Viking Yule took place between the last day of the winter solstice, and the start of January, usually covering a period of around 12 days.

Although Viking Yule traditions varied from one family to the next, they usually included significant amounts of drinking and feasting.

Some families would sacrifice goats, pigs, and other animals to the gods and their ancestor spirits. Others would brew their own mead for the occasion. Many historians believe mead was usually reserved for special occasions, such as Yule and weddings.

Outside of delicious feasts and drinks, the Vikings also had a number of other traditions they followed during Yule time. Many would play special games with children, sing Christmas songs, and even decorate their homes with ornaments representing the Gods.

The most common Norse Yule traditions

It’s difficult to say for certain what a Viking Yule celebration might have looked like. However, historians and architects have uncovered some insights for us over the years.

For example, we know the Vikings had their own version of a “Yule wreath”, something we still use as part of Christmas decorations today. There were also giant wheel-style wreaths the Vikings would set on fire and roll down hills as a request to the gods for the return of the sun.

Other common Norse Yule traditions included:

The Yule log

The Yule log used by Vikings wasn’t made of cake and chocolate. Instead, it was a large piece of oak, into which Vikings would carve runes asking for the protection of the gods.

Communities would save a piece of the log each year to be used in the following year as part of a big fire to warm their homes and families.

The Yule goat

The Yule goat, still commonly celebrated throughout Scandinavia today, was another important part of Viking Christmas. Viking men would often dress in goat skins throughout the celebration, singing songs about Odin.

Some families would sacrifice and eat goat, while others told stories about the pair of goats belonging to Thor. According to Norse mythology, these goats pulled Thor’s chariot through the skies, creating the sound of thunder.

Viking Santa Claus

The version of Santa Claus we know today is very modern, however, the Vikings had their own ancient visitor said to bring gifts during Christmas.

During the celebrations, one person would often dress to represent “Old Man Winter”, and other families would welcome him into their home to join the feast.

Many theorized Old Man Winter was intended to be “Odin” in disguise, visiting families to determine whether they were worthy of gifts like sunlight and bountiful crops.

Viking mead

As mentioned above, drinking was often a big part of many Viking celebrations, including the Christmas period. Spiced holiday mead was particularly popular alongside festive feasts.

Many families would prepare large batches of mead months in advance, and even use bottles of mead as gifts for loved ones.

Yule games

Vikings also had their own special games to play during the festive season. Many of these events were forms of drinking games, as the Vikings were very fond of their ale and mead.

The Yule feast

As mentioned above, the Yule feast was perhaps one of the most important parts of the Christmas celebration for Viking people. The feast would often include a large roast ham, or another form of animal, alongside various Scandinavian dishes.

How Did Vikings Celebrate Christmas

Is the Christmas tree a Viking tradition?

The Christmas tree is perhaps one of the most popular Christmas traditions we have today. However, experts theorize the use and decoration of a tree may have emerged first with the introduction of Viking Christmas.

When answering the question “How did the Vikings celebrate Christmas?” historians have found many families had their own Yule tree.

Evergreen and fir trees in Viking communities were often decorated with small statues carved to represent Norse gods, as well as items of food and clothing. The tree is often seen in many cultures as a symbol of life.

For the Vikings, it’s also symbolic of the great World tree, Yggdrasil.

How Viking Christmas influenced modern celebrations

Viking Christmas and modern-day Christmas celebrations have a significant level of overlap. Long before we were singing about a partridge in a pear tree, the ancient Norse Vikings were already enjoying the festival of Yule for 12 days.

Vikings also had their own Christmas trees, their version of Santa Claus, and even the Christmas wreath.

Viking mythology may have also helped to inspire some other characters in modern Christmas tales. For example, Nordic people had their own version of the “elf”, known as the “nisse”.

These folklore creatures were commonly associated with the winter solstice and Christmas. They looked similar to a garden gnome, which may be why we see so many gnome decorations in Scandinavia today.

The nisse were said to life in stables and barns around the homestead, guarding the property. If they were given care and respect through the years, they would reward families. However, if they were treated poorly, the nisse were known for causing all kinds of mischief.

The Vikings also had an interesting legend about mistletoe. According to Norse legend, the son of Odin, Balder, was prophesized to die, causing his mother to visit every entity around the world in an attempt to secure oaths of protection.

However, she neglected to consult with mistletoe, as she considered it to be harmless to her son. The God Loki then carved an arrow out of mistletoe, which became Balder’s only weakness.

How Did Vikings Celebrate Christmas

Celebrating Viking Yule traditions

Answering the question “How did Vikings celebrate Christmas” gives us an insight into just how similar our modern traditions are to ancient Norse celebrations. Many Norse Yule traditions helped to inspire the Christmas we know today, alongside various other seasonal events.

If you’re interested in celebrating Christmas like the Vikings this year, you won’t need to make a lot of changes to your regular routine. Perhaps simply look up some old Norse stories to share with your children, or play some Scandinavian-style Yule games.

You could even consider adding goat and rune decorations to your tree at the end of the year.

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