How Did Vikings Celebrate The Winter Solstice

How did Vikings celebrate the winter solstice?

How did the Vikings celebrate the winter solstice, and were their festivities similar to the ones we hold around the holiday season today? Though Vikings are commonly thought of as fierce warriors and relatively violent people, they also loved their parties, and their traditions.

Stories told about Viking communities throughout the centuries tell of a multitude of seasonal events similar to those we know now. Vikings had their own version of Halloween, as well as Midsommer, which you may have encountered when travelling around Scandinavia today.

Every December, the Vikings would celebrate the “Midwinter Solstice”, starting on the longest night of the year. These celebrations were part of “Jol”, or “Yule”, which was the name given to the Norse version of Christmas, long before Christians influenced the occasion.

Let’s take a closer look at Viking winter solstice traditions, celebrations, and how they’ve evolved over the decades.

How Did Vikings Celebrate The Winter Solstice

What was the Norse winter solstice?

To answer the question, “How did the Vikings celebrate the winter solstice”, we first need to define what winter solstice actually meant to the early Scandinavians.

The term “winter solstice” refers to the day or time marking the onset of winter. It’s the shortest day of the year, usually taking place on the 22nd of December in the Northern hemisphere, or the 21st of June in the Southern hemisphere.

The celebration of the winter solstice was a popular Viking tradition. Before we associated Christmas with the birth of Christ, thanks to the rise of Christianity, communities all around the world were already celebrating the changing of the seasons.

The old Nordic tradition of winter solstice celebrated the return of the sun to the Nordic lands. When the sun reached its lowest point in the sky, this was a sign daylight and warmth would soon be returning.

While this is cause for celebration in any part of the world, it was particularly meaningful to Vikings and those living in the Northern reaches of the world. After all, during some parts of winter, people across Scandinavia can go days at a time without any sun whatsoever.

The impending return of longer, sunnier days was considered to be a period of “rebirth” for the Vikings, who believed strongly in the circle of life. Vikings referred to the celebration as ġēol, or jól, which translates to mean “turn”, referencing the turning of the seasons.

The term “Jol” also gave way to the word “Yule”— the Viking name for Christmas. What’s more, some scholars believe the Vikings were partially responsible for the name “Christmas”.

The Vikings often used the term “Drink Christmas” when referring to the mead and beverages they’d consume during the winter solstice celebrations.

How Did Vikings Celebrate The Winter Solstice

How did Vikings celebrate the winter solstice?

So how did Vikings celebrate the winter solstice?

In a lot of ways, winter solstice traditions taken from the Nordic region are very similar to the celebrations we associate with modern Christmas.

The winter solstice feasts, games, and parties took place over a period of 12 days, which may have inspired the “12 days of Christmas” as we know them today.

Unfortunately, the Vikings weren’t particularly good at documenting their own history. As a result, much of what we know about winter solstice celebrations comes from other historical accounts, and archaeological findings.

A report from Arab at-Tartuschi provides a good insight into how one Viking town celebrated the solstice.

According to Arab, animals were sacrificed to the gods, and women created massive feasts for everyone to enjoy. Another well-known account of Viking winter solstice comes from Ibn Fadlan, who also references the importance of animal sacrifice.

Interestingly, Ibn notes some of the meat from the animals slaughtered during Christmas was dedicated to the gods, while other pieces were given out to the poor. This perhaps helped to inspire our ideas of Christmas as a time of giving.

The earliest mentions of “Yule”, which stemmed from the Viking winter solstice celebrations, came from a chronicler and historian known as Bede, from England.

In 725 AD, Bede described the holiday seasons of Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Britons, and other Germanic groups as being very similar. According to him, all of these groups took a spiritual approach to celebrating the turn of the seasons.

Viking winter solstice traditions: Feasts and food

Viking winter solstice traditions and Yule-time celebrations went hand-in-hand for the ancient Nordic people. Throughout the 12 days of the winter solstice celebrations, Vikings drank, feasted, and enjoyed time with loved ones.

They would sing, dance, and even play games, as well as giving gifts to the people they cared about.

Interestingly, there were various types of meaningful feasts which took place during the Viking celebration during winter solstice, where certain meals took on different purposes.

For instance, in many feasts, three bowls of food were introduced to each table.

The first bowl was delivered in honor of Odin, the All Father of the Vikings. A toast was then held for Freya, where Vikings gave thanks for the year before, and asked for continued growth and peace.

Finally, the last bowl in a winter solstice feast would often be brought out in memory of the dead, who may have made their way to Valhalla from the battlegrounds.

Though accounts of what Viking winter solstice may have been like vary from one historian to the next, most experts agree it was a time of indulgence and perhaps a little gluttony. Food was extremely important to the celebration, with many families consuming everything from roast ham to mead.

The celebrations also generally involved the ritual slaughter of animals, according to some historical experts. While some accounts indicate human sacrifice may have been something common among the pagans and Vikings of this time, these claims haven’t been substantiated by any evidence.

How Did Vikings Celebrate The Winter Solstice
Credit: Udo Schröter

How Norse winter solstice traditions evolved

When we look a little deeper at the question, “How did the Vikings celebrate the winter solstice?” we see many of the traditions from old Scandinavia have evolved through the centuries.

The Viking Yule goat, for instance, was one of the most important parts of the winter solstice celebration, thanks to the connection between goats and the Norse God, Thor.

Today, many Scandinavian people still include goats as part of their decorations, in place of the reindeer and similar animals more common in the UK and US.

Many Vikings also believed the last sheaf of grain collected from the harvest had magical, spiritual properties, and was often saved for Yule celebrations, and crafted into the shape of a goat.

This may be why many Scandinavian people use straw goats and animals for decorations today.

The Yule log was also a significant part of the winter solstice celebrations for the Vikings. During the end of the winter period, many Viking men and women would travel into the woods to find a fire log to bring home.

Once the right piece of wood was found, it was brought home and carved with runes to symbolize fortune and protection. A piece of the Yule log was removed and saved for the next year, while the rest was burned throughout the duration of the celebration.

Some Vikings believed allowing the Yule log to go out during the winter solstice celebrations was a sign of bad luck to come in the years ahead.

Vikings even had their own tradition of dressing up as an old man during Yule. However, they didn’t dress like Santa Claus to surprise their children. Instead, a man was nominated to dress as “Old Man Winter”, who was also considered to be a symbol of Odin.

This figure would travel around the community, visiting homes, and both giving and receiving gifts.

How Viking winter solstice celebrations survived the decades

Answering the question “how did Vikings celebrate the winter solstice” tells us a great deal about how traditions and festivities are passed down through the centuries.

Many of the Viking winter solstice traditions, such as animal sacrifice, may seem outdated today. However, a significant portion of the “Jol” celebrations of the time have evolved to appear in our current celebrations too.

Just like us, Vikings believed a bearded man flew through the night sky to visit them in their homes around Yule. However, instead of Santa Claus, the Vikings looked forward to a visit from Odin on his eight-legged horse.

According to historians, because Christianity appeared in Europe at the same time Vikings were still celebrating their version of the winter solstice, it led to a lot of overlap. Vikings had their own Yule tree, decorated with symbols of the gods and runes, which inspired our Christmas trees today.

There were Viking Yule wreaths, and even Viking mistletoe.

Clearly, the Viking winter solstice traditions from centuries ago still have a place to resonate in the hearts of Christmas fans throughout the world today.

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