Friday, December 02, 2016


Scandinavian Jul in the Viking period and in the early Middle Ages.
(source: Middelalderhistorie, Århus Universitet)

Candle in Vor Frue Kirke, Århus/ GB
The word Jul or the Old Norse Jól was used long before Christianity came to Denmark and Scandinavia. Jul was the term for the winter feasts when days of the year again began to grow longer - but today it is difficult to know what these ancient feasts really meant to people. 

Carl Larsson, Midvinterblót, (wikipedia)
The linguistic history of the word Jul are somewhat lost, but it has probably German roots. An early example of the use of the word is in the Gothic language spoken in Central and South Eruope in late Antiquity and in the early Middle Ages. The word Jul is first seen in the 300s. It was among others used in the form jiuleis which was the name for November or December. A few centuries later it is seen in Old English where it occurs as goiuli giulæi or youle  - as a description  of the period December-January. In Old Norse ( the language in Scandinavia in the Viking Age) the word seems to have had several meanings, but everything points to that the Old Norse Jól can be translated into feast. The word seems to have spread in Europe in Antiquity and early Middle Ages, the periods which in Denmark are named Iron Age and Viking Age. It was everywhere used about the same time of the year, but it is uncertain what the word actually covered -  also in the Nordic context.

Viking House, Fyrkat/ GB
There are no contemporary written sources which describe the before-Christian Jul. A few Nordic sources like scaldic verses and sagas, which use the word jul/jól, were written down in the Christian period, and they therefore reflect the world view of the Christian writer. In most source-cases where jul is mentioned, it is used about the Christian celebration, but a few Nordic sources indicate that the jul in Scandinavia  - also in the time before Christianity -  was a special event in December or January.

Harald Haarfager/ wikipedia
This is seen in the probably earliest Nordic source which mentions the word jul. It is a scaldic verse ( ab. year 900) by the scald Thorbjørn Hornklofi,  composed to king Harald Haarfager of Norway (king ca. 872-930). The  verse sounds like this: "the king will drink jul out ... and make Frej's play". The first words probably refer to how a ruler in the Viking Age had to move around a lot if he wanted to keep his power. It is not clear what is meant by Frej's play, but the drink sacrifice took a central role in the before-Christian religion, where the Vikings drank to honor gods like Frej and Odin. Maybe the verse refers to a sacrifice like this.

Odin, Hugin and Munin/wikipedia
Another scaldic verse pays tribute to king Harald Hardrada of Norway (king 1046-1066) for his victory at the battle field. It was said that the king prepared jul for Hugin's hird. Hugin was one of Odin's ravens, so the verse refers probably to the men killed in the battle and being food for the ravens. Maybe here is also referred to the unusual numbers of food taken in at the feasts of jul.

Hakon the Good/ wikipedia
The Icelandic Christian chronicle writer Snorri Sturlasson mentions jul in a saga about the Norwegian king Hakon the Good  (king ab.
933- 959). The saga was written down in ab. 1230. He describes that king Hakon decides to celebrate jul at the same time as the Christians. The saga also tells the story about a Viking chief, who after being a Christian, still held on to the tradition to celebrate three big feasts during each year, three yearly sacrifice feasts: one at the beginning of winter, one in midwinter and one in the start of summer.
Snorri Sturlasson,C.Krogh/ Wikipedia
When he became a Christian he continued celebrating three feasts each year, which were now named gæstebud (banquets): one in autumn, a jul-feast in winter and one at Easter. How the feasts were celebrated is told by Snorri: "the Christian king Hakon was invited to a jul-feast by some heathen farmers, who according to tradition wanted the king to take part in the sacrifice. (blót) The Christian king would not take part in this, but he needed to have the support of the farmers, so he found a compromise: he eat a little horse liver and drank some memorial cheers without crossing his drinking cup. Making the sign of the cross was a Christian custom which the farmers would never accept.

Jolagjafir/ wikipedia
The sagas holds also the first example e of the word julegave (Christmas gift). It is seen in a description of Norway's king Hakon (king 1093-1095). He was supported by a part of the Norwegian population if he refrained from filing the traditional taxes which the Norwegian people had to give the king, including julegaver/jolagjafir. In other parts of the sagas are examples of julegaver which remind of the phenomenon, known today. Scandinavian Viking chiefs gave gifts to their families around the turn of the year, and thus he followed a custom which had spread in the European courts. Princes also used gifts traditionally to attract important people and thereby establish or hold on to their social status. In time these gifts were connected to the jule feast.

Jul in Lejre, Zealand/ wikipedia
The German history writer Thietmar of Merseburg wrote in the beginning of the 1000s about a sacrifice feast which was held each year at Lejre in the Danish isle Zealand. Archeologists have here found a very important place, which probably functioned as the royal court of the Danes. According to Thietmar the Danes sacrificed humans and  animals in Lejre at a time where Christians celebrated the Holy three kings on 6 January, these sacrifices were held in order to please the underground people. Thietmar's descriptions reflects a Christian's negative view upon a heathen society -  and it is not certain if his description can be connected to the before-Christian jul, but it indicates that people of Scandinavia in December or January celebrated ritual blót-feasts.

Sacrifice place, reconstruction, DK/ wikipedia
After the introduction of Christianity in Denmark several sources mention how Danish kings kept magnificent feasts in order to celebrate the Christian jul. German history writers like Arnold of Lübeck describe in the 1100s how Danish kings had great drinking feasts. Similar descriptions are also seen in the Danish chronicles. The history writer Saxo wrote ab.year 1200 about a jule feast at the Danish court. The king invited the greatest men of the kingdom to magnificent feasts where they eat and drak for several days.

Sacrifice of food,reconstruction, DK/ wikipedia
Some are of the opinion that the before-Christian jul was at winter solstice, 21 or 22 December, others that it was at midwinter night between 19-20 January. Both suggestions could be true. There were probably several ritual feasts, which were held on various times in December or January. The feasts have varied from district to district, maybe even from family to family in some cases. There was probably a summer solstice feasts,  a feast at midwinter, and in other cases a fertility feast. The jól of winter was regarded as one of the intersection points of the year.

Feast in Middle Ages/ wikipedia
The jul was a ritual event, connected to the middle of winter. It seems that great men from the social elite often were the focal point of important feasts. Like the king the powerful men of the kingdom were often central in the ceremonies which were connected to the practice of the before-Christian religion - and they played undoubtedly an important role in marking the Jul. They drank, eat and sacrificed, and the sacrifice was probably held in one of the great halls where the elite resided. The jul-feast contributed to hold on to and to develop the social and religious structures of society.

Earliest Danish cross, Vor Frue kirke, Århus/ GB
In Scandinavia the word jul survived the introduction of Christianity, while other parts of Europe began to use words, which came from Christianity, like the English Christmas, the German Weihnacht and the Spanish Navidad etc. Likewise the considerable intake of food and drink seemed to live on in new forms. People did not cheer in the honor of Odin and Frej, but celebrated the birth of Christ. Although it immediately looks as if central parts of the before-Christian jul continued after the introduction of Christianity, it is important to say that the informations were written down by later Christian writers. They saw the past through a Christian lens and might therefore have transferred a part of their contemporary jul-celebration to their description of the past.

Source:, Århus Universitet.

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