• Imagining History

How Did Vikings Celebrate Christmas?

Updated: Jun 7



Did Vikings Celebrate Christmas?


Yes! Although it wasn’t quite the celebration we know today. During winter, many Germanic people, including the Vikings, celebrated a festival called “Yule”. The festival started on the Midwinter Solstice (the shortest day and longest night of the year) around 21st December and lasted for about 12 days.


The Vikings celebrated this festival in lots of fun and unusual ways – in fact many of their Yuletide traditions influenced our modern day Christmas traditions. Have a look through this list of Viking Yule celebrations and see if you can think of anything similar from our modern day festivities.



What Did They Eat and Drink At Yule?


In true Viking fashion, Yule celebrations involved lots of drinking and eating. Vikings would brew their own beer, wine and mead. Historians think mead was often saved for special occasions so it was probably consumed a lot during the Yuletide period.


The Vikings often had roast ham from a boar as the centrepiece of their Yule feast. The boar would be sacrificed to the Norse god Freya in the hopes of bringing a fruitful harvest and a successful new year.



Did They Have Decorations Like We Do?


Yes, they did. Evergreen trees, like those we use as Christmas trees today, were special to the Vikings because they stayed green through the winter. They hoped to call on the spirits of the forest to bring back spring by decorating the trees with small wooden carvings of their gods, clothes and food. You can find out more about the Viking use of evergreen trees as decorations in our blog about the Ancient Origins of the Christmas Tree.


They would also have a Yule Wreath which looked very similar to the ones we hang on our doors at Christmas today. Although, the Vikings had a very different use for their wreaths – they would set them on fire and roll them down a hill! They did this to tempt the sun back and rid them of the long dark days of winter. Find out more about the history of the Christmas Wreath here.


An Illustration of Odin on his Eight-Legged Horse on the Wild Hunt

Did They Receive Gifts From Santa Claus?


No, but they received gifts from the Norse god Odin.


Odin was known by many names, one of which was Jolnir, meaning “Master of Yule”. On the Winter Solstice, Odin would ride across the skies on his eight-legged horse, called Sleipnir, leading gods, ancestors and beasts in a battle, known as the “Wild Ride” or “Wild Hunt”, against evil forces. The group would fly above the rooftops of Viking villages and scare anybody who was out in the darkness.


I know what you’re thinking, this sounds terrifying! And where do these gifts come in?


During the winter months, Viking children would fill their shoes with gifts of straw and hay for Sleipnir and leave them by the hearth. During his Wild Hunt, Odin would visit Viking homes, take the food for his eight-legged horse and fill the children’s boots with gifts in return. So no gifts from Father Christmas, but Odin’s actions were certainly very similar. Except for the whole Wild Hunt scaring people out in the dark thing – thank goodness Santa doesn’t do that!


A Modern Day Julbock (Yule Goat) - Courtesy of Silar

Did Odin Have Reindeer Too?


Unfortunately not. Though the Vikings did have another animal associated with Yule; the Yule Goat. Vikings loved goats because of their association with Thor, the Norse god of thunder, who had two goats to pull his chariot (what a lucky chap!). A Yule Goat (or Julbokken) would often be made out of the last sheaf of straw from the year’s harvest.


The Yule Goat is a tradition that is still used today in Scandinavia, from goat Christmas tree ornaments to enormous 40-foot high goat statues made out of straw!



If the Vikings Had A Yule Tree And A Yule Goat, Did They Have a Yule Log Like We Do Today?


Absolutely! Though it wasn’t a tasty chocolatey treat saved for dessert. The Viking Yule Log was a real log, often made from a very long oak tree and carved with runes. The log needed to be kept alight for the whole celebration – it was considered bad luck for the fire to go out. The last parts of the log would be saved and used for kindling when lighting next year’s fire.


An Illustration of Viking Yule in Die Gartenlaube Newspaper in1880

Is There Anything Else You Can Tell Me About Viking Yule?


Oh alright, but only because you asked so nicely. Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark (where the Vikings originated) still call Christmas by the Viking name today. They call it “Jul”, which is pronounced the same as “Yule”.


Other Scandinavian countries call it by a similar word; “Jol”. Which, by the way, is the word that etymologists (the super clever people who study where words come from) believe changed over time into the English word “jolly” – the word most often used to describe Santa Claus himself.



 

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