Have you ever wondered what Yule was like for the Vikings? Here, we hope to give you a glimpse into the Norse mid-winter festival and the kinds of experiences you might have had as a Viking celebrating Yule. We will go over their traditions, foods, and decorations.
What was Yule?
Yule was a mid-winter festival that would happen around the equinox. It would celebrate the return of the sun, and it had connections to the Wild Hunt as well as increased supernatural activity. The word Yule was often spelled as Jul or Jol. Cognates of the word would refer to different things. For example, Odin was known as Jolnir. The word jol would often refer to the gods in general. The Prose Edda uses this alternate name for the gods. St. Bede, a 7th century English monk, mentioned that the Anglo-Saxon calendar had a month that was named after Yule. In addition, jol would be a word that referred to feasts in general.
What would happen at Yule?
The most common activities at Yule would be feasting, drinking, and sacrifice. Sacrifice was particularly important at Yule. The word for sacrifice was Blot, and the most common animal for Blot was a boar, called Sonargoltr. It had an association with Freyr, as his mount in mythology was a boar named Gullinbursti.
Oaths would be made with the boar, called Heitstrenging, and then the boar would be sacrificed. The sacrificed boar or other animal offerings would often be served as food for the later banquet. Oaths were important to the Vikings as they were taken extremely seriously. The kinds of oaths made at Yule would show up in later sagas as a form of bragging or promising a great feat as they were usually made while drunk.
What would be eaten or drunk at a Viking Yule?
Speaking of drinking, ale was easily the most common drink during Yule festivities. Vikings would make toasts to Odin, Freyr, and the current ruler. A common Viking toast was “Til ars ok fridar” or “To a good year and peace.” Later, when Norway was being Christianized, a law was made by King Haakon I about Yule, Christmas, and ale. The law moved Yule to the same time as Christmas and required that you had to have ale on hand to celebrate or pay fines. You were ordered to celebrate the holiday as long as you had ale on hand.
Regarding food, the Norse would commonly eat the sacrificed boar as mentioned above. We can see the continuation of this tradition in the modern day with the Christmas ham. In addition, offerings of porridge would be left out for tomte and nisse, which were household spirits. They look similar to the modern garden gnome. This tradition of leaving out offerings has turned into the cookie tradition of the modern day in Nordic countries.
What were some traditions of Yule?
Besides the traditions just mentioned, there were some other traditions as well. One tradition was that women would stop spinning wool during Yule. The goddess Perchta would stop this practice on holidays. Another early Germanic goddess that had a similar role and mid-winter festival was Holda, aka Frau Holle. Frau Holle was popular in later fairy tales and Germanic folklore.
Another Yule tradition was that of the Yule goat. While its origins are rather uncertain, it is believed to have had associations with the goats that pull Thor’s chariot. Today, many Yule goats are holiday decorations made from straw. A historical tie for this was the common European belief in the existence of a spirit in the last section of grain cut during the harvest. We also mentioned this superstition in our post about medieval harvest festivals.
A third Yule tradition was the Yule log. This tradition also has modern ties. For the Vikings, the Yule log was both decoration and spiritual symbol. The log represented keeping fire in the world, and it was meant to ensure a good harvest. When the Vikings would cut down trees, they would often use the top section of the tree to keep their homes warm. This makes sense as the thinner top of a tree would be less useful as lumber and would be better as firewood. Beyond the Yule log, greenery would be a likely decoration as various plants such as mistletoe had significance in Norse mythology.
While the Viking Yule looks different from the modern Christmas, it has many common traditions and foods. Yule was important to the Nordic people and held connections to Norse mythology. We hope that you have learned more about the food, decorations, and traditions of a Viking Yule.
Sources and Image Notes:
Freyr with Gullinbursti: Freyr by Ludwig Pietch in 1865, in Public Domain
Nisse Figure: Under Creative Commons
Modern Yule Goat: Under Creative Commons