With the holiday season finally upon us, how can the most devoted Viking enthusiasts ensure the celebrations are suitably authentic? Here's The Viking Herald's guide to enjoying a very merry Yule.
In Norse tradition, Yule was marked by abundant quantities of sweet mead and toasts to the gods. Illustration: The Viking Herald
1) Drink mead (or a reasonable alternative)
Yule (or Jól) was initially a Germanic celebration that marked the Winter Solstice. While in the Norse version, people paid tribute to the long-bearded god Odin (also known as Jólnir), Yule was gradually absorbed into the Christian tradition of Christmas towards the end of the Viking Age. However, the name Yule is still used throughout Scandinavia and parts of Scotland.
Vikings traditionally celebrated Yule with abundant quantities of sweet mead and plenty of toasts to the gods. Mead may not be quite as ubiquitous as it once was, but there are still plenty of options available, from the famous meaderies of Michigan to mail-order options, and hopefully some craft producers in your local area. And if you really can't track any down in time, not to worry: the Norse were quite partial to wine and ale, too.
During Yule, Vikings indulged in roasting a variety of meats, while also enjoying simpler fare like grain flatbreads and porridge. Illustration: The Viking Herald
2) Roast plenty of meat
Yule time was a time for great feasting and roasting as the Vikings retired to their winter lodgings and attempted to fatten themselves up for the cold, lean months ahead. At home in Scandinavia, the Norse had access to a wide range of options, from cows and sheep to horses, elk, and even beers, not to mention reindeer in the far north (poor Rudolf).
Vegetarians need not despair, however. Just like for most folk in this era of history, meat was somewhat of a luxury for the average Viking. They usually relied on a number of other dishes, too, including grain flatbreads, pickled vegetables, and warm bowls of porridge, ideally liberally sprinkled with luscious lingonberries.
The use of evergreen wreaths and mistletoe at Christmas, possibly dating back to Viking traditions, adds a touch of ancient symbolism to the festivities. Photo: chettarin / Shutterstock
3) Hang wreaths and mistletoe
Though the Romans were famously avid wreath fans, the use of wreaths at Christmas time may date back to the Vikings, who brought circles of evergreen plants such as ivy into their homes during the winter to remind them of the warmer days to come. For added authenticity, perhaps throw in a Thor's hammer pendant or mysterious runic carving.
Mistletoe is also thought to be of Viking origin: the tradition dates back to the story of Baldur, the god of light. In one version of the tale, Baldur's seemingly invincible façade is penetrated by the mischievous god Loki using a tiny but deadly part of the mistletoe plant. To compensate, Baldur's mother Frigg, the devastated goddess of love and marriage, declared mistletoe to be a symbol of peace and love, and promised to kiss anyone who walked under it as a tribute to her son.
Skating, once a practical Viking activity in winter, now adds a playful element to contemporary holiday festivities. Photo: Dieter Hawlan / Shutterstock
4) Go skating
As we detailed in this article, ice skating appears to have been a popular Viking pastime, as well as a method of transport during the long winter months. We don't necessarily recommend going trudging on bone skates through dark forests in search of a bear or dragon to slay however – a pleasant trip to your local ice rink should suffice.
The Norse tradition of revering evergreen trees during winter, decorated with carvings and offerings, reflects an ancient wish for the return of spring. Illustration: The Viking Herald
5) Get a tree
Many Norse, of course, spent their winters surrounded by great swathes of evergreen forests and worshiped the trees in part for their ability to stay green throughout the harsh winter months. The Vikings and other Germanic peoples took to decorating the trees with carvings of the gods and food: with this gesture, they hoped to encourage the return of the tree spirits, who would usher in the long-awaited springtime.
You can also get a little Scandinavian when sourcing your tree. One of the most popular varieties of durable Christmas trees, the Nordmann fir, may originally hail from the Caucasus, but it was named for a Finnish botanist, Alexander von Nordmann, and is grown throughout Scandinavia.
While Odin's gift-giving and white beard draw parallels to Santa Claus, his role in Norse mythology as a fearsome figure sets him apart. Illustration: The Viking Herald
6) Don't forget about the man in the white beard
Odin was a white-bearded man who wore a hat and a cloak and flew across the sky delivering gifts to children below, whereas Santa Claus… While there may be a tenuous connection between the two, Santa is actually believed to derive from a broader mix of European myths and tales.
Odin was also a far more fearsome figure, and while kids today will certainly still appreciate the presents, some of the younger ones might not take so kindly to late-night stories of the Wild Hunt, where Odin leads a horde of spectral hunters on horseback across the night sky, leaving a path of destruction and abductions in his wake.
After summers filled with adventure, Norse winters were a time for seeking comfort by the fire. Illustration: The Viking Herald
7) Snuggle up
What could be cozier than snuggling up by the fire after a long summer of pillaging, trading, or felling English kings? Winter for the Norse was long, often bitterly cold, and at times precarious. More than at any other time of year, the home was the cradle of daily life and a precious place of refuge, often centered around the hearth of the longhouse.
This is why we recommend taking genuine pleasure in staying indoors and savoring the warmth and serenity of home. There is even an argument that the famous modern Danish philosophy/lifestyle of hygge, which has become popular worldwide, is based on the traditions developed in the Viking Age.
The Yule log, now a festive dessert, has its origins in a Winter Solstice tradition, where a specially selected log was brought home and carved with runes. Illustration: The Viking Herald
8) Summon the Yule log
Today, a delicious chocolate and sponge-based Christmas treat to many Brits and Americans, the Yule log was originally a specially selected piece of wood ceremoniously brought into the home to mark the Winter Solstice. The log was often carved with runes, and a piece was always saved for the following year's celebration.
Though practiced by the Vikings, this particular tradition is believed to have been initiated by much earlier Germanic tribes and also spread to Anglo-Saxon cultures. Today, you can't go wrong whether you opt for the cake or the burning of wood.
Yule in Viking times was marked by storytelling, with elders sharing tales of gods and legends by the hearth. Illustration: The Viking Herald
9) Tell great stories
Naturally, with the Yule log in place and the children basking in the warmth of the longhouse hearth, it would be time for the elders to regale the family with tales of gods and legends. In addition to the Great Hunt, listeners might have heard stories of Bifrost – the northern lights – which served as a bridge between Åsgard and Midgard and the movement of spirits from our world to the next.
We now have access to the entire compendium of Norse mythology at the drop of a hat via the internet. Of course, you could also try out your storytelling powers with the Viking RPG When the Wolf Comes. And if you're feeling particularly lazy after all that feasting, an evening with a few classic episodes of Vikings or the dark revenge scenes of The Northman could also suffice.
A journey to authentic Norse landscapes offers a chance to walk in the footsteps of Viking ancestors and experience their legacy firsthand. Illustration: The Viking Herald
10) Seek out winter peaks
The winter is long, which is why after Yule, the Vikings still had one or two tricks up their sleeves to help them make it to spring, including Dísablót, a sacrificial ritual held in honor of the dísir, the female spirits or deities. Today, there are plenty of party options for the Norse aficionado, including the Michigan Nordic Fire Festival in the US and the Jorvik Viking Festival in the UK, both offering a February break from the winter blues.
Or, for a true taste of Scandinavian Norse-ness, you could always treat yourself to a holiday in one of the world's most famous Viking locations, such as Uppsala in Sweden, Thingvellir in Iceland, or even L'Anse aux Meadows in remotest Newfoundland. And if all else fails, a costume party with a few friends, some vigorous combat training, or simply curling up with one of the many excellent books on Viking history are all great ways to escape the gloom until raiding season comes around again.
The Dublinia Viking Museum has more on the Viking influence on Christmas here.
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