From Father Christmas to Christmas elves to mistletoe, Christmas is stepped with Viking-era cultural traditions.

The most wonderful time of the year?

For many throughout the world, regardless of their religious beliefs, the end of December is a time of family, food, and festive fun. 

Christmas, the annual commemoration, by Christians, of the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrated on December 25, is nowadays as much a celebration of consumerism as it is of Christianity. 

Nonetheless, Christmas is now celebrated throughout the world by billions of people, but it is one of the most important feasts in the Christian calendar.

The traditional narrative, as recounted in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. 

When his parents – Mary, who was heavily pregnant, and Joseph - arrived in the town, there was no room in any of the inns, so they ended up in a stable amongst animals. 

Angels then proclaimed the birth of the Christ Child to local shepherds, who then spread the news. Jesus Christ is, for Christians, revered as a religious leader, a messiah, and both Son of God and the incarnation of God.

Some of the more popular aspects of Christmas include gift giving, Christmas decorations including lights, candles, mistletoe, holly and a Christmas tree, a special meal, and several related and interchangeable figures, throughout a variety of countries and cultures, that include Santa Claus, Father Christmas to Saint Niklas and even Zwarte Piet, who bring children gifts at Christmas time.

Pagan beginnings

The story of a Viking Christmas must start at the very beginning of the early medieval period, the end of the so-called "Nordic Iron Age" (c. 500 BCE - 800 CE). 

For the first four centuries in the Common Era, a series of migrations, wanderings of peoples, often from Eurasia into the borders of the Roman Empire, helped precipitate the collapse of Roman authority in Western Europe. 

By the 5th century CE, Rome's power had collapsed, and many Germanic tribes, peoples, and cultures had moved into what were once Roman provinces.

Further north, the Germanic peoples that lived in the Scandinavian Peninsula had very limited and indirect contact with the Roman Empire. 

Whilst Rome had been Christian since the mid-4th century CE, the Germanic peoples that lived in what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden believed in what modern scholars have called "the Old Norse Religion." 

This was a polytheistic form of paganism that entailed a variety of beliefs in gods, goddesses, and many other magical beings and had elements of animist shamanism and a wide variety of magic.

There is much academic speculation and debate that the early Christian church superimposed the Christmas feast onto an earlier Roman pagan feast, Saturnalia, to honor the Sun god, Sol Invictus.

However, it should be noted that the timing of Christmas, in late December, also matches the celebration of the Old Norse festival of Yule. 

This was just one of the many names of Odin and was a winter festival celebrated by many Germanic peoples, including the Germanic peoples of the Scandinavian Peninsula, of which some, by the early medieval period, took the sea to become known as the Vikings. 

The festival of Yule, when the days were short and the nights exceptionally long and cold, often involved a gathering of family and friends and feasting. Sound familiar?

The festival of Yule often involved a gathering of family and friends and feasting. Illustration: The Viking Herald

That God kind of looks like Santa...

Speaking of Odin, who was revered in the Old Norse religion as the "Father" of all Gods, he bears a striking resemblance to a festive old Jolly man: Father Christmas / Santa Claus / Saint Niklas. 

Odin, like his Christmas counterpart, is an old man who not only wears a cape but also a hat and who rides, in the midnight sky, on an eight-legged horse, Sleipnir (sorry, Rudolph), delivering gifts to all those below. 

Many cultural historians have noted that the modern form of "Santa Claus" (or whatever you may call him, depending on your culture, religion, or country) is built upon the groundwork of the Norse god, Odin.

Odin was, of course, one of the most important and celebrated Gods in the Norse pantheon. The history of the Christianization of Scandinavia may start back in the early medieval period, but it does not finish until, at least, the 12th century CE. 

Further south in Rome, as a comparison, the city had been, by this period, Christian for almost a millennium! 

There is no doubt that the figure of such an important and powerful God stayed long in the Germanic peoples' imagination for years, generations, or even centuries after they had "converted" to Christianity.

Christmas flora

A central part of the Old Norse religion was the worship of a sacred tree, Yggdrasil. 

Aside from this tree of life, people in Viking societies held a special regard for the evergreen trees that dot the Scandinavian Peninsula. 

The fact that these trees remained green throughout the long, cold, and white winter months was a reminder of new life. 

Trees were often decorated with small carvings and, in the later medieval period, even small candles as an offering to the tree spirits.

Christmas wreaths, though they may have their origins with Roman symbols of victory, were also adopted as a reminder of better (and warmer) days ahead. 

Often evergreen plants, like Holly (Ilex Aquifolum), were added to the wreath for decorative as well as symbolic reasons.

We can also thank the Vikings for mistletoe becoming such a ubiquitous part of Christmas. 

According to Norse mythology, it was the tears of Frigg, the mother of Balder, a son of Odin, that turned the red mistletoe into white, resurrecting her dead son. 

This then became a symbol of love and peace as Frigg promised to kiss anyone who passed beneath it.

People in Viking societies held a special regard for the evergreen trees that dot the Scandinavian Peninsula. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Christmas mischief

Finally, Christmas wouldn't be the same without some of Santa's little helpers. The modern term Elf comes from the old Norse term Álfar, meaning "hidden people." 

Much like Will Ferrell's hilarious portrayal of them, these human beings were tall but also pale and did have magical powers.

Like elves, we also have the Vikings to thank for those mischievous beings that have often been termed a Nordic version of "Santa's helpers," the famous Nisse. 

These little mites often dwelt in barns and houses and were associated with the winter solstice. 

They, of course, are similar looking to a gnome and can often be spotted sporting a red pointy hat.

For more information on how the Vikings influenced Christmas, visit the Sky History website here, whilst Science Norway has more on how Vikings celebrated Christmas here.

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