The lunisolar calendar is a calendar that combines both lunar and solar calendars. The Vikings were not alone in using a lunisolar calendar. From the ancient Assyrians to the Jains, a huge range of cultures, peoples, religions, and civilizations throughout history have more or less used the lunisolar calendar.

The lunisolar calendar indicates both the current phase of the moon combined with the position of the Sun in the Earth's sky. Currently, it is the foundation of the Buddhist, Chinese, Hebrew, and Vietnamese calendars.

The Norse wheel of the year 

Thanks to archaeological finds and records, we have an approximate idea of how Vikings organized their year. Perhaps the best record was the old Icelandic calendar which had been used right up until the early 18th century.

The Norse wheel of the year was a common calendar used by Germanic tribes and the Vikings. The year itself had only two divisions: Summer and Winter. The phase of the moon was the most important in tracking time, and the year was divided (like the modern Gregorian calendar) into 12 months of 30 days each. Every 4th summer, there were four extra days, called Sumarauki (a similar basis to our leap year). 

Solstices and equinoxes were vitally important as they were not only exceptionally noticeable (especially in the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere) but also predicted seasonal changes vital for agricultural activities.

Viking farms usually produced enough crops and animals to sustain everyone who lived on them. Photo: Routenwechsel - Pixabay

How was the Norse wheel of the year divided?

The wheel was divided into different seasons and months. As mentioned, the Vikings marked only two seasons: Náttleysi – nightless days (summer months) and Skammdegi – short days (winter months).

The months during Náttleysi were:

Harpa – approximately Mid-April to mid-May.
Skerpla – mid-May to mid-June.
Sólmánuður – translated as the "Sun Month," normally, the time of the year with the most sunlight.
Heyannir – mid-July to mid-August. Translated as "haymaking."
Tvímánuður – mid-August to mid-September.
Haustmánuður – mid-September to mid-October. Often this was the end of fall and the harvest season.

The months marking Skammdegi were: 

Gormánuður – this was from approximately mid-October to mid-November, often translated as "the month of slaughter."
Ýlir – from mid-November to mid-December, where the modern word "Yule" originates. 
Mörsugur - mid-December to mid-January, translates roughly to "fat sucking month." Animal fat was an important food source during the frozen winter months.
Þorri – from mid-January to mid-February, the coldest month of the year.
Góa – from mid-February to mid-March. It is often translated as "Góa's month," which was a winter spirit.
Einmánuður – from mid-March to mid-April. This has often been translated as "lone month" as it is the last month of cold weather.

What holidays were the most important for the Vikings?

Despite using a different calendar to what we in the Western world use, some of the holidays that the Vikings celebrated would be familiar to us.

Following the long and cold winter period, the arrival of summer was an important Viking holiday. Sigrblót was the first day of Harpa and a celebration of summer, the victory of light and heat over darkness and cold. Ritual offerings to the god Freya were made during this festive holiday. 

The most known of the Viking holidays –thanks to the inherited cultural heritage that is the foundation of Scandinavian countries today – is Mid-Summer. The Vikings have celebrated this pagan festival since the late Iron Age, and it marks the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It was held between June 19 and 25 every year. 

This holiday was a celebration of light, fertility, and music and involved feasting, drinking (often copious amounts), and being merry. The lighting of a bonfire was also an important tradition to ward off evil spirits.

The Vikings celebrated particular holidays that marked different periods of the year. Photo: lucdecleir / Pixabay

Despite all the merriment in the warmer months, the arrival of winter, and the colder months, was cause for celebration too. Aflarblót marked the finishing of the annual harvest work and the beginning of winter. This was a private family holiday celebrating womanhood, as it was associated with the goddess, Freya.

Jól or Yule is the common predecessor of our modern Christmas period. This was a festivity associated with Odin and involved a great feast and celebration to lift spirits during the dark winter months. 

Winternights (often called Harvestfest) was celebrated on October 31. This marked not only the end of the harvest period but also when animals were to be slaughtered in preparation for the winter period. A symbolic "last sheaf" was left in the fields for Odin and was also the night to tell old tales and make toasts for the spring months in the future.

The importance of marriage in Viking culture was paramount. Not only was this seen as a way of ensuring clan and familial ties, but it also had an important religious and communal function. Husbands had their own day, Þorrablot. This was celebrated on the first day of Þorri and held in honor of Thor. Wives, too, had their own day, Góublót. This was celebrated on the first day of Góa and also included a celebration of mothers too. 

One of the more modern Viking celebrations, aside from Midsummer, is Leif Erikson Day (October 9), which is celebrated throughout many mid-West towns and cities in the United States of America with strong Scandinavian cultural roots. This is a remembrance day for Leif Eriksson and his sister, Freydis Eriksdottir, who were traditionally said to have founded the earliest European settlement in North America.

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