Americans and Europeans have Christmas traditions that began with the Old Norse celebrations of Yule. Vikings and their beliefs spread throughout Europe starting in 793 A.D. when they attacked a monastery in Lindisfarne, England. Many of their beliefs aligned with other pagans in the region, and Christianity co-opted them to ease the conversion of pagans to the new religion. For the Vikings, the conversion to Christianity would begin with Haakon the Good and his order to move the pagan celebrations to December 25.
Oh, Christmas Tree
Trees were sacred to the Old Norse. They would decorate a tree outdoors with runes, food, clothes, and carvings of the gods with the hopes of creating goodwill with the spirit within the tree.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Odin and his Wild Hunt rode across the skies during the 12 nights of the the Midwinter feast, starting on the solstice, and gathered up the spirits of the dead. During this time, no one wanted to be outside, just in case the hunt made a mistake and identified a living person as a dead one.
In many North European countries, hanging laundry outside during this time of year is somewhat taboo. The Old Norse believed that Odin and his hunters could get caught in the laundry lines, and they would not be happy about it.
Some believe that Odin is the original Santa Claus. His nightly hunt was accompanied with the delivery of gifts to those who left out fodder for his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Odin was often described as an old man with a white beard.
Originally, the Yule Log was a piece of wood chosen for its size, and thus, its ability to burn for a long time. The Old Norse would carve the oaken log with runes entreating the favor of the gods. They would set the log afire and let it burn throughout the celebration. It was a bad omen if the fire went out before the end of the holiday. Each spark represented a new calf or pig to be born in the coming season, and a piece of the log would be saved to start the fire of the next year.
The Old Norse would build large wreaths, set them on fire, and roll them down a hill. These wreaths represented a sun wheel, which they hoped would coax the sun out of its slumber and back to the world.
The Christmas Ham
Everyone loves a feast, the Vikings more than most, perhaps. The warriors who died and went to Valhalla would feast every night with Odin and Thor. The main course was a boar named Särimner that would be consumed and then resurrected for the next night’s feast. Regardless of the number of people present, Särimner always provided enough meat to sate the Viking warriors’ appetites. In Midgard (Earth), the ham symbolized plentitude and a welcome to guests and strangers.
Everyone knows that when two people meet under the mistletoe, they are supposed to kiss. When the Goddess Frigg’s son, Baldur, was prophesied to die, Frigg traveled the Earth to get oaths from all things, living and non-living, pledging that they would not harm Baldur. She succeeded. This led to the gods throwing things at Baldur and laughing when those things bounced off him. Loki tricked Frigg into revealing she never got an oath from the mistletoe because it was so young and innocent. Loki got the mistletoe and handed it to Baldur’s blind brother, who threw it at Baldur and killed him.
The gods resurrected Baldur, and Frigg’s tears of joy changed the berries from red to white. Frigg declared that mistletoe was a sign of love and said people should kiss under it, so that it would never again be used as a weapon.
The specifics of the legend differ depending on the story. Some say Loki fashioned an arrow out of the mistletoe. Some say that Frigg’s tears of grief turned the mistletoe berries, and then the gods resurrected Baldur. And some say that Frigg promised to kiss those who walked under the mistletoe.
Building a Legend
Legends and myths all start somewhere, and you can help us create a new legend. Asgard Alaska will be a living museum exploring the day-to-day lives of the Old Norse and Vikings. Your tax-deductible donations help bring our village to life. We are also looking for people who would like to volunteer their Viking-related (and other) skills. Sign up for our newsletter below and become a part of the legend.