By Emma “Bruni” Boast
Everyone knows that a lot of the modern Christmas traditions stem from previous pagan cultural ones. What are the seasonal traditions that come from the Viking Age?
It is true to say that most of the year would be spent stocking up on food for the winter, preserving what you could, gathering salted and dried meats, winter berries and plentiful amounts of bread to last the long cold nights. But what of the ‘spirit’ of winter, the frost nipping at your nose and your nalbinded socks necessary to the cold out? It’s not just the physical hardships of surviving a winter in the 10th century – it’s the mythical beliefs that emerge to enthral you around the fire and teach you about your place in the world. There are many elements from Viking period sagas and histories which describe festive sprites and ghouls, and while over time these stories of course get embellished and added to, many of them do stem from the Viking Age.
The niðsi in Scandinavian folklore, are winter ancestral spirits which guard your home or farmstead. Seen as ancestral helpers who assist with the winter chores, the best way to ensure a happy nisse is to leave out a dish of milk or porridge. However, keeping these ancestral beings happy can be challenging if you have a mischievous or nasty nisse or tomte, and if you don’t look after your home, family and honour the spirits they can get aggressive and even violent, killing cattle and even sending draugr and haugboi from burial mounds to harass the living. So the moral of the sagas is to always keep your nisse well looked after this festive season.
In Icelandic folklore Grýla appears in the Poetic Edda as a troll-wife and throughout the 16th-17th century the evolution of her character appears to be associated more with Yule and the festive period. Residing in a cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields of northern Iceland, Grýla is a witch who can sense naughty children throughout the year and especially around the festive season when she comes out of her cave to prowl. Certainly a festive folktale with a more sinister side, but in a practical sense it was most likely a good way of stopping children wandering off or playing out in the winter snowstorms for fear of them getting grabbed by Grýla. The moral of the story, behave or you get eaten!
One of my favourite Yuleblót traditions is the Yule Goat or Yulbukk, popular throughout Sweden. This tradition is believed to stem from Thor’s goats that pulled his cart, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. These magical goats could be eaten for food and then magically regenerate and be born anew, so Thor always had a stash of food wherever he went. The last sheaf of grain to be harvested is kept and bound together in a ‘goat-shaped form’, and this symbol is meant to protect the family over winter and make sure that food always finds its way to your door.
The tradition of Julbukking is similar to the English tradition of Wassailing, whereby festive revellers tour round the houses of their friends and relatives with goat or animal masks on. Those opening the doors have to guess who is behind the mask, based on the antics of what they are doing, whether that be dancing, singing or performing festively in some way. If the guest guesses correctly the wassailer’s present the guest with a gift of food or drink, and then move onto the next house. The moral of this story, always be hospitable to guests, especially in the winter.
As you can see, there is a theme running through these folktales and sagas, which hint at Christmas traditions and themes most certainly coming from Norse mythology. To what extent these types of traditions were actively practiced during the Viking Age is difficult to say. All that can be stated, is that these stories and the morals, words of wisdom that come from them resonated then and are still relevant today. Throughout the medieval period and into the modern world these traditions have evolved. Some of them have kept their original meaning, some have changed with family tradition. Regardless, whatever traditions you follow this Christmas season, keep your family nisse happy, be good and hospitable and if you can share some merriment with those around you.
Top Image: A nisse on a Norwegian Christmas Card from 1895, by Julius Holck (1845-1911)