Christmas traditions and performance rituals: a look at Christmas celebrations in a Nordic context

Christmas traditions and performance rituals: a look at Christmas celebrations in a Nordic context

Eriksson, Stig A.  (Norway)

Applied Theater Researcher, No. 3. (2002)

Abstract: The article explores some pre-Christian, Christian and post-Christian celebratory rituals that exist in a Nordic tradition of Christmas feasts, with a particular focus on the Norwegian Yule. A key theme is the presentation and discussion of rituals and performative events in the described celebrations, along with observations on the interesting etymology of words and names, as well as myths and legends, associated with Yule celebrations. The article looks at some roots of theatre in early religious ritual and dramatic elements in folk practice, and at beliefs and customs that have shaped present day Christmas – or Yule – traditions in the North.

Introduction: This article grew out of a project with our drama students at Bergen University College, Norway, in December 2002. I wanted to introduce the students to pre-Christian roots of Yule, and to give them an historical introduction to extant dramatic/ritual Christmas customs in our country. During the research process I became intrigued inthe etymology of words and names associated with Christmas and the ’figures’ and ’spirits’ belonging to the Christmas season. It gave me an angle by which to make our students conscious of the way the Church has appropriated ancient religious beliefs and rituals, and a means to inspire them to take another look at our cultural past. It also helped in making more visible probable remnants of ancient dramas embedded in many of our Christmas celebratory rituals, and transformations of such dramas and rituals which have occurred during christianisation and up to our (more or less) post-Christian time. Our students gave a surprise performance in the staff room just before the Christmas break, showing the two sides of the Saint Lucia traditions described at the end of the article: a Saint Lucia procession in one group confronted by a pagan-inspired Lussi in another. It is the intention of this article that its content may inspire others to develop a performance project for their own Christmas.


A number of theories exist regarding the origins of theatre. Among these are theories based on the idea of theatre developing from religious cult or religious ritual, theories presenting the origin of theatre in mimetic rituals of totemic hunting clans, theories seeing the origin of theatre in shamanism, theories purporting that the origin of theatre is to be found in play, or that the origin of theatre comes from man’s enjoyment of mimetic acts – that there is a general human theatrical faculty (primeval theatre) which can be found in all cultures. The reader should keep this context in mind, as the article does not purport to develop a thesis on the intrinsic inter-relationship of ritual and drama as such.

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