Wednesday 5 December 2018

Christmas in the time of King Olof – or how to hedge your bets, by Anna Belfrage #Christmas #History @abelfrageauthor

Christmas in the time of King Olof – or how to hedge your bets.
By Anna Belfrage

According to tradition, baby Jesus was born on the night between December 24 and December 25, exactly nine months after the Virgin Mary had a visit from the Angel Gabriel who announced she was to conceive and give birth to the son of God.  Leaving aside the issue of whether or not Jesus was, indeed, divine, these days there seems to be a consensus that Jesus was not born in December. Far more probable is that he was born late September which means he was conceived around Christmas, not born then.

I dare say we will never know for sure. It’s not as if we will suddenly find detailed records stating a baby boy was born to one Mary in a stable at Bethlehem. The men who wrote the gospels were far more focused on telling a good story than they were on corroborating the facts around Jesus’ birth – to them, it was the adult man, the inspired prophet and martyr, who inspired their love and devotion. Giving Jesus a childhood, a birthday was all part of the backstory. As all authors know, the backstory has to be plausible—but it is not central to the narrative, ergo don’t get stuck in writing it.

Christianity did not burst upon the world like a wild fire, consuming (converting) everyone in its way. No, Christianity started out as a subversive religion. In the Roman Empire, the god to worship was the sitting emperor. Things generally did not work out for you if you chose to worship Christ instead.

However, something in the overall message of Christianity must have appealed and by the 4th century it had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Over the coming centuries, diligent apostles travelled the known world, spreading the word of God.

Being a most pragmatic organisation, the Holy Church made conversion more appealing to all the wild pagans that inhabited the then known world by syncing the traditional holidays with the new Christian festivities. The ancient feast of Samhain became All Hallows. Midsummer Eve became the feast of St John the Baptist. And the ancient festivities that surrounded the midwinter solstice became Christmas, with baby Jesus given an adequate birthday in this the darkest period of the year (up in the Northern Hemisphere) Most apt, the fathers of the Church, thought: an infant to spread a ray of hope when things were at their darkest.

Obviously, this approach was successful. Soon, most of Europe had embraced the Christian faith. And one day, the apostles made it all the way to Scandinavia…

In the early 11th century, the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung converted, inspired to do so by Sigfrid from England. As all kings of the period, Olof was expected his subjects to embrace his new faith. He was, however, somewhat wary of annoying the Norse gods—or more specifically those of his subjects who still clung to the old traditions. After all, kings back then were elected, and an unpopular king could well find himself out on his ear. Not a fate Olof aspired to.

So here we are: the year is around 1010 and recently baptised Ingvar and his wife Gunnel are about to begin celebrating the festive season. It is cold. Outside, the lake Mälaren is covered with ice that crackles underfoot. The little town of Sigtuna is an affluent place, strategically situated within the protective embrace of the lake but close to the Baltic Sea. Along the shore, the richer inhabitants have lots that extend from the main street to the lake shore. At one end a house, at the other a wooden wall with a barred gate that leads to a pier and the moored boat. In between, some sheds. And from one of those sheds comes a high-pitched squeal that ends with a gurgle...

“Ah,” said Ingvar to his eldest son. “The pig is dead.”
“Do pigs go to heaven?” Ragnar asked.
Ingvar had no idea. “Särimer does,” he said, ruffling Ragnar’s flaxen hair. “Every night, the fallen warriors feast on him, every day he is reborn, as good as new.”
Ragnar gave him a doubtful look. “Father Ansgar says such talk is heathen talk and that neither Valhalla nor Särimer exist.”
Ingvar nodded, no more. The priest was annoyingly insistent when it came to this. “No one knows,” he said. “After all, no one has ever returned from the shadowed valley of death.”
Ragnar chewed his lip, his gaze affixed on his mother, now emerging from the slaughter-shed, her bloody hands having left equally bloody imprints on her apron. She was followed by one of the thralls, carrying a steaming bowl full of blood. Ingvar’s gaze lingered on Gunnel. Even in her homespun brown and her everyday bronze buckles keeping her dress in place, she was a sight for sore eyes, her thick braid snaking down her back from under the clout covering her head.  
“A quick death,” Gunnel said. “This year, we will feast on ham sausages and ribs at the midwinter feast.” There was a streak of blood on her forehead, and a sudden ray of winter sun set her pale blue eyes sparkling. Ingvar was proud of his wife, a striking woman who managed their home, their lands, their wares—even him—with a firm hand.
“The Christ Mass, you mean,” he corrected, sharing a quick grin with her.
“Yes, of course.” Gunnel gestured for the thrall to hurry off to the cook house. “First, we spend hours in the cold church, then we feast.”
Ingvar moved closer. “But before we do that, we will do as our forefathers have done.”
“Ingvar!” Gunnel hissed. “You know that is dangerous. Ansgar has made it quite clear he will not tolerate such behaviour.”
“And here was I thinking it was Olof who was the king,” Ingvar muttered. “Never fear, my little cockle-shell, I will be careful.”
Gunnel sighed. “Ragnar does not go with you.”
“No, of course not,” Ingvar muttered, but behind Gunnel’s back he winked at his son. Ragnar would soon be a man and needed to know a thing or two about the faith of his forefathers. Ingvar may have submitted to that ridiculous christening ceremony but in his heart he still retained doubts: the gods of his father and grandfather were powerful creatures, complete with vices and virtues, while this White Christ was at most virtuous—and far too meek.

It was gone midnight a week or so later when Ingvar slipped out through the water gate, balancing along the precarious track that bordered the shoreline. In his hand was a squirming sack, and behind him Ragnar trotted to keep up, keeping a firm hold on Ingvar’s cloak.

They didn’t speak, moving silently through the sleeping settlement. Other men joined them, like wraiths they made their way towards the woods. Frost crackled underfoot. The moon was half-full, the night so clear and cold every gust of breath sparkled in the moonlight. Once under the trees, Ingvar and his companions relaxed. Big Björn unslung the hogtied goat from around his shoulders and had the beast trotting along beside him instead. Someone produced mead, and the skin was passed back and forth as they clambered up the steep slope towards the blot-tree.

“Old like the hills,” Ingvar told Ragnar. “When my grandfather was a boy, it was as big as it is now, and he always said his grandfather remembered it as being just as huge when he was a child.”
Ragnar nodded no more, craning his head back to take in the spreading branches of the ancient oak. “Is it true that sometimes men were sacrificed as well?”

“It is,” Björn replied. “When times were dire, the gods required more than their standard fare. At times, it was the king who willingly gave his life that others may live.”
Ragnar moved closer to Ingvar. “Would Olof do that?”
“King Olof to you, lad,” Ingvar corrected. “Aye, he is our cousin, but he is first and foremost your king.”
“Olof doesn’t believe in the old gods anymore,” Björn said.
“And you do?” Ragnar asked.
“Better safe than sorry,” Ulf replied. Gunnel’s tall brother grinned at Ragnar. “Ready?”
They began with a cockerel. A quick death, and the bird was soon adorning one of the branches, its blood spattering the snow beneath. Next came Ingvar’s half-grown kitten.
“Father!” Ragnar gasped. “That’s Ingrid’s cat.”
“Not anymore. Now it belongs to the gods,” Ingvar grimaced at the thought of how upset his daughter would be, but some things were more important than others. A quick slicing movement and the cat was hoisted up to hang upside down as it bled out.
Ragnar backed away, his eyes large and black in the moonlight. “I want to go home.”  
“Too late for that. Have some mead,” Björn said, handing Ragnar the skin. He patted the boy on his head. “Your father took you for braver than you are, hey?”
Ragnar didn’t reply, his gaze locked on the next sacrifice, a rabbit. One by one, the various male animals were hung up, their throats slit. One by one, they died. Beneath the tree, the snow had darkened and the men stood in a circle around it.
“To Tor,” Björn announced, lifting his fisted hand towards the moon. “To Oden, All-father.”
“To Oden,” the other men repeated.
“And now, we must make haste,” Ulf said. “It is close to midnight, and Ansgar will be standing at the church door to count his flock.”
Some of the men snickered. Ragnar slipped his mittened hand into Ingvar’s. “What would Ansgar do if he found out?” the boy whispered.
“Nothing. What can he do?”
“Have you whipped for heresy?” a voice rang out from somewhere to their right. Out into the moonlit clearing strode Olof, looking anything but pleased. “Or maybe I should do it,” he added, throwing a look at the blot-tree.
“You could try,” Björn said. “Try, and my kinsmen will make you pay.”
Olof rolled his eyes. “Barbarians, the lot of you.” Then he grinned and held up a duck. “Best hedge your bets, I say.” His face fell. ”Don’t tell Estrid,” he muttered. “My dear wife is much taken with this new religion.”
“Tell Estrid?” Ulf snorted. “Your foreigner wife prefers to pretend we do not exist, uneducated riff-raff that she thinks us.”
“Like me,” Olof said, handing over the duck to Björn. Moments later, yet another animal swung from the tree.

They arrived warm and sweaty just as Ansgar was about to close the door. The priest scowled, caught sight of the king and rearranged his features into a frown.
“You are late, my lord,” was all he said as he stood aside to let the king pass. Ingvar entered last, holding Ragnar’s hand. Ansgar stepped forward, thereby crowding Ingvar against the rough stone wall. “I know what you’ve been doing,” the priest hissed, entirely unaffected by the fact that Ingvar was well over a head taller and likely twice as strong. “One day, you’ll burn for it. If not in this world, then the next.”
Ingvar shrugged. But as he stood beside his wife and children, he clasped his hands together and prayed fervently to White Christ. Just in case.


A Torch in His Heart
 (The Wanderer Book 1)

In the long lost ancient past, two men fought over the girl with eyes like the Bosporus under a summer sky. It ended badly. She died. They died.
Since then, they have all tumbled through time, reborn over and over again. Now they are all here, in the same place, the same time and what began so long ago must finally come to an end.

Ask Helle Madsen what she thinks about reincarnation and she’ll laugh in your face. Besides, Helle has other stuff to handle, what with her new, exciting job in London and her drop-dead but seriously sinister boss, Sam Woolf. And then one day Jason Morris walks into her life and despite never having clapped eyes on him before, she recognises him immediately. Very weird. Even more weird is the fact that Sam and Jason clearly hate each other’s guts. Helle’s life is about to become extremely complicated and far too exciting.

Anna Belfrage

Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England.  She has recently released the first in a new series, The Wanderer. This time, she steps out of her normal historical context and A Torch in His Heart is with a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense with paranormal and time-slip ingredients. Find out more about Anna by visiting her website, or her Amazon page.
If you want to read more about Vikings, God and St Sigfrid, read Anna’s post “Bringing God to the Vikings.”

Anna would also like to point out that there is some disagreement as to when the midwinter blot usually took place. Some say it happened in December, some say mid-January.


  1. An interesting and thoroughly entertaining read, Anna. Being totally 'into' Vikings myself, it hooked me from the start.The long process of the acceptance of Christianity in the Norse lands (as in the kingdoms of Britain, and elsewhere) is fascinating, especially when incorporated into works of fiction. Thank you for sharing.

    1. It was a long process. Some areas of Sweden had converted to Christianity in the 7th century, Olof's father converted but changed his mind. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Really enjoyed the piece, especially the excerpt, Anna!

  3. Great excerpt. Fabulous dialoge.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx