Christmas in the time of the
By Mercedes Rochelle
Yule celebrations are Pagan in origin and came from the Germanic countries. They were alive and well in the Nordic lands, and were most likely brought over to Anglo-Saxon England with the Viking settlers. Eventually, the midwinter celebrations merged with the Christian festival of Christmastide, better known as the 12 Days of Christmas. I think we would recognize many of their festivities, although some of them were dedicated to Odin!
Since the Yule (or Jul) took place around the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, there is a certain element of celebrating the return of the light. It is said that the name Yule is derived from the Old Norse HJOL, meaning ‘wheel,’ to identify the moment when the wheel of the year is at its lowest point, ready to rise again. But it was also thought that in this time of year, the spirits of the dead most commonly crossed over into the human realm. It is thought that many of the Yuletide customs were an attempt to protect the household against hostile supernatural influences. On the other hand, it is also said that ancestors came back during this season, and sometimes food was left out for them so they would help promote a good harvest the following year. Some of the spirits were benevolent—but not all.
Odin riding Sleipnir. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript. Source, Wikipedia.
One night stood out from the others—the 24th of December. This is when the children filled their shoes with straw, carrots and sugar lumps and set them out by the fire to feed Odin's flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir as the God led the Wild Hunt—the host of the restless dead—through the darkness. In return, Odin would leave the children small gifts and sweets as a reward. He was even known to slide down the chimney! Or fire hole, as the case may be.
Many tales were told of the Wild Hunt. Because winter nights were often stormy and turbulent, Odin was most likely to be heard then, raging and howling, riding to collect the fallen, whether they be living or recently departed. People—especially children—were warned to stay indoors. It was a terrible thing to witness the Wild Hunt; rumors abounded that people seeing the Wild Hunt might be abducted to the underworld or to the fairy kingdom—or even killed. A gift—or rather, a sacrifice—was advised, to thank Odin for taking care of the family’s recently deceased. In 1673, Johannes Scheffer (The History of Lapland) wrote “All the Bits they have preserved for these two Days, they put in a small Chest made of the Bark of Birch, in the shape of a Boat, with its Sails and Oars; they pour also some of the Fat of the Broth upon it, and thus hang it on a Tree, about a Bow Shot distant from the backside of their Huts”. Perhaps this represented the practice of ship burials, though no one really knows the exact purpose of this ritual.
The Wild Hunt by Johan Wilhelm Cordes, Museum Behnhaus Drägerhaus, Lubeck, Germany (Source, Wikipedia).
Yule is a time for feasting, dancing, and family. The traditional food of the Yule was Boar, an animal sacred to Freyr, the Norse God of Yule and fertility. This was probably the origin of the Boar's Head presented at later Christmas feasts. Then we have the Yule Log. The largest ash—the wood of Yggdrasil—log was brought inside so that ritual runes could be carved onto it, calling on the gods to protect one and all from ill-fortune. Burning the Yule log was thought to give power to the sun and bring warmth again to the land. The carved log was sprinkled with mead and decorated with dry sprigs of pine and cones and as it was lit, musicians plucked the strings of their harps and started the singing. It burned for twelve hours, which brought good fortune for the next twelve months.
Outside, evergreens would be decorated with small lanterns and candles, plus crackers, little carved statues of gods, pieces of dried fruit, and even berries strung together. A huge bonfire was lit, reportedly to dispel any evil that was marching abroad. There was dancing around and through the bonfire, especially among the youngsters.
Odin the Wanderer, by Georg von Rosen, 1886 from the Swedish Poetic Edda (Source, Wikipedia).
It’s pretty commonly assumed that Odin the Wanderer eventually morphed into our Santa Claus. The old legends came in many forms, one of which was Odin on a chariot pulled by goats (who later became reindeers). Or, possibly, his eight-legged Sleipnir was the precursor to reindeer (naturally, from the North). Odin who was the lord of Alfheim, the home of the elves (Santa’s elves?). The comparisons go on and on. How much of is true?
FROM GODWINE KINGMAKER
Canute was relatively quiet during the festivities, and Godwine spent many hours by his side observing the drinking and dancing; the feasting was excellent and their seats overlooked everything. Most of the others kept their distance from the King, but Godwine felt no such compunction. Canute seemed to appreciate his company.
“I think this is the last time I will take part in the old celebrations,” Canute said, running his finger along the carved dragon head on his chair arm. “It does not sit well with the Christian traditions.” Nonetheless, the King allowed himself a sly smile. “Of course, perhaps we can introduce a few Norse traditions to the English, eh?” He rubbed his hands together. “But I yearn to go back. England feels more like home now, and I would see my wife and child.”
Harold Godwineson, the Last Anglo-Saxon King, owed everything to his father. Who was this Godwine, first Earl of Wessex and known as the Kingmaker? Was he an unscrupulous schemer, using King and Witan to gain power? Or was he the greatest of all Saxon Earls, protector of the English against the hated Normans? The answer depends on who you ask. He was befriended by the Danes, raised up by Canute the Great, given an Earldom and a wife from the highest Danish ranks. He sired nine children, among them four Earls, a Queen and a future King. Along with his power came a struggle to keep his enemies at bay, and Godwine's best efforts were brought down by the misdeeds of his eldest son Swegn. Although he became father-in-law to a reluctant Edward the Confessor, his fortunes dwindled as the Normans gained prominence at court. Driven into exile, Godwine regathered his forces and came back even stronger, only to discover that his second son Harold was destined to surpass him in renown and glory.
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Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. She believes that good Historical Fiction, or Faction as it's coming to be known, is an excellent way to introduce the subject to curious readers. Her first four books cover eleventh-century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. Her new project is called “The Plantagenet Legacy” and begins with the reign of Richard II. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story. Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to "see the world". The search hasn't ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.