Scandinavia has many ancient traditions, especially at Yule, which are rich in history and folklore. If you would like to add some ancestral meaning to your Yuletide, then here are some easy customs that you can integrate into this holiday season.
According to Norwegian tradition one should bake seven types of pastry at Yule. These include, gingerbread biscuits (pepperkaker), waffles (goro), ginger nuts (ingefaernotter), Berlin wreath butter biscuits (berlinerkranser), sand cakes (sandkaks), doughnut rings (smultringer) and syrup snaps (sirupsnipper). Just baking one of these would be a fun activity to do with friends or family.
Many Scandinavians today still believe in the tomten or fjosnisse; gnome like creatures that look after the home and surrounding land. At Yule or Christmas, people leave out a bowl of porridge with plenty of butter on the top or left over food from the Christmas dinner. By leaving gifts of appreciation for these little folk who work hard at keeping the land and home safe and happy, the tomten in return will bring good luck to the household. If you offend one of them, then beware, as you risk bringing terrible misfortune. The tomten are shape shifters and are very hard to see, so an empty bowl of porridge is the only sign that will let you know that they are around. Leaving out a bowl of porridge is something that I will be doing over the next couple of days as part of my Yuletide celebrations.
Lille Julaften or Little Christmas Eve takes place on the 23rd of December in Norway. This is the time of making final Christmas preparations including the decorating of the tree and the cooking of rice porridge called risgrot (risengrysgrot) where an almond is hidden inside before serving to family. Lots of this porridge is eaten, as you can imagine, as everyone wants to find the lucky almond in their bowl. The lucky person wins a marzipan pig and in Germany these are given out in the New Year for good luck and are called glucksschwein.
On Mothers’ Night, the eve of Yule, it was traditional to honour the mothers of our ancestral line and the female spirits that looked over our families, as well as the Goddesses Freyja and Frigg. This can be done anytime throughout the year, but Yuletide is an extra special time as the veil between our worlds is thin, making it easier for them to hear and talk to us. Just lighting a small candle and conveying our gratitude to them is a meaningful gesture; for without their sacrifices and love we wouldn’t be here today.
The ancient symbol of the sun wheel or cross, used in sympathetic fire magic to invoke the return of the sun, can be easily crafted with small branches and evergreens. Thrown onto a Yule fire as an offering to the gods or just simply hung up as a decorative wreath, the sun cross is a powerful image that brought hope to our ancestors during the long harsh winters of the north. Small ones can also be crafted and put on the Yule or Christmas tree.
The Yule Goat is a Yuletide figure from Scandinavian mythology, going back to the myths of Thor and his magical goats who pulled his wagon across the skies. Modern day versions are crafted out of straw and decorated with red ribbon and used as Yule ornaments. Yule Goats made out of felt or clay would also be a great craft to do.
If you are wanting to build a relationship with the gods and goddesses of the north, then those who have a connection with winter and the dark half of the year are Skadi the goddess and giantess associated with winter, hunting and mountains; Ullr the god associated with hunting, skiing and sledding (these two did not get married after Skadi’s failed marriage to Njord), Nott the goddess of night, Freyr the god associated with fertility and agriculture and Odinn, the allfather. Two of his names are actually Jolnir and Ylir which associate him with Yule. Thor would have been honoured at this time as well, as he is the protector of mankind. And last but not least, Sunna or Sol the goddess of the sun.
There is much debate as to whether the figure of Odin eventually morphed into the Father Christmas that we know of today. Earlier depictions of Father Christmas were of an older man, dressed in blue and green, much thinner than the Coca Cola version and much more Odin like. The eventual story of the eight reindeer could possibly be descended from the eight legs of Odin’s horse Sleipnir and the reindeer names Donner (German) and Blitzen (Old English) which mean thunder and lightning might be a connection to Thor. Whatever the truth, many children in Scandinavia leave straw in their boots or stockings as a treat for the reindeer or Sleipnir. Much better than a carrot!
Without doubt, food plays an important role at this time of year, so if we want to feast like a viking what do we need to serve up for the Julebord (Jule feast)? Ham, sausage, meatballs, pork ribs, mutton ribs, dumplings, pickled herrings, salmon, red beet salad with pickled vegetables and potato salad are some of the many delicacies eaten. Quite often there are dishes of moose and reindeer too.
The Scandinavians love Yuletide so much that there is an extended period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve called Romjul or Julefred which means Christmas Peace. This is a quiet time where many of the shops are closed and people spend this week with family, enjoying some downtime or winter sports. All hunting is prohibited during this period as well. This time is a perfect excuse to reflect on the past year and to think ahead to the next twelve months; learning from past lessons and setting future goals. Then perhaps swearing an oath to the gods on Nyttar (New Year’s Eve). At your peril of course 😉
Wishing you all a God Jul and Happy New Year.