In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.
– Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
Yule lads roasting on an open fire, spirits of the ancestral dead nipping at your nose. It's the most wonderfully strange time of the year. You know, that time when the sun proverbially turns, prying the coming spring from the cold dead hands of winter darkness. Where we spend all our money on symbolic trinkets, and open our hearts and doors to friends, family, and fire hazard in great abundance.
Oh yes, my friends, Christmas is here again, though we don't call it that in Scandinavia. We call it jul. It's an old word, handed down across the generations from the Old Norse jól, which in turn has cognates in several other Germanic languages. The occasion, or so it appears, was also referred to by other terms, such as miðsvetrarblót (midwinter sacrifice), and Hǫkunótt (etymology uncertain). I'll generally stick to Yule and jól for the duration of the article.
As sure as some birds fly South in the winter, so come the articles about the apparent continuity of certain Christmas traditions, like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and every festive dinner food on the Scandinavian table (though some of them are hardly a century old). I will save my heart the strain of going down that rabbit hole of disinformation and misconception today, but I will give you a fairly comprehensive run-down of one of the most popular misconceptions about pre-Christian yuletide celebrations: The time and date.
Time is an important aspect of ritual, whether you approach the subject with personal investment, or academic distance. I wrote this article with a varied audience in mind, and as always, my iconoclasm is motivated by a wish to raise awareness, and impose a minimal sense quality and critical thought on a scene that tends to be severely gullible (you know it's true). For the reconstructionists and perennialists among you, the virtues of exploring this subject should be self-evident: The ritual year, and its calendrical rites, are tremendously important to understanding the practical religious mind of archaic societies. Not to mention how these societies regarded time, even on a mundane level. Now that I've made this disclaimer, we can move on.
Yule - a feast of the sun?
Take a moment to take a long, hard stare at the sun (proverbially of course). Is it not radiant? The tempting assumption that the solstices (and equinoxes) formed the basis of pre-Christian Scandinavian religious feasts, is prevalent not only in modern Heathenry and Ásatrú, but is also reproduced in countless popular media articles on the ancient origins (no pun intended) of Yule in Northern Europe. This view was also widely held by scholars of the field up until the turn of the last century, and though fewer think so today, it has somehow stuck. Even if many have changed their opinion in recent years, this has hardly seeped into the public consciousness.
It doesn't seem too idiotic at face value: The Nordic area can be a dang cold and harsh place. It's not exactly the fertile crescent. We'll take all the sunshine we can have. The old idea that Viking Age Scandinavians celebrated jól on the winter solstice as a sort of solar adoration, is among the most prevalent yuletide claims you'll see presented on the internet (or wherever) this year. It would seem intuitive that Viking Age Scandinavians greatly missed the sun at winter, and if jól was celebrated around the solstice, close to Christmas, it seems to explain how Christianity could simply just walk into Scandinavia and appropriate the heck out of our gluttonous solar feast.
As you must have guessed by now, it's quite more complicated than that, and it rests on a massive jump to conclusions with no direct support in any of the primary sources. And it’s not as if Old Norse texts never said anything about exactly when the yuletide sacrifices should commence, because they totally do, and it coincides with the astronomical winter solstice in exactly no source whatsoever. But that’s good news, because if you are like me, that’s a good excuse to celebrate the season not one or two, but three times properly.
None the less, you will find no shortage people who insist that the opposite is true, refusing to let the evidence speak for itself. To paraphrase the Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg (cf. 2006: 102): Those who insist on refering to jól as the solstice, must be more interested in the solstice itself, than they are in sources for Norse religion.
His interpretation will get the final word here, as his much lauded publication Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning (2006) remains the most comprehensive and academically sound exploration of the Nordic pre-Christian calendars. Sad to say, this classic has been out of print since the world was young, but luckily a PDF has since been released officially (you can find it at the bottom of the page, and it includes a very handy step-by-step English summary in the end).
Given the solar bias of yuletide speculation, there is a lot of hot talk about the solar characteristics of this or that Norse deity. I won’t say that all of it isn’t worth considering, but you’ll be wise to maintain a critical eye. The god Freyr is subject to a lot of discussion, probably above all, as Snorri places him in control of sunshine and rain (Gylfaginning 24). Whichever solar features Freyr may have had, he is never described as the sun itself, and to be fair, this is seldom claimed in modern discourse, either. I wouldn't bother including him in this discussion, were it not for the fact that celestial bodies are so important to the Norse perception of time. However, Sól (“Sun” - personified as female, rather idiosyncratically in Norse mythology) and Máni (“Moon”. Male, likewise) are not deities per se but personifications in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. There was no proper cult attached to them as far anybody can tell. This sets Nordic religion apart from several other old timey religions. Rather, they to do cosmological tasks in subordination to the gods (Simek 2007: 297), like servants (or tools). This seems laid out in stanzas 4 through 6 of the eddic poem Vǫluspá, describing an early phase of the universe where the celestial bodies were unaware of their purpose, and how it was given to them when the gods first divided the days. This enabled the reckoning of time, and time - it turns out - is important in Norse religion.
In Alvíssmál, another eddic poem, the moon is even referred to by the name Ártali, roughly translatable as “He-Who-Counts-The-Year”. While the life-affirming properties of the sun could hardly have been lost on pre-Christian Scandinavians, they seem to have regarded the sun as a cosmic feature, rather than an object of direct worship. It’s a service, somewhat simplified. The sun moves in accordance with divine intent.
Hǫkunótt - a Norse pagan Yule feast
The oldest evidence we have for a possible Scandinavian yuletide feast, was described by the 6th century Byzantine chronicler Procopius, who mentioned that the inhabitants of Scandinavia (called “Thule”) celebrated a feast for the returning sun, some time after the winter solstice (Nordberg 2006: 156). The earliest Old Norse reference to jól, however, comes from the 9th century Haraldskvæði, which is a praise poem composed in honor of Harold Fairhair's victory at the battle of Hafrsfjorð, and the following unification of the kingdom of Norway. To boast the king's unpretentiousness, and disregard for soft comforts, the poet declares the king's intent to drink yule (jól drekka) at sea, rather than in the padded comfort of a heated house. Though it says nothing beyond that it happened in winter, it reveals that jól, like many other Norse religious and social events, revolved around conspicuous consumption of alcohol.
In the saga of Olaf the holy, Snorri mentions a blót at midwinter (miðsvetrarblót), refering to it also as jólaboð and jólaveizla, both meaning Yule feast. Again implying that the main pagan religious event of jól occured later than Christmas, several weeks after the solstice. The saga of Hervor goes so far as to place jól in February, further yet from the winter solstice. The chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg, who died in 1018, claimed that the great blót in Lejre, Denmark was celebrated in January, some time after the Epiphany (cf. Nordberg 2006: 106).
Snorri states, in the Saga of Hákon the good, that jól was a three-day event starting at a night called Hǫkunótt, which he perceived as the midwinter night. It's a common misconception that midwinter and the astronomical winter solstice are one and the same, but in Scandinavian tradition - in which the year is divided into four quarters, such seasonal milestones started roughly a month later than the solstices and equinoxes. This is probably due to the climatical conditions of the North, so that midwinter and midsummer occured at more or less at the peak of the seasons. According to the Julian calendar, and conventions of Snorri's time, this would be around January 14th. According to our modern, Gregorian calendar, it would be January 20th (Nordberg 2006: 150).
In other words the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21st or the 22nd in “our” Gregorian calendar, would actually have taken place on December 14th through 15th according to the Julian calendar, which is when the latin calendar came to Scandinavia. So to Snorri Sturlusson, the astronomical winter solstice would have roughly coincided with the feast of St. Lucy, which would have occured roughly a week before Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which was only replaced by our current, Gregorian calendar in the 18th century (Nordberg 2006: 148). In other words, Santa Lucia / Lussi that was celebrated on the solstice, roughly ten days before Christmas until recently. This also explains why the eve of St. Lucy is still considered the longest and darkest night in Scandinavian folklore.
The Norse lunisolar calendar
While there's a time and place for everything, it seems solstice was not the time of the yule blót. So far, all of the sources place the event between January and February, but we have no yet come to explain the flaky and inconsistent dating of jól itself. Why do the sources give varying dates for the festival, within such a discrepant timeframe as January through February? This is where the pre-Christian calendar system comes in.
The festival of jól took place within a certain timeframe in the Norse calendar, which contained no less than two months of Yule, called Ýlir and Jólmánuðr respectively. Yule is a common Germanic holiday, and the tradition of two Yule months are attested as far back as 4th century Gothic texts, as supported by by Anglo-Saxon sources, where the 8th century chronicler Bede writes that the pagan Angles followed a calendar based on the lunar cycles. Yet, he also states that this lunar year was determined on the terms of the solar year: It was lunisolar. What does that mean? Prepare to be amazed!
This system was also in place in Scandinavia. As the name implies, months were determined by lunar phases, from new (nýr) to waning (né) moon. There are 12 months in a solar year, which lasts 365 days. However, it takes only 354 days to complete 12 lunar cycles. Therefore, a certain new moon will occur 11 days earlier than it did in the previous year. A lunar calendar won’t “stay still”, but actually rotate backwards. Every month will seem to start 11 days earlier than the previous year, unless there is a system in place to stop it. In some systems, such as the Islamic calendar, the months change from year to year. Muslims might observe the holy month of Ramadan in the middle of the summer one year, and late autumn a dozen or so years later.
This doesn’t matter so much in climates close to the equator, where there are several harvests in one solar year. It’s a big problem in Northern Europe, where the calendar helps determine the one time in the year where harvest is expected, requiring the calendar to bounce back to roughly the same point in the astronomical year every cycle. One way to make sure the months weren't spinning backwards was to make an exception in the lunar calendar, where the winter solstice always marks the point where the first month of Yule ends, so that the second Yule month starts with the next new moon, no matter what. In other words the Norse month ýlir always contained the solstice, but the second month contained the yule moon, which occurs on the first full moon following the new moon past the solstice. This, my friends, was probably when the actual and main feasts would have taken place. A consequence of this system is the fact that the lunar phases would “bounce” back and forth within a certain interval, but at least it was fixed and not rotating backwards ad infinitum.
Still with me? Good. To make up for the 11 days lost in the lunar year, the Germanic lunisolar calendar seems to have used a leap year system where a thirteenth intercalary month was added to the summer. Why the summer, of all things? Nobody really knows. And how do we know when it’s a leap year if we’re just getting started? Well, Nordberg provides a great rule of thumb: If the new moon occurs 11 days or less after the solstice, the intercalary month is inserted around the time of the summer solstice (for whatever reason) to stop the second yule month from starting before the solstice next year. In this regard, the solstice serves as a regulator, if not an object of celebration in itself.
Interestingly, this seems to recall the great blóts held at Uppsala and Lejre, which occured every ninth year. This is probably no coincidence (Nordberg 2006: 154). Old Norse religion is famously hung up on multiplications of the number three. Here it seems that this was also incorporated into cultic practices through the observance of sacred time. This cycle seems to have been based in an “inclusive” count in which the last year is also the first year of the cycle, so every eighth year according to our conventional way of thinking numbers. The fascinating part about this is that you can easily do the math yourself and actually tie on to the “nine year cycle” of the great blóts, more on this below.
Vocabulary shows that Norse peoples were well aware of the astronomical solstices and equinoxes, but the main pagan religious festivals seem to have been celebrated to mark each quarter of the calendrical year. These did, as previously mentioned, not directly coincide with the solstices and equinoxes, and seem to have been determined by the lunar phases. Because the solar and lunar year met at the winter solstice, the months of the year would bounce back and forth between two points within a certain, ~28 day interval. As Snorri, as well as other sources place the winter blót a month (or more) after the solstice, it seems most likely that jól was celebrated on the full moon of the second Yule month. That is to say the full moon after the new moon following the winter solstice. Then it would always occur no earlier than January 5th and February 2nd in the modern Gregorian calendar, well inside the interval stated by Norse texts.
So why the full moon, one may ask? In Nordic folk traditions, a remnant of this system seems crystalized in the concept of the Yule moon. The term is attested in Old Norse as jóla tungl, and in various derivatives in later Scandinavian folklore: Swedish 'jultungel', Norwegian 'jultangel' and 'julemaane', Danish 'jule mae', and Finnish 'joulukuu', all refer to the full moon around the time of the Epiphany, on January 6th in the Gregorian calendar, but later in the Julian. In other words, the first full moon of the new moon after the solstice. The association with the Epiphany, Nordberg adds, appears to be a Christian approximation from the older, pagan, calendrical system described above. Similarly, the Dísting market in Uppsala - which seems to have emerged from the pre-Christian dísablót to (from dísir, "goddesses") was indeed determined by the full moon. Nordberg argues that the Yule moon represents a pan-Scandinavian rule of thumb used to determine the time of the Yule blót in the pre-Christian lunisolar calendar, and that such a system of determining religious festivals would apply to the other quarters of the year as well, equating to roughly the next month of the equinoxes and solstices, in the full moon of the new moon succeeding them. The vætrnætr "winter nights", which marked transition from autumn to winter, and the corresponding dísablót, would have been celebrated on the full moon of the new moon, following the autumn equinox.
The beauty of this system is that not only does this open up a whole new paradigm towards understanding the religious life of pre-Christian Scandinavians, but it allows for a new level of celebration alongside more recent established traditions. Why not do both? As mentioned, we can actually tie ourselves onto the tradition of the great blóts at Lejre and Uppsala through a close, source-critical reading of primary sources. The last “great blót” was apparently celebrated in Uppsala in 1078, so you can easily pull out your calculator and determine when the next one will be. Last year in that cycle, I personally held a great feast where I almost burned myself alive, and a child was even born as a result (not of me setting myself on fire, but the mania of the occasion, presumably). This work cannot be underestimated!
Yearly update for 2019:
As for 2019, readers would be wise to brew their beer strong and stock up for a solid feast, because January 21st holds not only the Yule Moon but a lunar eclipse! Remember: It’s always the new moon of the full moon, following the winter solstice. Personally, I'll gladly celebrate Yule twice.
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Nordberg, Andreas. 2006. Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden. Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien för svensk folkkultur: Uppsal
Simek, Rudolf. 2007. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D. S. Brewer: Cambridge.