Ever wondered if Santa Claus is actually Odin in one of his many disguises? Largs Viking Festival recently asked themselves this very thing, and so have many other blogs and websites. Here I’m delving into Viking Yule with my source-critical head on …
This is going to be a long post, but bear with me. On 9th December 2020, the Largs Viking Festival posted the following on Facebook:
“We all hope that after such a challenging year, you will all have a most wonderful Yule, filled with much fun, laughter, food and mead.
Here are a few Viking traditions we take for granted explained.
The Yuletide was originally celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples including Celts and Vikings, and by others all around Europe, long before the Christian Holiday. In Scandanavia in particular, Yule celebrations predate the celebration of Christmas as we know it by thousands of years.
As Europeans converted to Christianity, solstice celebrations waned but many ancient yule traditions stuck around.
In Scandinavian mythology, Balder, the god of light and goodness, was slain by an arrow poisoned with misletoe. When his mother Frigga cried for him, her tears fell on red berries, turning them white. The white berries then became powerful enough to resurrect Balder. It was used a symbol of renewal and resurrection, fitting right in with the modern Christmas holiday.
During the Yule celebrated by Germanic people, many believed that ghost sightings and supernatural occurences happened much more often than during the rest of the year, such as during the Wild Hunt, which was a procession of ghosts through the sky led by Odin, who bore a long beard and brought gifts to those who deserved them. Sound familiar?
Christmas caroling is otherwise known as wassailing, which has Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon origins. Traditionally, peasants would visit their feudal lords and sing songs in exchange for gifts and treats. This gives new context to the line from the song We Wish You a Merry Christmas: “We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here.”
12 Days of Christmas
Traditionally, the midwinter feast lasted twelve days, which is where the modern twelve days of Christmas comes from.
Christmas Tree and decorations.
Scandinavians used to decorate evergreen trees with statues, food, clothing, and runes as tribute to the gods. Additionally, it was believed that spirits living in the trees, but went away during the winter months, and could be coaxed back with household offerings. Every greens were brought into the house to bring life and colour to the otherwise bleak and dark dwelling.
The Vikings and other ancient Germanic cultures made many opportunities to honor their gods with feasting and rituals, one of which involved sacrificing a wild boar in hopes of a bountiful harvest the following season. If you eat ham at your Christmas feast, you join a long line, time honored tradition that began with the sacrificing of the boar.
Yule logs are large decorated logs that at one time traditionally held carved runes and symbols. The log would be burned, and part of it would be saved and kept to protect the home.
In honor of the winter solstice which marked the sun’s return and the beginning of longer days, Vikings created sunwheels, which very much resembled Christmas wreaths. After crafting the sunwheel, it would be burned and rolled down a hill to herald the coming of the sun.
Source: normandescendants.org, Wikipedia.
Have a most wonderful Christmas/Yule and New Year.”
I don’t wish to have a go at Largs Viking Festival at all, and wish them all the best. However, the academic in me can’t let this lie. This post is not unique, it is in fact fairly typical of the type of stuff you can read all over the internet (here’s another example). I couldn’t help myself, but went on a debunkathon.
Unpicking the text
The main problem with this text is that it takes our present-day Christmas customs, such as Christmas tree, Santa, presents, carol singing, Yule Log, and 12 Days of Christmas, and projects them back in time to an ancient and fashionable past (the Viking Age), skipping over the intervening 1000 years and all other influences, without citing sources, and without any critical thinking.
Yuletide, and the development from Yule to Christmas
Not too bad as an introduction, setting the scene (except that Celts are not a Germanic people). Let’s see what happens when we take a more detailed look at written sources for Norse Yule.
There are very few sources to tell us how the Vikings, before conversion to Christianity, celebrated Yule (jól). The most detailed description comes from Hákonar saga góða (Saga of King Hakon the Good), within the work Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, written in the 13th century. In a chapter entitled “About Sacrifices” Snorri describes a blót feast at the seat of the Earls of Lade. These blót sacrifices were held three times a year: at the start of winter, midwinter, and end of winter: “Near winter’s day [mid-October] they should sacrifice for a good season, in the middle of winter for a good crop, and near summer’s day [mid-April] it was the sacrifice for victory” (Billington, 2008). The sacrificial procedure does not seem to be particularly different at Midwinter/Yule compared to the other two.
“It was an old custom, that when there was to be sacrifice all the bondes [free, landowning farmers] should come to the spot where the temple stood and bring with them all that they required while the festival of the sacrifice lasted. To this festival all the men brought ale with them; and all kinds of cattle, as well as horses, were slaughtered, and all the blood that came from them was called “hlaut”, and the vessels in which it was collected were called hlaut-vessels. Hlaut-staves were made, like sprinkling brushes, with which the whole of the altars and the temple walls, both outside and inside, were sprinkled over, and also the people were sprinkled with the blood; but the flesh was boiled into savoury meat for those present. The fire was in the middle of the floor of the temple, and over it hung the kettles, and the full goblets were handed across the fire; and he who made the feast, and was a chief, blessed the full goblets, and all the meat of the sacrifice. And first Odin’s goblet was emptied for victory and power to his king; thereafter, Niord’s and Freyja’s goblets for peace and a good season. Then it was the custom of many to empty the brage-goblet (1); and then the guests emptied a goblet to the memory of departed friends, called the remembrance goblet. Sigurd the earl was an open-handed man, who did what was very much celebrated; namely, he made a great sacrifice festival at Hlader [seat of the earl, modern day Lade] of which he paid all the expenses. […] The harvest thereafter, towards the winter season, there was a festival of sacrifice at Hlader, and the king came to it. […] Now when the first full goblet was filled, Earl Sigurd spoke some words over it, blessed it in Odin’s name, and drank to the king out of the horn; and the king then took it, and made the sign of the cross over it. Then said Kar of Gryting, “What does the king mean by doing so? Will he not sacrifice?” Earl Sigurd replies, “The king is doing what all of you do, who trust to your power and strength. He is blessing the full goblet in the name of Thor, by making the sign of his hammer over it before he drinks it.” On this there was quietness for the evening. The next day, when the people sat down to table, the bondes pressed the king strongly to eat of horse-flesh (1); and as he would on no account do so, they wanted him to drink of the soup; and as he would not do this, they insisted he should at least taste the gravy; and on his refusal they were going to lay hands on him. Earl Sigurd came and made peace among them, by asking the king to hold his mouth over the handle of the kettle, upon which the fat smoke of the boiled horse-flesh had settled itself; and the king first laid a linen cloth over the handle, and then gaped over it, and returned to the high-seat; but neither party was satisfied with this. […] The winter thereafter the king prepared a Yule feast in More, and eight chiefs resolved with each other to meet at it. […] These eight men bound themselves, the four first to root out Christianity in Norway, and the four others to oblige the king to offer sacrifice to the gods. […] and immediately, on the first day of the feast, the bondes insisted hard with the king that he should offer sacrifice, and threatened him with violence if he refused. Earl Sigurd tried to make peace between them, and brought it so far that the king took some bits of horse-liver, and emptied all the goblets the bondes filled for him without the sign of the cross; but as soon as the feast was over, the king and the earl returned to Hlader.” (Sturluson 2013 ).
From this, we can take several points: There is a conflict going on here between Christianity and paganism, which is part of an ongoing power struggle between the earls of Lade and their supporters and the king and his supporters. The saga was written later, after Christianity was firmly established, and the narrator is therefore on the king’s side in this conflict and may portray the earls and their practices in a negative light. He may also project Medieval Christian ideas such as patriarchy and having one main god back in time onto the pagan period. It is advisable to take its account with a pinch of salt.
That said, some of the details seem believable: The blót involved slaughtering animals, including horse, and boiling and eating their flesh and drinking the broth. There were also alcoholic drinks (ale) which were ceremonially drunk as toasts to Norse gods and dead relatives and friends. From later Scandinavian tradition we know that brewing was a central part of Christmas/jol preparations, and the celebrations lasted as long as there was more drink to be had (Hodne 2007, Visted and Stigum 1971). Again, the Saga of Hakon the Good has something to say about this: It claims that King Hakon laid down a law to this effect: “He [Hakon the Good] made a law that the festival of Yule should begin at the same time as Christian people held it, and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted.” This law may have been a compromise between Christian and pagan tradition. Already in the pre-Christian poem Haraldskviða, the expression “to drink Yule” is used (Hille 2007, p. 23).
It is popular, in Britain, to decorate with mistletoe at Christmas and whoever is under it may demand a kiss. Before artificial decorations were introduced in the 1800s, evergreens were popular and would be burnt or if edible fed to the cattle afterwards (Roud 2003: 84-85). Any evergreen would do. The today widespread notion that mistletoe was regarded as a ‘pagan’ plant and banned from churches has no foundation and has only been around since the 19th century (Roud 2003: 85).
So where did the idea of mistletoe as a particularly pagan plant originate, and how did the connection with Norse mythology arise? Classical works by Roman and Greek authors were popular in early modern Britain among the educated elite. One of these was Pliny (AD 77) who wrote a description of the Druids of Gaul. He mentioned that druids revered mistletoe growing on oak as their most sacred plant. This description has then “been repeated, ad nauseam, by countless British writers, and has been used as the basis for innumerable flights of fancy about Druids and the ancient origins of our customs and beliefs […] There is no other mention of the sacred nature of mistletoe in Britain until antiquaries start reading and believing Pliny, some 1500 years later” (Roud 2003: 311).
In the 19th century came the National Romantic period, when Vikings and the “Old North” became fashionable among the British educated classes (Wawn 2002). Norse myths became available in translation. With this material now available, it does not take much imagination to combine the idea of the pagan mistletoe with the myth of Balder. “The Victorians also resurrected the Scandinavian myth of Balder the Beautiful, in which Balder is killed by a spear of mistletoe guided by the jealous god Loki” writes Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica (1996:241).
Regarding the myth of Balder itself: It does have mistletoe in it, but is not connected with Yule, and the simple occurrence of mistletoe is not enough to postulate an unbroken tradition spanning a millennium. The conventional form of the myth, as recorded by Snorri Sturluson, can be summarised as follows: Balder dreamed he was in danger, so his mother Frigg made all the world promise not to harm him. She received promises from fire, water, iron and all metals, stones, the earth, trees, diseases, all animals and birds, poison, snakes, and many other things besides. It then became an entertainment among the gods that they shoot at Balder, just to watch their stones and weapons bounce off him. But Loki knew that the mistletoe grown west of Valhalla had not promised, as it seemed so young and innocent to Frigg. Loki picked this mistletoe, then went to Balder’s blind brother Hod and bade him shoot at Balder with it, while Loki directed. Balder fell dead to the ground. After much mourning, Frigg sent Hermod on Odin’s horse Sleipnir to ride northwards and downwards to Hel to negotiate with the goddess of the dead, while Balder’s body was given a spectacular funeral on a burning ship. Hermod found the way that Balder had taken, across the Gjallarbru bridge and downwards and northwards until he came to Hel’s gates. There, in Hel’s hall, sat his brother Balder. Hermod begged Hel to let him take Balder home, but Hel said: on one condition, that all the world weeps for him. When Hermod returned with this message, the gods sent out messengers to all things and beings bidding them to weep, and they all did. Except for one: a giantess in a cave, by name of Thanks. She said: “Thanks will weep dry tears for Balder’s burial.” She was Loki in disguise. So Hel got to keep Balder for herself, and Loki was punished by being tied up and having a snake drip poison on him. (Sturluson and Faulkes, 1992 , pp. 48-52).
As you will notice, there is nothing here about using mistletoe berries to resurrect Balder. However, there is an interesting local attestation of the story from Orkney, where Hermod is successful in fetching Balder from Hel. It is natural for a story to have many local variants, and just like the classical story of Orpheus and Euridice also had local variants (Warden 1985), including one from Shetland (“King Orfeo”) where Orpheus is successful in retrieving his beloved from the underworld, this Orkney version of Balder’s story ends with Hermod (or “Harry Mowat” as he is called here) returning home with Balder (“Ballie”) (Marwick, Muir and Irvine, 2014). However, this does not mean there is any connection whatsoever with Christmas traditions in Britain today.
Christmas presents and Odin as Santa Claus
I can’t see any direct connection between Odin and Santa Claus. Modern-day Santa Claus is a combination of many influences, chiefly Saint Nicholaus, but may have some vague pagan aspects or older elements of folk belief such as the very idea that a spirit can travel through the air and enter the house at its weak points such as through the chimney. “Jólnir” (‘the Yule figure’) and “jálfaður” (probably: ‘Yule-father’ rather similar to Father Christmas) are two out of the c. 150 different names for the god Odin (Billington 2008; Vídalín and Sveinbjørnsson 1854, pp. 262-3), but there is a long leap from this to seeing Odin as Santa. Furthermore, Yule is by no means exclusively a celebration to Odin: Toasts for a good harvest were said to Odin, to Frey the god of fertility, and Njord the god of fishing, as well as more local and personal toasts. Yes, Odin is depicted with a beard, but all Viking Age males had a beard and not having one was a social disgrace, so Odin’s long beard tells us nothing.
That said, Odin was among the deities worshipped at Yule. The late 12th or early 13th century history work Ágrip even claims that the name jól (Yule) for the festival is derived from the name Jólnir for Odin, not the other way around, though this is a misunderstanding on its part (Hille 2007, p. 22). The name Jólnir is also attested in poems dating back to the Viking Age proper; þórsdrápa and Háleygjatal (Hille 2007, p. 23).
What is said here about The Wild Hunt contains a kernel of truth and has a basis both in Scandinavian folk belief and Celtic folk belief attested in later times, but the text simplifies the story. The Scandinavian equivalent to the Celtic “Wild Hunt” is known as Oskoreia (sometimes spelled Åsgårdsreia) and from later customs of the farming communities we know that people dressed up in frightening costumes (such as the Yule Goat) and visited neighbouring farms, where they would be given food and drink (Hodne 2007). In the late 20th century this was done almost exclusively by children, and by 2020 it has almost died out and been supplanted by an Americanized Halloween celebration. Such guising and visiting customs are widespread, also in Scotland where for example in Shetland the guisers were known as Skeklers. There are some indications that the custom may have roots back to Norse religion, with Odin being among the travelling supernatural beings of the Oskoreia, but sources are scarce and it is difficult to know for sure exactly what form these beliefs and customs took in the Viking Age (Hille 2007, 24-25, 37). Odin would in that case inhabit his role as a god of the dead, leading a band of ancestors as part of the Viking veneration for ancestors.
Regarding Christmas gifts, there is no notion that Odin handed these out in the way that Santa does, but Snorri Sturluson says in Heimskringla: The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway that King Olaf (= Saint Olaf, one of the kings credited with Christianising Norway) gave some of his loyal men gifts at Yule:
“172. OF KING OLAF’S PRESENTS AT YULE.
King Olaf gave a great feast at Yule, and many great people had come to him. It was the seventh day of Yule, that the king, with a few persons, among whom was Sigvat, who attended him day and night, went to a house in which the king’s most precious valuables were kept. He had, according to his custom, collected there with great care the valuable presents he was to make on New Year’s eve. There was in the house no small number of gold-mounted swords; and Sigvat sang:—
“The swords stand there,
All bright and fair,—
Those oars that dip in blood:
If I in favour stood,
I too might have a share.
A sword the skald would gladly take,
And use it for his master’s sake:
In favour once he stood,
And a sword has stained in blood.”
The king took a sword of which the handle was twisted round with gold, and the guard was gold-mounted, and gave it to him. It was a valuable article; but the gift was not seen without envy, as will appear hereafter.” (Sturluson 2013 ).
This New Year gift seems here to be given in the old tradition of rewarding poets with valuable gifts to ensure they record the king’s great deeds and spread his good reputation.
On the other hand, 65 years later, in 1093, according to Snorri, “Hakon relieved the Throndhjem people of all harbour duties, and gave them many other privileges. He did away with Yule-gifts, and gained by this the good-will of all the Throndhjem people.” (Sturluson 2013 ).
 The name is also used for the bear, in the Edda (Vídalín and Sveinbjørnsson 1854, p. 262.)
There seems to be a conflation here of the English custom of wassailing and the above noted custom of guising and visiting, both of which involved getting food and drink at neighbouring homes. Christmas carols as we now know them mostly have their roots in the Christian church. Encyclopaedia Britannia notes that “the carol seems to have crystallized in the early 14th century essentially as a popular religious song. A handful of carol tunes and about 500 texts survive from the period. Most refer to the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, or the saints whose feasts follow Christmas; there are also a few Passiontide or Easter carols […]” (Encyclopaedia Britannica online, “carol”). Wassailing is a New Year custom, with songs that ask for food and drink, meant to be sung at neighbours’ doors. An example is The New Year Song (The Big Orkney Song Project, 2011). Neither carols nor wassailing is directly connected with any Old Norse customs. Imagine singing “A sword has stained in blood” in church on Christmas Eve …
Twelve days of Christmas; or how long was Viking Yule?
It is difficult to trace this claim back to an original source, and especially not a pre-Christian one. In the 12th century during the reign of King Inge, Snorri tells us that “Gregorius set out from Konungahella late in Yule, and came to Fors the thirteenth day of Yule, where he remained a night, and heard vespers the last day of Yule, which was a Saturday, and the holy Evangel was read before him.” Here, it seems that Yule is more than 13 days long.
However, a few years earlier, again according to Snorri, the following took place:
“King Harald came from the East along the coast with a great army, and this winter (A.D. 1135) is called on that account the Crowd-winter. King Harald came to Bergen on Christmas eve, and landed with his fleet at Floruvagar; but would not fight on account of the sacred time. But King Magnus prepared for defence in the town. He erected a stone-slinging machine out on the holm, and had iron chains and wooden booms laid across over the passage from the king’s house to Nordnes, and to the Monks bridge. He had foot-traps made, and thrown into Saint John’s field, and did not suspend these works except during the three sacred days of Christmas. The last holyday of Yule, King Harald ordered his war-horns to sound the gathering of his men for going to the town; and, during the Yule holydays, his army had been increased by about 900 men.” (italics mine)
Here, only three days of Yule seem to be observed. In any case, both episodes took place after the conversion to Christianity, not in the Viking Age proper.
The Gulathing Law (also 13th century) in the section Church Law, chapter 34 “Concerning the Yule Festival” says:
“During the Yule festival the first four days and [the first] four nights shall be kept holy; but on the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh [day] one may bring home fodder and remove the dung from beneath the cattle till midday; but the eight [day] is holy like the first. The ninth, the tenth, the eleventh, and the twelfth [days shall be kept] like those between the fourth and the eighth; but the thirteenth, like the first.” (Larson, trans. 2008, p. 240)
The 13 days here, with their various degrees of holiness, is clearly a Christian custom, as the section is laid out in the Church Law. Snorri’s Saga of King Hakon the Good claims that “Before him [Hakon the Good], the beginning of Yule, or the slaughter night, was the night of mid-winter (Dec. 14), and Yule was kept for three days thereafter.” A tentative conclusion from this may be that before conversion to Christianity, Yule was celebrated for three days, but that the transition into Christianity brought a longer period of celebration, 13 rather than 3 or 12 days. Both involved feasting and drinking ale. The conclusion is tentative because none of the above sources date from the pre-Christian period and are all written from a Christian perspective.
Christmas trees and decorations – and human sacrifice!
As noted above under mistletoe, there are records both from Britain and Scandinavia in the early modern period (c. 1600 onwards) of evergreens being used as Christmas decorations, and this custom may go further back in time although how far is uncertain. In Britain, holly was most common, while in Scandinavia juniper was popular (Roud 2003, Hodne 2007), however only as branches and for sprinkling around the house to make a pleasant fragrance. The Christmas tree originated in Germany and came to England in the 19th century with Prince Albert (Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Christmas Tree”).
Offerings hung in trees – The nearest thing here would be the Viking custom of making animal and human sacrifices. As told in the poem Hávamál, Odin once hung himself on the world tree Yggdrasil to gain wisdom by passing through death. This is how he learnt runes and spells. Also, as Snorri Sturluson describes in the Edda, the Norns or goddesses of fate carved runes on the bark of Yggdrasil to protect it. However, there is no attestation of a custom of decorating a Christmas tree with runes. Animal and human sacrifices were sometimes hung in trees; there is a vivid description by the 11th century missionary Adam of Bremen describing the pagan temple at Uppsala where horses and humans were hung on trees as sacrifices next to figures of Odin, Thor and Frey, and in the Roman author Tacitus’s description of a Germanic tribe on the European continent there is a holy grove where human sacrifices take place.
Klas Wikström af Edholm (2020) in his PhD on human sacrifice among the Norse makes a distinction between human sacrifice in connection with warfare, and human sacrifice as a calendar custom. Fallen enemies were dedicated to Odin as a god of war and of the dead, and captive enemies were sometimes killed as sacrifices to Odin. However, as a calendar custom, Odin is not dominant as the recipient. Animal and sometimes even human sacrifices were made at the blót feasts (as described above), midwinter being one of them, with the intention of bringing cohesion in society, peace, and a good harvest (Wikström af Edholm, 2020, p. 266). However, these rites are a long way from our Christmas tree and decorations! (As an aside, notice how the cross is also made of wood and therefore ultimately a tree, and Jesus is a human sacrifice hung upon it …)
Ham, boar, Frey and Freyja
The text is actually onto something here. Ham (“ribbe”) is a traditional Christmas dish in large parts of Scandinavia today. Having already established that Odin and Frey were worshipped at Yule, it is also worth noting that Odin’s chosen dead warriors in Valhalla eat a ritual feast of ham every evening. The pig, Sæhrímnir, is slaughtered daily but in line with a cyclical understanding of time always comes back to life again ready for the next meal (Sturluson and Faulkes, 1992. Hille 2007, p. 41). Male pigs (though not necessarily wild) are also associated with Frey and Freyja: In the poem Hyndluljoð, Freya rides a boar, whereas Frey had a boar named Gullinbusti. It therefore seems plausible that the pagan Norse sacrificed a (male, domestic) pig at Yule and held a ritual meal, whether to call to Frey and Freyja for a good year, good harvest and peace, or to symbolically take part in Odin’s feast in Valhalla before Ragnarok (Hille 2007, pp. 42-43).
The infamous Yule Log
This one always crops up online and in the media as a direct link or proof of Viking survivals in British culture. Unfortunately, though, there is no record of a Yule Log tradition from the Norse Viking Age or Middle Ages, nor from early modern Scandinavia. From England, the Oxford English Dictionary notes written attestations from 1725 and 1848.
EDIT 15/12/2020: I have to post a correction here. After reading this, my good friend Lisa contacted me. She had spotted something that I had missed on page 42 of Ørnulf Hodne’s brilliant book of early modern Christmas traditions from rural Norway, “Jul i Norge”. He writes that in the mid-19th Century people would make an occasion of bringing home the firewood for Christmas, and try to choose extra good quality wood that would burn for a long time and give good heat. If it sparked it was a good sign, as the sparks would keep witches away from the chimney. Included was often an extra large log meant to burn through all of Christmas Eve. So here’s a Yule Log from early modern Norway after all. Thank you, Lisa!
Wreaths, sun wheel, sun cross and swastika
See above under mistletoe and Christmas tree.
Hille (2007, pp. 29-38) investigates whether the pagan Vikings practiced sun worship around midwinter and reaches the conclusion that there existed a sun cult prior to the Viking age which probably continued into the Viking age, however, at this point Odin became more central as part of a strengthening of rulership and warrior ideology. He finds support for this thesis in the classical author Procopius’s description of the people of “Thule” holding a celebration for the return of the sun. From there, he argues that the poems Vǫluspá and Vafþrúðnismál can be taken as indications of a continuity of sun worship into the Viking Age, where at midwinter people would think about the end times Ragnarok when the sun would be swallowed by a wolf. The yearly cycle reflects the larger cosmic cycle of the world’s demise at Ragnarok and subsequent rebirth. There is no indication, however, that the midwinter sun worship took the form of rolling burning wreaths down a hill. This is more reminiscent of early modern British custom of rolling burning tar barrels in January, a custom which in Shetland developed into the modern Up-Helly-Aa festival when in 1876 it was organised and given a Viking theme (Mitchell, 2015). Wreaths or flower garlands were used in the Middle Ages throughout Europe to honour saints (Encyclopaedia Britannia no date), and this may be the origin of our Christmas wreaths.
Now, what is this “Viking sunwheel”? It is common in modern Viking-inspired jewellery and gets many hits in a Google search. Its looks vary: sometimes as a swastika, sometimes as a cross within a circle. The swastika, until appropriated by the WW2 Nazi ideologists, was used in many countries and understood as a sun symbol, and there is an archaeological record of it from Scandinavia and elsewhere from the Viking Age and earlier (see for example the gold bracteate from Djupbrunns). The cross in a circle is also called the “sun cross” and in the 1930s the Norwegian Nazi party appropriated it as its symbol. Their reason for favouring this, as a kind of local alternative to the swastika, was that they saw Saint Olaf as Norway’s Eternal King. The 900th anniversary of Olaf’s death in 1030 was celebrated by Quisling and the Nazi party (see photo of Quisling with the sun cross, Kirkhusmo n.d.). They had read in Olaf’s saga that he had a round shield decorated with a cross, which he used in the battles he fought in his bid to Christianise Norway. A round symbol with a red background and gold cross therefore became the emblem of the Norwegian Nazi party.
While it is a plus that the sources are actually listed, the sources themselves are not what I would call reliable. There is no attempt here to go back to originals, or authorised translations of original texts such as saga texts, eddic or skaldic poetry, or to cite archaeological finds.
In my debunkathon, I have mainly used written sources, and one could point to this as a limitation. Ideally I would like to supplement with archaeological sources. However, this was all I could manage in one weekend.
The main thing is, our present-day Christmas is a complex and many-layered custom, incorporating millennia of diverse influences from many countries, but at the same time perfectly adapted to our own times. And that is the beauty of it.
Ragnhild Ljosland, 13 December 2020.
List of references:
Big Orkney Song Project, The. 2011. “The New Year Song.” <online> https://www.reverbnation.com/bigorkneysongproject/song/2535631-the-new-year-song <accessed 13/11/2020>
Billington, Sandra. 2008. “The Midsummer Solstice As it Was, Or Was Not, Observed in Pagan Germany, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England.” Folklore 119, issue 1, pp. 41-57. <online> https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00155870701806167 <accessed 11/12/2020>
Encyclopaedia Britannica. no date. “Christmas carol”, “Christmas tree”, “Garland flower decoration”. <online> https://www.britannica.com/ <accessed 13/12/2020>
Hille, Ivar L. 2007. Den skandinaviske jula: vikingtidens herskerideologi, tro og kult i lys av det gamle vinterblotet. Master’s thesis, University of Oslo. <online> https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/26676 <accessed 11/12/2020>
Hodne, Ørnulf. 2007. Jul i Norge: gamle og nye tradisjoner. Oslo: Cappelen.
Kirkhusmo, Anders. No date. «Nasjonal Samling og Stiklestadstevnene. Kilenett» <online> http://kildenett.no/portal/imagearchive/vmvf_752.jpg <accessed 13/12/2020>
Larson, Laurence M. 2008. The Earliest Norwegian Laws: Being the Gulathing Law and Frostathing Law. Translated from the Old Norwegian. Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange. <online> https://books.google.co.uk/books?redir_esc=y&id=m4iWmsOrWWwC&q=brew#v=onepage&q&f=false <accessed 11/12/2020>
Mabey, Richard. 1996. Flora Britannica. London: Sinclair-Stevenson.
MARWICK, G., MUIR, T., & IRVINE, J. (2014). George Marwick: the collected works of Yesnaby’s master storyteller. Kirkwall: The Orcadian.
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