Sunday, December 11, 2016

Vikings and Christmas

December's Contest Number Two is here! Today's post will once again focus on holiday traditions, though from a different culture than talked about before. Just as before, I have some cool prizes to give away - books, swag, some candles, beauty/body products and more. And just like last time, to be eligible to win, you simply have to answer the question at the end of the post. If you're unsure of the answer, search the blog – all the answers are here somewhere! Comment with your answer and you're automatically entered you for a chance to win! Winners will be selected randomly.

You probably know that I'm a big a fan of The History Channel's show, Vikings. I've mentioned before that I've watched it right from the start, and the evolution of Ragnar Lothbrook has held me in thrall ever since. Ragnar was a real historical figure, as are many of the main players  on the show. Of course, since the Vikings did not have a tradition of recording their history in writing, with the exception of the various sagas (and those were written much later than the period which was known as The Viking Age, from the mid-8th century until the 11th century), much of the real history is blurry and you can find many differing interpretations of various events.

There were contemporary accounts of Vikings of course, but those tended to be very one-sided, as the people recording the information were often the victims of some very savage Viking raids. Yes, they really did pillage and plunder, but when you think about it, that's a big part of how the world's history since civilization began (and continues to this day in some ways and some places). The sagas that I mentioned earlier were heavily romanticized and enhanced from the oral folklore handed down through generations. Historical accuracy is questionable in many cases, though they are rooted in reality to some degree.

Much of what we've learned about Vikings in recent years comes from archeological finds, and much of those discoveries reveal surprising facts. For instance, Vikings were not unkempt and unclean savages, they were actually well-groomed and civilized, even if their ways were (and still are by many) considered pagan or heathen. In fact, Vikings took great pride in their appearance – some of the items unearthed at various sites include a variety of grooming tools- combs, teeth cleaners, ear cleaners, etc. There were laws and tiers in society in which everyone fit, and villages were often tight-knit communities. They were very civilized in many ways, holding formal courts and "Things" to maintain law. Perhaps they were so frightening simply because they didn't fear death, to a Viking warrior, dying in battle was a good thing, ensuring a place for them in Valhalla beside the gods, and there was nothing they considered too brutal in times of war and raiding.

Aside from that aspect of their lifestyle, the Vikings also held very deep beliefs that guided their daily lives. Among them were celebrations and ceremonies, just as we have today, though they were carried out differently and for different reasons. Their holidays, or festivals, were as important to them as our holidays are to us.

Many of our modern Christmas traditions are actually descended from those of the Vikings. The Vikings celebrated Jol (pronounced Yoh-l), or as more commonly used today, Yule. This was a large winter solstice festival that lasted for up to three weeks. Like many cultures, the solstice was a very important and, for the age, a religious time. For the Vikings, it was a means to give thanks to the gods for a prosperous previous spring and summer, and offerings to ensure the upcoming seasons would be just as successful. A sacrifice of a wild boar was offered to Frey was common, and afterward, the meat would be cooked and eaten – boar was a common animal for centuries to come throughout the mid-winter celebrations, and is considered by many to be the precursor to today's Christmas ham.

Christmas Trees and the Yule Log both originated in Scandinavia. Evergreens were considered very special going back even further than the Vikings – the Romans celebrated Saturnalia and decorated their homes with evergreens as well. In Scandinavia, these decorations were the most common of the rituals – they were said to honor Balder, the son of Odin and Frigg, as well as entice the earth spirits to bring prosperity to the upcoming planting season. Balder was a favorite of all the gods and there's more about him coming up.

As for Christmas trees, Vikings did indeed bring large pine trees into the great hall, (and smaller ones into the smaller houses, as well), and these were decorated with runes, statues of the gods, and food, usually sweets. These decorations were also offerings to earth spirits to lure them back when the weather turned warmer. And no, they didn't have the heads of their enemies hanging on their trees – that was a tactic used in warfare, not a time when gaiety and thanks were the moods of the time.

Another tradition, though today's versions are very different from its origins, is the Yule log. The Vikings' logs would have been an entire tree, stripped bare and carved with special runes and praise for the gods, thanks for previous good fortune, as well as requests to be spared any misfortune in the future. The log was then burned as an offering, and a small piece would be saved, not only to protect the home during the coming year, but also to be used to light the following year's log. A far cry from the small log in a fireplace we used to watch on TV, or the ice cream cake.

Mistletoe brings us back to Balder. There are variations among the legends - either he or his mother, Frigg, were having dreams about his death. Frigg forced every entity or species in nature to vow not to harm Balder, but she ignored one little weed, thinking it insignificant. Yep, mistletoe. That devious troublemaker Loki learned of this and arranged for Balder to be killed with a mistletoe dart. Legend has it that, upon learning of her son's death, Frigg cried continuously for three days and her tears became the white, translucent berries of the plant. One iteration of the myth states that she laid the berries on Baldur's chest and he came back to life. Frigg then promised whoever came in contact with mistletoe would be offered a kiss, as well as protection forever. So think about that the next time you find yourself under a spring of this white-berried "weed." Not only do you get to steal a kiss, you are blessed with protection from misfortune. BTW, if the berries are red – it's holly. 

One of my favorite traditions, and one I included in Norseman's Revenge, was the tale of The Great Hunt. This occurred when Odin leads all of the gods on a hunt, though I'm not sure for what, exactly, but one thing was certain – to see the hunt was usually a very bad sign, foretelling of a future death or calamity. So while hearing the thunder, witnessing the lightning and feeling the winds were bad enough, you'd better hope you didn't catch a glimpse of Odin astride his eight-legged horse – Sleipnir. Was the steed possibly the precursor to Santa's eight reindeer? When the hunt coincided with Jol, as it often did, children were encouraged to leave hay out for Sleipnir, an offering to please the animal and his master, and perhaps resulting in protection from any misfortune. Often sweets would be left in return. Like leaving cookies for Santa, and that carrot for Rudolph – and getting all the presents on your list! lol

On to today's question – What is the name of Geira's husband in Norseman's Revenge? Leave your answer in the comments, and if you're right, you'll be entered to win.
And God Jol! (Happy Yule)


  1. Einnar.
    You're a new-to-me author. I just read an excerpt of Norseman's revenge and I have to say it was pretty good!

    1. Hi MsAwesome! Nice to meet you and thanks for stopping by! :D Glad you liked the excerpt. Stay tuned, I'll announce the winner in the next blog post this weekend. Good luck - and thanks again for coming by.