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“The Icelandic Origins of Yule”
by Dixson and Halldorsson


A celebration of the winter solstice has been held since time immemorial in the Northern Hemisphere. Through the ages, the festival has had many names. It is certain that a mid-winter festival called Yule was celebrated in the Nordic countries well before the year 1000. Though challenged by some scholars, the fact that Yule was celebrated in Iceland and throughout the Northern Hemisphere well before the advent of Christianity is now widely accepted. The exact date, or dates, that Yule was celebrated is not certain, but probably it was connected to the full moon nearest to the winter solstice. The name itself has been retained in many languages: Yule - Jul. Some scholars think it comes from one of the names of Odinn, others have theorized that it came from the name of Julius Caesar. And it has also been suggested that Jo'l is derived from the Old-Nordic word for wheel: Hjo'l), the theory being that the wheel of the year has come full circle.


Saga Yule

There are numerous references in the Icelandic Sagas to celebration of Yule, but they are very sparse in their description of how Yule was celebrated in those times. No real contemporary accounts exits, but a piece of verse, considered to be from the Ninth Century, refers to the "drinking of Yule". There are numerous other references to this "drinking of Yule", for example in The Story of Ha'kon Ha'reksson, it is stated: "He held three main feasts every year, Yule, middle of winter and Easter".

In Egils saga Skallagrimsonar, the Yule feast of Egil's friend Arinbjorn) is detailed, and in The Saga of Grettir, two farmers in Norway drink Yule together. Almost the only thing that comes through clearly in the references to Yule in the Saga era, is that feasts, drinking and Yule Ale were common features. In Eyrbyggja saga, the existence of a large amount of ale just before Yule is a fact that seems to be too normal to require explanation.

And in the Saga of Greenland, Eric the Red, was worried that he could not prepare for Yule as well as he knew he should. But Thorfinnur, just back from America, saved the day, as he had carried with him malt for ale making. These Yule Feasts were of course different in size and splendor, from the chieftains inviting scores of people to Yule, to just the residents of one farm "drinking Yule" together. In the larger Yule feasts of the chieftains, guests received gifts upon departure, and this departure was after feasting several days.

The chieftains also wanted to decorate their houses for Yule, as can be seen when farmer Ingjaldur, who did not like foreigners at all, accepted decorative material from a Norwegian to use at his yule feast. The proud farmer, who detested foreign merchants, could not resist having the best decorative materials available for his Yule feast, even if the source was a foreign merchant. There are no indications that any religious practices were connected to Yule in the Saga era, as the contemporary references are lacking.


Medieval Yule

In early Medieval times, the Yule feasts were continued, even if the occasion had changed. In the Thirteenth Century, several of the most powerful chieftains in Iceland, such as the historian Snorri Sturluson, his nemesis Gissur Thorvaldsson, Snorri's kinsmen Tho'rdur Kakali and Thorgils Skardi, all held large feasts at Yule. And so did the Bishops of the bishopric at Ho'lar). These were large feasts, which lasted for several days and included dancing, games and sports and other entertainment.


Yule Today

Thorla'ksmessa) - St. Thorlakur's Day (December 23). Iceland's major native Saint is St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson, Bishop of Skalholt. December 23 commemorates his death in 1193. Yule/ Christmas Celebrations start in Iceland at 6pm on Christmas Eve, Yule Eve. This may come from the fact that in the old days, a new day began not at midnight, but at 6pm.
Thus in Iceland, there are thirteen (not twelve) days in the Yuletide season.

Traditional Yule Food:
Hangikjot - smoked mutton
Kjo su'pa - mutton soup
Rju'pa - rock ptarmigan
Grautur - porridge
Laufabraudh - leaf bread

-Yule Greetings, B. N. Dixson
 


And Here’s More...


Here in Iceland we have a old tradition from pre­Christian aria of "Júlasveinar" along with other wÊttir and things associated with Júlin. Those things have mixed in a hilarious way in to younger things like Santa Claus, so the Icelandic Santas are at least 13 by number, each with a different name. They are a crazy mixture of a friendly good guy and the older Júlasveinar, which are really a bunch of pranksters, each coming to town on its own day starting 13 days before Júlin, and then go back to the mountains one at a time after Júlin.

Someone mentioned the "Júlak­ttin" (Yule cat) which is another thing associated with Júl, and the parents of the "Júlasveinar" who cook the kids which are behaving badly, and have them for dinner! All this bunch are mean pranksters, used to having fun in these dark days here in Iceland, and to let the kids have something to think about, because they can’t go out much because of the cold and darkness.

Those things have survived Christian beliefs and/or mixed them in a funny way. Because the darkness will come over Christians and others alike, and you simply use the things that make you survive it.
 

-Bragi Halldorsson