It’s simply absurd how early the Christmas adverts started pouring out in their masses from our television screens. I don’t know if I’m becoming more like Ebenezer Scrooge or if they are genuinely infringing on everyone’s non-Christmas months. They appear to have had a more profound affect on me this year and have really put me off of the capitalist ways of modern Christmas. Bah humbug!
Christmas, for many of us, has shed its traditional religious skin and has taken up a more family and friends orientated one. However, Christmas wasn’t always Christmas. For many of our ancestors here in the northern parts of Europe, Christmas went by a completely different name; Yule – also referred to as Jul by some of our Scandinavian neighbours.
Firstly, we must understand a bit more about religion at this point in time before we can fully understand the celebration. The religious practises of the ancient Norse people and their northern neighbours have been named Paganism. This, in all actuality, does not refer to just one religion as there was little in the way of organised religion back then. It does, rather, refer to the many ‘religions’ that were practised in that area. There is so much to learn about Paganism that you could start now and still not know it all by the time the next century appeared on your doorstep. So we shall focus in on Norse Paganism. This is still a very general term but does narrow it down slightly.
Here in Scotland, we have had our fair influence from the Norse people thanks to their integration into Northern Scottish areas and their persistent raids on Scotland trying to steal food and gold from our monasteries. During their integration and dominance of the north of Scotland they taught the people about their Gods and Goddesses and how fun drinking and feasting was.
In Norse religion nature was an integral part of life – thus suggesting the origins of Pagans being seen as ‘nature worshippers’. But what has this got to do with Christmas? Well, if we think about what happens around the time of Christmas then it all begins to piece together. Christmas generally falls around the time of the Winter Solstice – which falls on the 22nd of December this year. The winter solstice marks the longest night, however, after the solstice the days become longer and the nights shorter; the Sun is returning. The Sun returning is a loose term, as all Scots will know, as we rarely see the Milky Way’s gigantic light bulb.
Yule is the celebration of the return of the Sun or, as it was often viewed, the Sun’s rebirth. For the most northern countries in Europe the lengthening of the days was a joyous occasion and was marked with great feasts and celebrations. However, it wasn’t all as joyous as it seems. They believed that, due to it being the darkest time of the year, the supernatural forces which for the rest of the year were unable to cross over to our world, did so. This meant that the spirits of the dead were able to return to their living families. Now, I don’t know about you, but having the spirits of the dead roaming the streets trying to find out why their family moved house without them knowing is ever-so-slightly terrifying. Nevertheless, the Norse found a way around this and performed many customs that have lived on until today in order to ward off the spirits.
In an attempt to slowly but surely slide Christianity into Scandinavian culture, King Haakon of Norway changed the date of Yule to coincide with the celebration of the birth of Christ, Christmas. The Scandinavians could still have their feasts and celebration so were quite happy to embrace the change and this started the conversion from their Pagan ways to that of Christianity.
So there you have it. Christmas wasn’t always Christmas here in the northern parts of Europe, we were more concerned with drinking and feasting because the days were getting longer to think about the birth of Christ.
This hasn’t changed the way I view all those awful Christmas adverts that have you wishing it would snow and all you get is rain. However, it did take my mind off of it for a good half an hour. Have a good Christmas everyone.