The Norsemen And The Yule Log
To the Scandinavian Norsemen, the Winter Solstice was a scary time of year. It was a time of death and darkness. Fires were lit to bring light into that darkness. Another way to view this: the gods of the hearth would watch over the occupants of the home and keep them warm. During certain times of year, some cultures believed the hearth god, dressed in red, would appear to reward the good and punish the evil.
It was believed that evergreen trees such as fir were everlasting, or had everlasting life. People would bring fir trees into their home to drive away death, the same way they drove away darkness with fire. In another interpretation, evergreen trees represent fertility and sex. Bringing evergreen trees into the home was an acknowledgment of the nature spirits that lived inside the trees. Decking the halls with boughs of Holly also acknowledged the power of the gods. People would hang mistletoe over their doors as a charm against evil.
Many cultures celebrated the Winter Solstice as the dying and renewal of the sun. The dates ranged from December 21st through the start of January. The Feast of 12 Nights was observed from Dec. 25th through Jan. 6th. I’ve come to differing opinions here. In the first, Yule was a god of fertility. During the 12 day festival, a large log, representing a phallic idol, was kept burning for the entire duration of the festival. Each ember from the burning log was believed to be a future new birth, of humans or livestock. Animal or human sacrifices were offered each day, paralleling with how a turkey is sacrificed in our modern Thanksgiving Day. Wild revelry took place.
December 25th, Christmas day, was called Hjol by the Nords. The Fresians knew it as Jole, and the early English called it Geol. Over time, this word has evolved into the modern Yule, which means Wheel. Germanic people saw the year as a wheel, or a cycle of time. The shorter days of December were on the bottom of the wheel. The wheel represents the eternal conflict between the forces of light and dark, meaning winter, the coldest, darkest time of year, was seen as an evil period. Nordic Hell was a frozen, barren place until Dante’s Inferno came along and that’s when we see the horned red devil basking in eternal flame and tormenting souls. Horned red devil? Could that be the Krampus you’ll meet in the next section?
Odin (or Woden) was a Nordic god with many names. Another name for Odin is Jolfadr, which translates as Jole Father or Yule Father. Jole might also become Jolly, as in Jolly Father. All of these similar names give credence to the idea that Odin is the original Father Christmas. Here is a list of what attributes Odin shared in common with early Father Christmas:
Flying white horse
Wore a hat and cloak
Carried a staff or spear
Had long hair and beard
Was old and wise
Was called ‘giver of letters’
Both were part of Germanic tradition
Both had religious connotations
(Side note: Tolkien modeled the wizard Gandalf after Odin!)
Notes on Druidic customs: Celts and Druids customarily used mistletoe. One source stated that Druids poisoned their spears with mistletoe and sacrificed their victims under it. Mistletoe was believed to have the power to render a woman helpless, where a man could take advantage of her. This leads to our modern custom of hanging mistletoe over a doorway. When a woman walks under it, she cannot resist being kissed. Druids also used fir trees in their rituals.
Other notes from this time period: In the tale of Beowulf, the name Nick, Nickel or Nicker referred to the Demon of the North. This name is supposedly associated with Odin, but I could not find the link. Regardless, Nick the demon snatched up bad children and stole them away in his bag. In Germany, the name Pelz Nick means furry devil. This devil had a furry red coat and also came from the North. In Norse mythology, the god Loki kills fellow god Baldur with a staff of mistletoe.
Medieval St. Nick And The Dreaded Krampus
This shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, but it was the Church of Rome that deliberately absorbed the ancient ritual of Saturnalia, in order to attract and eventually convert the pagans. Author Alfred Hottes blames the European barbarians for mixing things up, but did Hottes acknowledge Emperor Constantine as one of those barbarians? Hello! Constantine was one of the primary leaders who helped put this all together!
Do you remember how in Saturnalia people would go from house to house expecting gifts? During the Middle Ages, the poor would walk to the houses of the rich, demanding that food and drink be given to them. If the poor were refused, they would proceed to torment that household. They would even sing songs while doing this, and while walking from house to house. This is how Christmas caroling first came about. Ironically, this is also the origin for our modern Halloween, where strangers would request treats, and give tricks, or torment, to house occupants who refused to cater to them.
We have varying accounts regarding the origin story of Saint Nick. In one, St. Nick was the patron of seafaring men. People believed St. Nick captured the Devil. The Devil was also called Krampus, Beelzebub, Zwarte Pter (Black Peter) and Knecht Ruprecht. Saint Nick showed up on December 25th and dropped candy and gifts down a chimney and into children’s shoes. This is where the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings comes from. In this dualistic, good and evil contrast, St. Nick brought happiness and gifts, while the demonic Ruprecht carried a switch for beating and a basket for taking away the really bad kids. Interesting that in some customs, Ruprecht was later renamed Santa Claus. Over time, the demon’s scary appearance changed into the jolly figure we recognize today. Early Santa Claus was still a disciplinary figure, as he continued to carry the same switch.
In some traditions, and as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, the jolly version of Santa Claus brought along his evil sidekick to take care of naughty children. This was the dreaded Krampus! This demon had long horns, shaggy fur, a long face and long tongue. Naughty children were beaten with horsehair and birch sticks. After the beating, they were tossed into the sack and taken to Hell.
The second story of Saint Nicholas is a bit more macabre. This Saint Nick is the patron saint of children. As the story goes, St. Nick was traveling abroad and went into an inn to spend the night. Magically, or divinely if you will, Nick sensed that three boys had been killed there. He discovered that their bodies were dismembered and pickled for later eating. St. Nick resurrects the dead children, and so, voila! We have a new saint thanks to that morbid tale.
More on Medieval and Industrial Age customs: A light set at the window during the Winter Solstice meant the residents were observing the burning of the Yule Log. This is where we get the modern custom of hanging up Christmas lights. Wishing someone Yuletide greetings was in actuality invoking the fertility god Jul, or Yule.
Odin also became Father Christmas in Britain. Father Christmas would go around feasting and getting drunk during the Festival of Fools. A horned goat accompanied him, the same as in the Ruprecht / Krampus tales.
Europeans first brought Christmas trees into their homes starting in the 16th century.
19th century writers such as Charles Dickens, Clement Moore, Washington Irving and others popularized the Christmas holiday into a happy time where families came together and shared gifts. This is how the image of the jolly, red-suited Santa Claus first came about. Twelve nice, friendly reindeer replaced the evil horned goat Ruprecht.
In modern times, Wiccans believe that a wreath of Holly set on their heads adds to their magical powers.
The annual Burning Man event is equated with a modern day Saturnalia.