Every December the Vikings would celebrate the Midwinter Solstice, the longest night of the year and the daylight is the shortest of the year. The celebration included drinking, feasting, songs, games, banquets, and sacrifices for the gods and the ancestor spirits for 12 days straight.
They called it “Yule” which is pronounced the same as the word for Christmas in Norway today “Jul”.
The Vikings believed Odin, the great God, and father of other gods, would ride across the night sky and visit them in their homes. Viking children would leave their shoes out by the hearth on the eve of the winter solstice with sugar and hay for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, sound familiar? Christianity reached Europe while the Vikings still believed in their pagan mythology, Norse traditions would be mixed with the Christian, turning Yule into the Christmas many of us celebrate today.
Indeed, as we look deeper the Vikings had many themes that hold true today. They had a Yule tree which inspired the later Christmas tree. The green tree was often decorated with small statues of their Norse gods, food, and clothes. They attempted to call for the spirit of the forests.
The Yule wreath was a giant wheel that the Vikings set on fire and threw down a hill to wish for the return of the Sun. It is theorized that the Yule wreath was the ancestor of the Christmas wreath on our doors today.
Mistletoe also had mythical importance. Norse legend told of how the god of light, Balder, was slain by an arrow of mistletoe but was resurrected when his mother’s tears turned the berries of the plant red. It thus represented resurrection and hope for the end of winter.
The Viking Yule goat was one of the most important parts of their ancient pagan celebration. Connected to worship of the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr
In common Indo-European beliefs the last sheaf of grain bundled in the harvest was credited with magical properties as the spirit of the harvest and saved for the Yule celebrations, called among other things Yule goat (Julbocken). Today you can find straw goats used as decoration during Christmas.
The Yule log was a long oak tree carved with runes (early norse/germanic letters) to wish for the protection of the gods and burned for the duration of the celebration. To let it go out was said to be a dark omen and a sign of bad luck to come. The Vikings would save a piece of the log for next year's fire.
During the Yule celebrations someone would be selected to dress up as ‘old man winter,’ a white-bearded man dressed in a hooded fur coat, thought to represent Odin. This individual would travel around the community, joining in with the various celebrations. This figure, when introduced into England while parts were under Viking rule, soon became the modern ‘Father Christmas.’