My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.
If you regularly peruse the Yuletide memes discussing the Pagan origins of Christmas, you would likely be aware of the preponderance of those believing that the origins of Santa lay in the figure of the Norse God Odin. However, are things really this cut and dry? Are there reasons to believe that other figures may also lay behind the origin of this Yuletide Elf? Indeed, there is reason to believe that figures such as Thor and Freyr were also venerated and celebrated at this time of year and may also be preserved within various Yuletide figures.
A good starting point in discussing Yule would be to define the word, and discover its origins, and discuss cognates. The first historical reference to Yule that we have comes from the Gothic language in the 4th century AD, noted as Fruma Jiuleis, which is the month of Yule. Later, in the 7th century work titled The Ecclesiastical History of the English people by the Venerable Bede one can again find another cognate of the word Yule, preserved as Geola, with two named months translating to “Before Yule” and “After Yule”. In looking at this holiday, one might infer that this was a day separating the old year from the new year, much as how Samhain functions within the Celtic world. A similar month name can be found in Old Norse Ylir. It would be disingenuous to not mention the name Jolnir (an epithet of Odin) which is found in Odin’s Nofn, which means “Yule Being”. It is important to note, that Odin is implicitly associated with the holiday. However, he likely is not the only being associated with this period. As this article will discuss further, implicating Freyr as a yuletide spirit.
Conversion to Christianity
Finding clues to these Yuletide figures isn’t as difficult as one might suspect. With a cursory understanding of the mythological texts (Prose and Poetic Edda’s), and the history of the Germanic peoples, one might be able to locate possible associations between mythological beings and the holiday. In looking to the Saga of Hakon the good, one might note that while King Hakon was Christian, at the period the common folk were still chiefly pagan. Hakon took it upon himself to move the Yule festival to coincide with Christmas. One might suppose this served the purpose of assimilating the common folk into Christianity, which was a common practice. In this text, we also learn that at Yule “everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.” It is interesting that both ale and grain are featured at the celebration. Ale is the product of fermented grain, and with its importance at the festival one might suppose that the deity associated with grain and fertility of the land may be important during the celebration. When considering this thought, both Freyr and Thor come to mind. While Freyr is the god most associated with the growth of crops, one must not forget that Thor controlled the rains and was also associated with fertility.
Ale and late Autumn Rites
The ale served at the Yule celebration may be directly related to a similar custom that was attested to at Alfablot. Unfortunately, very little is known about Alfarblot, what remains is found in Austrfararvisur. Within this account, we learn of the travels of a skald named Sigvat. Sigvat travels the countryside of Sweden and looking for lodging he comes across a farmstead. Here he asks to lodge, but is met with resistance from the family in question. A female figure states that the traveler is not welcome because the residents of the household are celebrating Alfarblot and the traveling man is a Christian. The man of the house was titled Olvir, which likely is indicative of his position, with the Ol in the title Olvir meaning ale or beer. It would therefore seem that ale must have featured within the associated rituals. The exact date of the Alfablot is unknown, but it would have been sometime during the late autumn, which theoretically may place it in late November or even early December, close to the Yule season. It is also noteworthy that the lady of the house takes exception to the travelers and states that Odin wouldn’t be happy with them allowing Christians into their house. Both the ale and Alf elements to the tale would seem to indicate that this celebration may be associated with Freyr. He was a god of the harvest, and fertility, a being associated with grain and the alfar as he was given Alfheim (the home of the elves) as a tooth-gift.
It is thoroughly possible that during the conversion period many of the late autumnal and winter celebrations began to merge. Another tale which is worth mentioning is Volsa Thattr. In this tale, an elderly woman worships a horse phallus every autumn night along with her family. While not explicitly referencing the Alfar or Alfarblot, the period is fitting with Alfarblot, and it is possible that this tale is detailing additional elements of a late autumn fertility festival dedicated to Freyr. For those not familiar with the Eddas, Freyr is a deity associated with horses, phallic imagery, grain, boars, etc. So, this celebration would be in keeping with his worship, as is the ale and grain that are consumed at Yule.
The Yuletide Ham
The Christmas ham is an enduring tradition that has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The several early Norse records we have a tradition called Heitstrenging. This is a sacrifice of a boar upon which vows are made. This tradition happened on Yule eve. As mentioned earlier, if Yule is indeed thought of as the end of the year, what we may have preserved in this vow making ritual is a very early New Year’s resolution. In the Poetic Edda in the poem titled Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar, we have a passage that illustrates this custom quite nicely “Hedin was coming home alone from the forest one Yule-eve, and found a troll-woman; she rode on a wolf, and had snakes in place of a bridle. She asked Hedin for his company. "Nay," said he. She said, "Thou shalt pay for this at the bragarfull." That evening the great vows were taken; the sacred boar was brought in, the men laid their hands thereon, and took their vows at the bragarfull. Hedin vowed that he would have Sváva, Eylimi's daughter, the beloved of his brother Helgi; then such great grief seized him that he went forth on wild paths southward over the land, and found Helgi, his brother.” Bragarfull was a drinking custom that was featured in association with the oath taking. Again, this certainly sounds like the new year’s custom of making resolutions and drinking. Returning to the Christmas ham motif, we have medieval Norse scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson saying “tradition [that] was initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times....[In ancient Norse tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new year. The boar's head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels.” Here H.E. Davidson indicates that the featured element of the ham/boar was representative of Freyr. During the 15th century the “Boar’s Head Carol” discusses a custom of sacrificing a boar and eating it at Christmas, not unlike Heitstrenging (the aforementioned corresponding Scandinavian custom). It would seem then that the custom of eating a Christmas ham is very ancient in origin, and may be implicitly tied to the worship of the fertility deity Freyr.
St Stephen and Freyr
While many scholars reinforce the notion that Christianity was forcing the heathen populace to assimilate, Christianity also had to adapt to the heathens. Within this conversion period many saints developed non-canonical elements, many of which appear to preserve pagan figures. One case in point is St Stephan who in Germanic territories happened to be depicted riding a horse and serving a boar’s head. It is also noteworthy that the feast day of this saint is December 26th. By itself this may not appear to be much, but it is possible that aspects of Freyr were adapted to the figure to preserve a bastardized version of the god under the guise of St. Stephen.
Elves and Christmas are intimately associated. However, how far back does this connection go? In an aforementioned paragraph the topic of Alfarblot was discussed, but can we show that the modern notion of the Christmas elf stems from this tradition? Clement Clarke Moore mentioned in his work “A visit from St Nicholas” that Santa Clause was a “jolly old elf”. (the word Jolly is etymologically related to Yule). Other authors of the period also mention elves in relation to Christmas, namely Louisa May Alcott in 1850 in an unpublished book titled “Christmas Elves” Louisa covers the topic. In Scandinavian folklore, the Tomten, and Nisse seem to have been male ancestral figures were guardians of the farm. They seem to have enjoyed particular reverence around the holiday season, and became fused with the St Nicholas figure. However, before the adaption of St Nicholas bringing presents to children, at least within Sweden, the Julboken (Christmas Goat) was featured as the gift giver. The tomte was featured heavily in the artwork of Jenny Nystrom during the early 1900’s. It would seem that a great deal of the modern understanding of elves being associated with the Yule season are highly influenced from the Romantic period, and there is little early modern references to the Alfar tradition, there may be a historical precedence with the Alfar being associated with end of year celebrations in the wider sense from the references to Alfarblot.
Yuletide Ritual and Drama
Terry Gunnell in his work titled “The origins of Drama in Scandinavia” discusses the following passage in Haraldskvaedi at length. “He wants to drink Jol (Yule) outside if he can decide alone, the fame seeking ruler- and to perform Frey’s leikr, the young man was tired of the fireside and sitting indoors in the warm women’s room or on down filled cushions.” Within the text, Gunnell advocates the notion that leikr may include activities such as dramatic or ritualized performance, thus the passage would seem to indicate that some ritual or performance of Frey’s was associated with Yule. Gunnell subsequently points to the subject matter of Freyr’s marriage in Skirnismal as potentially being the subject matter of this performance, a custom which may be evidenced by the winter setting of the cultic procession of Freyr’s statue in the tale of Gunnar Helming.
The latter story discusses how Gunnar Helming is incorrectly suspected of murder, and he must flee to Sweden. Here Gunnar joins the retinue of a cultic procession of the god Freyr. Here, we are told that a statue of Freyr used to have the capability of movement and the ability to talk. Subsequently, during the journey Gunnar hops into the wagon that is transporting Freyr and his priestess / wife. This results in the statue and Gunnar having a fight where Gunnar wins. After “the devil” leaves the statue, only a hollow log remains. Many have pointed out that the hollow aspect of the log may indicate that this was a costume worn by a person. In any event, the text explicitly states that this is a winter procession wherein the god was traveling around the country to help ensure the success of the crops. After vanquishing Freyr, Gunnar takes his place, imitating the god, and eventually impregnating the priestess/wife, which the common people take to be a great sign for increased fertility. Sacrifices are no longer allowed by Gunnar, but the text makes it clear that this was the custom. It is also interesting to note that scholars such as Terry Gunnell and Ursula Dronke have independently come to the conclusion that the marriage of Freyr in Skrimnismal happens during the winter.
A special point of note is that Freyr must wait nine nights to wed his betrothed Gerdr. He replys that a night is as long as a month. What we may be seeing here is skaldic symbolism, where a night really is representative of a month. Therefore, the nine nights are in reality nine months. This could be indicating a seasonal custom wherein Freyr withdraws his fertility for nine months while he waits to wed his wife. In this manner, the marriage of Freyr would function like the mythological tale of Persephone within the Greek tradition.
At bare minimum, the quote from Haraldskvaedi explicitly states that Freyr has a connection to the Yule celebrations. Taken in consideration with the other supplementary evidence, an argument can be made for this deity having influence on the later Christmas traditions.
The Yule Goat
Another common Northern European tradition at the holidays is the Julbocken. This is a goat like figure who traditionally delivered Christmas presents. The first reference we have to this figure comes from Bishop Peder Palladius in Visitatsbog dated 1543. In this work, he lists prohibitions against certain folk customs associated drinking, celebration, and other activities not sanctioned by the church. In the earliest incarnations, it was the Yule goat that delivered Christmas presents. Whereas as time passed, St Nicholas was accompanied by the Yule Goat, but it was St Nicholas who delivered the presents himself. This accompanying figure might appear to be similar to Krampus and other Alpine horned figures. One might tend to associate this figure with Thor, as his wagon was pulled by two goats, and this would be a justified position. However, it isn’t the only interpretation of the goat figure. In fact, in Germany the Perchten are a group of associated beings to the folkloric figure Perchta (possibly a regional variant of Holda). In this case, it is possible to see the horned figure as related to Holda or her hypothetical Norse equivalent Frigg. This then would not preclude Thor, as he is the son of Frigg, thus making this association appropriate. However, this is conjecture. While there is no emphatic proof linking these figures, it is within a cultural vein of thought which makes sense.
The Julbokken had regional variations of form and name. In Denmark the Staffensmanden was popular, and in Sweden another name for the figure appears to be Knutsgubben. Rather than being in goat form, these figures were humanoid but were at later time replaced by the goat. Another common custom with a similar appearance were the Lussebockar/Lussiner who had the appearance of a goat and wore a red hood. This tradition fits in nicely with the hobby horse customs of England. It is possible that both are residual vestiges of pagan traditions.
St Stephan and the Yule Goat
The Staffansdrangar are figures who tie into the earlier mentioning of St Stephan. Yule customs of horse races and horse fights appear with frequency in Scandinavian tradition, far before any reference to St Stephen. However, after Christianization the Staffansritt (ride of St Stephen) was conducted on the second day of Christmas. The Staffansdangar were performers associated with the ride on the horse, bearing an image of a shining star. They were accompanied by Staffan (St Stephan), but this figure didn’t resemble the saint whatsoever. In east Sweden in particular, the Staffansdrangar were led by a figure wrapped in hay or corn (grain). Again, you have this St Stephan figure, associated with horse imagery and grain, and as discussed previously, he is also often depicted with the boar head. Therefore, it is also possible to see remnants of the cult of Freyr living on in this tradition. This is further evidenced by Uppland traditions where the Staffan figure is accompanied by Staffansbock (figures dressed entirely in straw ). This is reminiscent of Byggvir (a servant of Freyr) who appears to have been a personification of grain refuse. Scholar Nil’s Lid has shown that the Halm-Staffan traditions bear a strong resemblance to the Finnish deity Peko. The image of the deity was pulled on a sledge. Much like Freyr, he was a god of barley, grain, and fertility. Being that straw is the agricultural byproduct of grain production, it is theoretically possible to see the entire Julbokken and Saffansdangar tradition as relating to the cult of Freyr. One must also remember that in Sweden, Freyr was the god held in most reverence. Paganism was not homogenous. Various areas of the pagan north held certain deities in higher regard. Freyr was particularly revered in Sweden.
As one can see, it is not only possible to find evidentiary support of Odin having lived on in seasonal customs, it may be even easier to find support for Yule customs originating in the cult of Freyr.
Chris Pinard (author) from Alaska, USA on December 22, 2017:
Thank you for your comment. I always love reading messages from readers, especially fellow authors. Your article sounds like it will be wonderful. I look forward to reading it.
Kitty Fields from Summerland on December 22, 2017:
LOVED this. I learned something new about a holiday that I study extensively. As I was reading, I was hoping you'd mention the Perchten and Perchta...and when I came to the part where you did mention it, I smiled. Great article! I am writing one similar but will delve into the Christmas Witches...one being Berchta (Perchta) and La Befana. The custom of leaving offerings on the rooftop for Berchta and leaving offerings for La Befana so that when they pass by homes during the christmas season they will bless those living there sure sounds a LOT like leaving cookies and milk for Santa, doesn't it? Christmas and the Santa figure aren't based on just one custom or mythological figure...they are an amalgamation of many. Thanks for this, following from now on!