And a Glædelig Jul (glay-deh-lee yool) to you!
God jul! It’s that time of year. It technically started on Sunday, December 13th. Let’s dive in!
You know that story of the 12 days of Christmas? That’s where it came from! Sort of. It was older than that for sure. Definitely–considering it’s over a thousand years old haha talk about some really good history.
1. It’s a Pagan holiday called Jul (or Yule in English).
Nordic Christmas roots go into the pagan holiday of Yule, a days-long feast that was perhaps the most important celebration of the year, the winter solstice. Yule was important for several reasons: it gave farmers something to do at the time when field works were over; it lifted spirits during the toughest time of the year, when sickness and cold temperatures often claimed easy victims; and it defied the forces of evil that lurked in the dark, giving hope to people in surviving the long Scandinavian winter still ahead.
People often wonder why such a cold dark place thrives economically, and a lot of it is the different cultures that make the Nordics are used to working together, because of this. If they simply did not help one another, they would not survive the winter.
***In Norwegian culture, there is even a word for this: Dugnad. Norwegians are famous for working hard and Dugnad means to get together just to help the whole community out and work together. There is usually a huge meal at the end though so it’s totally worth it!
Held around the same dates in late December, Yule went through a process of Christianization around the 9th century AD when, with the efforts of missionaries, it started shaping into the holiday we know today. Christmas in the Nordics is still referred to by its pagan name: Jul in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark; Jól in Iceland; and Joulu in Finland.
2. Christmas isn’t necessarily on the 25th. It’s celebrated much earlier in the month!
In most Nordic countries, the weeks-long Christmas celebration kicks off on December 13th. This tradition of starting early, particularly strong in Sweden, is also observed in Norway, Finland, and Denmark–called Saint Lucia Day in honor of a 4th-century martyr from Syracuse, the day begins with young girls wearing a wreath of long white candles on their heads (nowadays, the candles are safely made with plastic) and treating the rest of the family to special saffron-flavored lussekater buns.
In Iceland, the festivities start even earlier—on the first Advent Sunday. That’s when the decades-old annual lighting of the Oslo Christmas tree, gifted to the city of Reykjavík by its Norwegian neighbor, occurs at Austurvöllur Square. The long-awaited event gathers thousands, but it is particularly anticipated by families with small children.
3. Jul is 13 days long.
It is not uncommon in the Nordics to get two weeks—from December 24 to January 6—off from work for Christmas. Across the region, festivities last all the way to January 6, the day of the Epiphany, also called the Day of The Three Kings. The day is celebrated across the Christian world as the time when the three Magi came bearing gifts to visit baby Jesus, but in the Nordics, it marks the end of Christmas celebrations. In many homes, the Christmas tree is kept until then to keep the spirit going.
Norway is known for farming some of the world’s finest Christmas trees and actually gifts the biggest one each year to England as they helped them fight off the Nazis during WWII. Every year it stands majestically in Oxford Street in London for the holiday season, decorated immaculately, and really brings that sense of spirit.
We know how to party.
4. Gifts come before Christmas too!.
In just about every Nordic nation’s culture, a mythical creature starts visiting homes 12 days before Christmas. Right before bedtime, kids leave slippers on a windowsill, and the next morning they are full of gifts from a nightly visitor! Goodies entail candy, cookies, and little toys.
Nisse is the name in Norway and Denmark, but in Sweden this character is called Tomte. He’s a well-intentioned gnome with a white beard, pointed red knitted hat and causes silly trouble when he can. There are quite a few artistic renditions of him along with handmade sculptures by local artists from all around Sweden.
Nisse and Tomte eventually turned to “Santa Claus”. However, he is originally supposed to be from Greenland–not the North Pole. Greenland basically is the North Pole in my opinon haha.
5. Santa Claus was originally used to scare kids.
It’s not exactly the Coca Cola version with rosy cheeks you know today. Grýla is an ogress with two horns and hooves for feet, a huge nose, and a wart-covered face. She lives in the mountain and comes Christmastime to sneak around villages looking for delicious children to eat. Her children are the 14 Yule Lads who report to her on which children have been naughty. Definitely makes more sense than a guy who wears both suspenders and a belt.
6. The Smörgåsbord is real.
At offices and schools, a Christmas-themed party is held called a julebord in Norwegian, julbord in Sweden, julefrokost in Denmark, and Pikkujoulu in Finland. It literally means Christmas table. The idea is the same for all the nations: a Christmas buffet with tons of food and alcohol to get through the dark long winter and lift everyone’s spirits.
Many restaurants and even hotels offer julbord menus for the legendary extravaganzas and homemade fennel snaps and Aquavit. There’s a huge Christmas ham called julskinka and the tradition goes back to the Dark Ages. Back then, it was customary to leave food outside for hte poor to take part in the holiday feast. It’s also much bigger than Thanksgiving. (My husband is from England and Thanksgiving food is pretty much just a traditional English meal.)
7. Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day.
Vikings believed that a new day begins when the sun goes down on the previous day. This belief could have influenced the Nordic tradition to celebrate on Christmas Eve. After the Christmas tree was decorated, and kids were done pranking for a bit, and evil spirits warded off, the evening turned to Christmas dinnertime. Traditional foods include Christmas ham, liver patés, and pork sausages.
Christmas Day is reserved for visiting family. The day after is called Boxing Day, when the queen, and citizens would box food and hand out Christmas leftovers to the less fortunate.