Now I know that there’s a lot of cynicism about Christmas. Due mainly to the massive commercialisation of the whole thing; due to the fact that not many of us are Christians anymore, as it reduces itself bit by bit to the status of a weird cult that got big in the last centuries of that milennium and all that.
But, well, I for one am completely for it. Yes, I love Christmas. And I’m going to tell you why what we celebrate is only partly the whole jesus-in-a-manger thing.
I stumbled by accident recently on a long-haired beardy bloke somewhere cold-looking who declared that he was a viking and who went on to explain how much Christmas was actually a largely viking invention. And in fact what we think of as Christmas and as purely a Christian party is to a large part the Viking Winter Solstic Festival. Which led me to do a bit of googling, and here’s what I came up with.
- Yule is the name the Vikings give to their winter solstice festival. As you know, Yule is a name that is used a lot around the world as another name for Christmas. I always thought it was nothing more than that: just another word for Christmas.
- In the winter in the north it was cold, damn cold, and, well, pretty dark. So the deep midwinter, when the sun took a turn and started coming back to us; when the days started becoming longer, and we knew we had weathered the worst of it, and that we were heading back to summer, seemed a really good moment to have a fuckoff big party with all your friends, relatives and neighbours and spend 12 days eating and drinking and, yes, exchanging gifts.
- Did you say 12 days? Yes, 12 days, the same 12 days as in the Christmas carol. The Christians just say that they decided on 12 days, one each to honour various saints and so on, but guess what? Yup, the good old Vikings had been having a 12-day bottoms-up for the last x thousands of years. Good on them.
- Odin was seen as an old wise bloke with a long beard who wore a funny hat and a cloak. Often seen with a sack over his shoulder. Sound a bit like Gandalf? Well that’s where Mr Tolkien got his inspiration, innit. Odin had a horse (called Seipnir) with eight legs. Count ’em! (And Father Christmas was earlier often depicted as riding in on a large white horse too). In Viking villages, children were encouraged to fill their boots with straw and leave them out so that Seipnir could have a bit of a nosh, and in return Odin would apparently replace the straw with candies and fruit to say ta. Sound vaguely familiar?
- Santa and his elves – Odin was said to live in the frozen north and was the master of the kingdom of elves, who would help him do stuff. Santa…elves…frozen north…beard…hmmm….
- Presents. Like I said above, part of the festivities would involve exchanging presents with neighbours, friends, relatives.
- Sacrifices: To guarantee, or at least encourage, a good crop in the next growing season, the Vikings would sacrifice a boar to Odin and eat it. Which is why in Scandinavia they eat not goose or turkey on Christmas, but a big ham.
- Christmas trees – the evergreen tree, staying green throughout the winter, was seen as proof of life going on. The Vikings decorated evergreen trees with pieces of food and clothes, small statues of the Gods, carved runes, etc., to entice the tree spirits to come back in the spring.
- Holly was seen as a holy plant with magical properties which would encourage rebirth and life.
- Wreaths – Vikings would use holly leaves and berries to make into circular wreaths, which would then be used to decorate their houses during the Yule festival. The Holly formed into a circular wreath was to illustrate the yearly cycle, that winter flows in to summer and back to winter. However the Vikings apparently took what they called the Sun Wheel and rolled it down the hillside on fire. Quite how that works into the whole thing I’m not sure, but remember they’ve been getting pissed for 12 days by now so most things probably make sense at this point.
- Goats: Some of us still stick little straw goats on our Christmas trees. Thor, the god of thunder, would apparently ride around in the sky in a sleigh-type vehicle pulled by goats. And the Yule goat was, in some traditions, the one who brought presents in the night. I guess reindeer are cuter though. Goats are a bit, you know, devillish. Don’t want any of that thank you very much. Reindeer. Yeah, that’ll work.
So there you go. There’s probably more, but I’ve got to go and drink, open presents and set flailing wreaths on fire. Sure the neighbours won’t mind.
And now, see, it’s cool to celebrate Christmas, even if you’re not big on the Christian vibe, or on reindeers, or on everyone giving each other presents and getting pissed. Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound like fun to you?
Anyway, happy Christmas, happy Yule, happy Dawali, whatever. Just be happy.
Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a ‘recovering musician’, he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.