Though the earliest recorded feast celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th dates back to the fourth century A.D., the celebration of Christmas didn’t really take hold until the Middle Ages, after the end of the Viking Age in Europe. However, at the time Seidman takes place (995 A.D. – 1000 A.D.), Viking Age Iceland had been celebrating the tradition of Yule or Jól for several centuries. Nobody knows how far back the tradition goes, but certainly it dates back to before the 6th century. (Not in Iceland specifically — Iceland wasn’t settled until 870 A.D — but it was brought there by settlers.) Also, there are various speculations about the meaning of the word Jól (and it’s variants), but nobody really knows what it meant. Some people say it’s derived from a word meaning “wheel,” as in the “wheel of the year,” though I don’t think there’s any real proof of that.
It is from the Norse cultures that we get the tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Yule lasted from the winter solstice (roughly the 21st of December) through the beginning of January. In modern Iceland, it goes from Christmas to January 6th, but I believe that’s more modern.*
During this time, the Icelanders feasted and drank — a lot. In the Sagas, there are several mentions of “drinking Yule.” And yes, Kol and Thorbrand would have been able to drink alcohol. In a country and time when it wasn’t uncommon to be married by 15 or 16, nobody stopped a teenager from quaffing ale along with the rest of the family. Bees are not native to Iceland, so honey would have been imported. Likewise, the honey-based mead popular in other Norse regions (though generally among the wealthy) would have been imported, so the most common alcoholic beverage would have been ale, made from fermented grain.
The most common meats would have been mutton and pork, with a bit of beef thrown in. During Yule, a boar would be sacrificed to the god, Freyr, for prosperity over the coming year. Norsemen would place their hands on the boar before the sacrifice and make solemn pledges about what they intended to accomplish over the next year, so that the animal’s spirit could take their promises up to the god when it was slain. These were very serious oaths and to break them would offend the god. The animal would then have its head carried into the hall ceremoniously, and the rest of it would be carved up or stewed for the feast.
There would of course also be plenty of singing. The Icelanders cherished good singers and good storytellers, who made those long, dark winter nights more bearable. At this time of year, the sun rises around 11:30 a.m. and sets just a few hours later.
The tradition of wassailing — going door-to-door and singing for free food and drink — began at least a few hundred years before Kol’s time, but it probably wouldn’t have been popular in a country where the farmsteads were fairly isolated in the winter. I grew up in New England and we had cars, but we were still disinclined to travel very far in midwinter. People did visit, of course (we’re back in Iceland now), and when they did they probably stayed a few days. Another tradition that may have been around in Kol’s time would have been that of the Yule Goat, a straw figure of a goat made from the last sheaves of the harvest and possibly derived from Thor’s goats, Tanngrisnir (“Teeth-barer”) and Tanngnjóstr (“Teeth-grinder”). It was brought from house to house to bless the people who lived there. But as with wassailing, I’m skeptical about this “house to house” thing in the dead of winter.
Thorbrand’s family might very well have had a Yule Log, though. Trees didn’t grow very tall in Iceland, but there certainly were trees. So the custom of bringing one into the longhouse, more or less whole, to keep feeding into the hearth fire for as long as it would burn may have been part of the Yule celebration.
One Icelandic Yule tradition that was most likely not part of Kol and Thorbrand’s Yule, because it doesn’t date back before the 17th century, is that of the Yuletide Lads (Jólasveinar). I mention them because they’re such an interesting Icelandic tradition. The Yuletide Lads are the sons of two ogres, Grýla and Leppalúði, who appear in folklore as far back as the 13th century. These two ogres devoured bad children, so Icelandic parents used them to frighten their kids into behaving. The Yuletide Lads were similarly used to frighten children in the old days, but by now they’ve come to be known as fairly harmless pranksters, causing mischief but not doing any real harm.
They each arrive on a different day of the Yule season and hang around the household for about twelve days. They are often accompanied by the Yuletide Cat, a large beast who has the odd habit of devouring children and servants who haven’t received a new set of clothes for Yule — because if they were good, they would have gotten a present of new clothes from their parents or masters.
I’ve taken the liberty of swiping this handy table from a Wikipedia article with only slight modifications. It lists the most common names of the Yuletide Lads (taken from a popular poem called Jólasveinarnir, written in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum):
|Icelandic Name||English translation||Description||Arrival||Departure|
|Stekkjastaur||Sheep-Cote Clod||Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.||December 12||December 25|
|Giljagaur||Gully Gawk||Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.||December 13||December 26|
|Stúfur||Stubby||Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.||December 14||December 27|
|Þvörusleikir||Spoon-Licker||Steals Þvörur (wooden spoons with long handles) to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.||December 15||December 28|
|Pottaskefill||Pot-Scraper||Steals leftovers from pots.||December 16||December 29|
|Askasleikir||Bowl-Licker||Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their askur (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.||December 17||December 30|
|Hurðaskellir||Door-Slammer||Likes to slam doors, especially during the night.||December 18||December 31|
|Skyrgámur||Skyr-Gobbler||A Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr (an Icelandic food similar to yogurt. I wrote more about it here).||December 19||January 1|
|Bjúgnakrækir||Sausage-Swiper||Would hide in the rafters and snatch sausages that were being smoked.||December 20||January 2|
|Gluggagægir||Window-Peeper||A voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal.||December 21||January 3|
|Gáttaþefur||Doorway-Sniffer||Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð (“leaf bread”).||December 22||January 4|
|Ketkrókur||Meat-Hook||Uses a hook to steal meat.||December 23||January 5|
|Kertasníkir||Candle-Stealer||Follows children in order to steal their candles (which in those days was made of tallow and thus edible).||December 24||January 6|
So, as they say in Iceland: Gleðileg Jól (“Happy Yule!”)
*NOTE: If you’re getting the impression that I’m winging it…well, let’s just say I didn’t have time to dig up too many sources, so this article is mostly from memory, with tidbits from a few easily accessible websites thrown in. If you find any inaccuracies, feel free to send me a note. 🙂
Some interesting links: