How would Kol and Thorbrand celebrate Yule?

yule

Gleðileg Jól

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:

An Icelandic article about the Yuletide Lads

A nice informal Icelandic website about Yule

Recipes for Icelandic Yule foods from the site above

A more detailed recipe for laufabrauð

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The Cover Art For Seidman!

The cover art for Seidman has just been released and it’s beautiful! The artist is Anne Cain and she’s managed to create a striking image that’s simple, memorable, and intense.  There have, of course, been other books about Vikings with Thor’s hammers on the cover, but Anne created a richly layered image with runes fading in and out and a beautiful use of light and shadow.  It really blows me away.

This weekend marks the end of editing.  I’ve received the galley proof, which is a PDF copy of the entire novel, including all of the forewords and afterwards and dedications, and even some ads for other Harmony Ink releases at the end.  The only thing that isn’t in final format is this cover, which didn’t arrive in my inbox until a couple hours ago, and a map I created of Viking Age Scandinavia.

The map was something I’d been working on for a while, but since it wasn’t done when the editors wanted it, I gave up and figured I’d just have to settle for putting it up on my blog.  Fortunately, the editors contacted me and asked me if I still planned on having a map, so I was able to polish it up and send it to them this weekend.  They say it looks all right, so it will be included!

NOTE:  You may have noticed that I’m now calling it Seidman, instead of Seiðman.  This was a decision my publisher and I came to recently (I was actually the one who suggested it), because it just didn’t make sense to call the novel something people couldn’t type without having to look up an extended ASCII code.  How would anybody know what to search for on Amazon?  Inside the novel, we’ve kept the Old Icelandic words as they were, but the title is now easier to remember and spell.

As far as I know, Seidman is on track to be released in mid-June!  This is going to be great!

Skyr

Vanilla Skyr

Skyr is a popular yogurt-like substance made in Iceland that has been part of the Icelandic diet since it was settled around 870 C.E.  I’ve written about it in several stories, including Seiðman, but until this week I’d never actually tasted it.

I tried and failed to acquire some from a local market, which claimed to carry it (but lied), but finally my friend Claire picked some up in Maine and brought it over for me.  Now at last, I know what it actually tastes like!

I have to say, I was a little disappointed.  Not because it tasted bad.  It tasted fine.  But I was hoping for something unusual and what I got was something that tastes exactly like Greek yogurt to me.  If you can’t find skyr locally, go to the supermarket and pick up some plain Greek yogurt (which is easy to find, these days) and you’ll pretty much know what skyr tastes like.  It’s thicker and creamier than American yogurt.

On the plus side, my descriptions of it weren’t wrong.  We don’t know for certain whether it was exactly the same in the Viking Age as it is in Iceland today, but it probably wasn’t radically different.  They make it with skim milk today, and it would have been made with whole milk in the past, of course.  Icelanders often mixed it with porridge to make something called hræringur (“stirred”) or ate it with cream and sugar on it.  I gather that they still do, but now they add fruit to it, just like we do with our yogurt.

Also, it’s good to know that there is something in the Viking Age I would have been able to eat without wanting to hurl.  The Viking Age Icelandic diet consisted of delicious items such as whale meat fermented in whale urine, beef fermented in whey until it practically disintegrated, and lichen.  Mmm….