Jul or Yule is a common Nordic and old English name for the great heathen party that was celebrating winter solstice and thus survived the Christian Christmas. Despite people were converted a thousand years ago, many folklore traditions connected to the old Yule survived this transition thanks to geographical distances and deeply embedded cultural practices. They even live to this day, which is why Norwegians still use the word “Jul”! Let’s take a look on the Norwegian Yule folklore:
St. Lucia and the start of Jul
13th of December is recognized to be the start of the Nordic Jul, and that came before the Catholic martyr St. Lucia was placed upon the day of Lussi, an old Norse vette or wight creature. She existed in the Norse and old Germanic world but was considerably more dark and dangerous in the Nordics. On 13th of December Lussi dropped by every farm to inspect that everything was in order; all heavy work such as threshing and spinning yarn were done so that baking, cooking and brewing could start. Children had to be inside when it was dark as ghosts, spirits and other dangerous creatures were out at night. If she wasn’t respected as a guest, she could easily smash the chimney in pure anger. Today the Catholic saint is the one being remembered to 13th of December, and not Lussi. Despite Nordics are protestant countries, it is still normal to have light processions in schools, kindergarten and public events in the medieval style where a girl walks in front with a crown of candles dressed in white, followed by other white-dressed children with candles. Usually they give away Lucia buns, a sweet pastry made with saffron. The day is more significant in Sweden than in Norway today.
He is a small, old fellow with beard, gray clothes, wooden shoes and a red beanie. He has nothing to do with the original Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, although today they are often mixed as Norwegian use Nisse for both of them. That’s because Nisse stems from the Danish name Nils, which again is a Nordic version of the German name Nikolaus.
Nissen lives in the barn all year around, and in Norway he renamed the old “garðvǫrðr/ gardvord” or “rudkallen, the first famer on that farm”. These were “Vetter,” supernatural creatures or spirits that lived on the farm grounds and made sure everything went well for the owners — if you were kind to them and made them offerings. If you got on the wrong side with them, they caused havoc and hurt animals and people. The Nisse was a Vette, and he was believed to stay around and pay attention to what was happening, and sometimes you could see him. He was decisive, whimsical and with lots of temper, so it was for the best to be friends with him. That meant offerings and gifts, and it was especially important to give him a portion of rice porridge with butter at Christmas Eve, so he would help in the barn for the next year. Usually he was alone, but in some stories he also had a family. Despite this, he could do all kinds of work for both genders. In Northern Norway he could even fish and sail!
Protestant priests tried to link Nissen to heathen beliefs and remnants of old Catholic faith and therefore evil, demonic and false religion. Luckily he survived in the folk tales, and from the 19th century the Nisse got more connected to Christmas, and was used in postcards, illustrations and figurines. Even to this day you will find Nisse in most Norwegian homes and he could still be given a portion of rice porridge with butter.
Julereia and the most magical night of the year
The Christmas Night, between the 24th and 25th of December were believed to be the most dangerous and magical nights of the year. All kinds of supernatural spirits were out and about that night, often the most vicious ones such as kidnapping creatures like Huldra, “underjordiske” (creatures that lived underground), human murderers, immoral women, drunkards, Norse Gods and worse. Everywhere they came they created chaos, violence and bad warnings. They ate the food, drank the Yule ale, and made your animals sick. If you were out after dark that day, one could risk to have ones soul kidnapped while the body were left alone. The only way to protect from this, was to lie down in a cross and scream the name of God. If your soul was kidnapped, someone had to call your name at earth to get you back. If nobody did so, you would be found again far away or your body would be lifeless until your soul was given back. This group of supernatural beings have many names, such as Julereia (Yule riders) or Åsgårdsreia from old Norse beliefs. To protect oneself from such terrors, it was important to cross important belongings days before. Crosses was painted or carved on doors, houses, beer, food, tools and even your animals. Usually these crosses had to stand there thirteen or fourteen days after Christmas, when the danger was over.
The Christmas night was not just this, but also in remembrance of dead relatives. One should leave Christmas food for them, and even an empty bed in case they came for a visit. This despite you could risk that Julereia ate all the food. To keep the family safe from evil spirits, one gathered them all inside and covered the floor with hay which was a custom since Norse times. The men were lying and drinking while children were jumping around, playing until they fell asleep. Until late 1700’s one usually had a “Maria toast” to celebrate the start of the Christmas midnight. In Telemark and other places it was also common to have a wake night with special made big candles, “jolevake”. Those who were to sit up at night usually took a nap after the Christmas bath (“laugen”)was done, and were awoken by the wife of the house when the Christmas dinner was ready around midnight. After that, everyone else went to bed while the awake sat up all night to keep the light in the fire and the Christmas candle burning. Also of course, to keep Julereia away. But if one was daring enough, going out at twelve o’clock at midnight could make one experience the weirdest of things. All rivers and waters would turn into wine, like after the story of Jesus in Kana. If you filled buckets of this water it worked like a health potion. Animals would also be able to talk, as they were actually born with this capability but due to Adam and Eve’s sin, animals lost the ability to talk all days of the year except Christmas midnight. All kinds of creatures were out and about, and they could give you whatever you wanted if you first endured some mental torture by lying on the ground at crossed roads for a while.
The evil and good
Yule were in the end about protecting oneself from the evil by keeping together. Catholic Christianity were mixed into this by using it’s prayers or which replaced the heathen rituals, but people did not seem to mind that they were mixing these things at all, and traditions lived long after the Reformation. Traditions seems to be the same all over the country, with small varieties. Even among Sami and Kven (Finnish minority in Northern Norway) it was the same superstitions about warnings and the fear of dark magic. At New Years eve no one had to go outside and look through the window as you could see who would die in the upcoming year, according to sea Sami in Kvænangen. Many places like Lyngen in Troms also had the Julebukk / juovlastállu, where adults and children dressed up in costumes and walked around in the village. The leading costume was a person dressed in a sack with twigs and goat hair. Other places one knocked on doors and ask if Julebukken or the Christmas ram was home. If the answer was no, one went to the next house and were given candies if the goat indeed had come home for Christmas. Singing songs or dressing up as Nisse was also common, much like the American Halloween tradition of Trick and treat.
With all these superstitious, rituals and beliefs it is no wonder that the Nordic and Norwegian Christmas may seem different from other places in the world.
Store Norske Leksikon/ Luciadagen, Jul, Julenatt, Vetter