Have a Merry Viking Christmas

Dec 5, 2013 by

Tis the time of year to have a very Merry VIKING Christmas!

Long before Santa Claus first drove his sleigh with eight tiny reindeer, his Viking ancestor, Jólnir, was flying through the wintry Scandinavian night on his eight-legged steed, bringing bread to people in need.




It’s true, beautiful Celtic people–Santa used to be a Viking– a Viking god, no less–and the earliest Christmas was a Viking Christmas.

The origins of our modern Christmas icons can be traced back to pre-Christian times, when the pagan people of northern Germanic and Scandinavia held feasts in honor of Odin, the warrior god of Norse myth, who also bears the names jólfaðr (Old Norse ‘Yule father’) and jólnir (Old Norse ‘the Yule one’).  When Vikings began to first raid, then settle in England, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales, they brought their Yule traditions with them, and those customs were adopted by the native Celtic peoples, many of whom married and raised families with the Vikings (and that is how many of us Celts wound up with Scandinavian DNA in our family trees). Those adaptations are why you often hear Christmas referred to as Yule or Yuletide in the Celtic countries, and it is where we get our Yule log and yule ham (which used to be a boar sacrificed to Freyr) traditions.

In Scandinavian culture, Yule, as the celebration held at the winter solstice became known, was the time for Odin/Jólnir to drive back the Frost Giants and to lead the Wild Hunt across the skies, cursing those who mocked and rewarding respectful observers with gold. Odin also demonstrated benevolent qualities at Yule, disguising himself in a blue cloak and riding eight-legged Sleipnir to earth, where he left loaves of bread for anyone in need. At Viking Christmas time, children began to leave a straw-filled boot for Sleipnir by the hearth, hoping Odin would reward them with a treat placed in the boot. Sound familiar?

Of course, the advance of Christianity changed the way in which Yule was celebrated–as even Viking leaders began to convert, Christmas was substituted for Yule in the halls of kings and homes of more humble Northmen and Celts.  The Svarfdæla saga records a story in which a berserker put off a duel until three days after Yule to honor the sanctity of the holiday.

Grettis (Grettir’s) Saga is set soon after Iceland converted to Christianity and identifies Yule with Christmas:

“No Christian man is wont to eat meat this day [Yule Eve], because that on the morrow is the first day of Yule,”

says she, “wherefore must men first fast today.”

The Story of Grettir The Strong, Chapter XXXII, translated by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris.


Jólnir, the grey-bearded Giftbringer, also fell out of favor at Yule, giving way to Father Christmas, then Saint Nicholas and ultimately, Santa Claus. Bye, bye, Viking Christmas, hello commercial holiday.

The links between Jólnir and our modern Santa, however, are still evident:  both have grey beards; both ride through the sky at night (in North America, the horse has become reindeer);  both wear cloaks, although Santa’s is usually red, not blue (thank you, Coca Cola marketing execs, for cementing that image in our minds) ; both leave gifts at the hearth, though the boots are now stockings, and the candy and food has been replaced mostly with toys, again thanks to marketing execs and credit card companies-there’s not nearly enough profit in food gifts, you know.



So, as you pass Santa in the street, or sit on his lap, or stare at his image everywhere (it seems), think on this pagan variation of the famous poem from Clement Moore, A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (aka”Twas the Night Before Christmas”):

A Viking-Asatru Christmas Carol

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the Hall
Not a creature was stirring, not warrior nor thrall.
And I in my armor, my greaves and my helm
Was drunker than anyone else in the Realm.

I staggered upstairs and fell into bed
While four quarts of mead were ablaze in my head.
Then up from below came the sounds of a brawl
So I grabbed up my axe and ran down to the Hall.

I missed the last step and crashed down in a heap
Thinking, “Why can’t those low-lifes downstairs go to sleep!”
When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But two brawny strangers, wielding mallet and spear.

I said to myself, “We’ll soon have them beat!”
Then I noticed ten warriors laid out at their feet.
I gave out a yell and leapt into the fray…
I’ll always regret my poor choice of that day.

For the one laid his hammer to the side of my nose
And up, up, up to the rafters I rose.
Then came a lone frightened voice from the floor,
“Those are no mortal warriors — that’s Odin and Thor!”

Then they looked at each other and they said, “Battle’s done.
Now they know who we are, it no longer is fun.”
Then Thor raised his hammer, and his elbow he bent,
And with a loud crash, through the ceiling they went.

I crawled through the Hall and flung open the door,
Not really sure that I’d seen them before.
The snow bathed in starlight, the moon like a glede,
I saw them ride off on an eight-legged steed.

And I heard them exclaim, ‘ere they flew out of sight,

author unknown

Have A Very Merry Viking Christmas, Y’all!


~As an aside: our image of Santa today is based mostly on the drawings created in the 1860’s by political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who was quite “nast-y” about some Celts–he despised the Irish, Catholics and Irish immigrants in America, a racial bias he flaunted in his cartoons depicting Irish people as ape-like and stupid.

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  1. Paula

    Thank you loved this I so love myths and legends

  2. Pye O'Malley

    Thank you for sharing my blog post about Odin and Santa. You have a lovely blog site and it looks like you are on the trip of a lifetime. 🙂


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