swedish pagan christmas. swedish christmas #3

You see the title of this text and your eyes open wide or you frown your forehead? Before Christianity, German folks had their own traditions, performed around the third week of December, which simply underwent Christianised reformulation. Or... did they? Swedes still call their Christmas celebration without words "holiday", "birth" or "God". In that area they follow the traditions of their ancestors, which have something to do with Polish best export product, "The Witcher". How cool is that!

Peter Nicolai Arbo, Asgårdsreien, 1872, source: en.wikipedia.org

Peter Nicolai Arbo, Asgårdsreien, 1872, source: en.wikipedia.org

For the etymology freaks

We are used to hearing connections with Chritmas, God or being born in Christmas wishes. Meanwhile, Swedes would wish you God Jul. God is easy to rozszyfrowania, but what is this Jul? Yule or Yuletiden (Yule time) was a festive time, common among Germanic people. The etymology of the word can be traced from Indo-European roots and then it varieted in Germanic languages.

  • Old English: ġéol, ġéohol, ġéola or ġéoli

  • common Germanic: *jeχʷla-

  • Gothic: (fruma) jiuleis

  • Old Norse, Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian Nynorsk: jól, jol, ýlir

  • Danish, Swedish, Norwegian Bokmål: jul

  • Finnish: joulu

  • Friesian: joelfest

  • Dutch: joelfeest

  • Estonian: jõulud

First of the Old English words, ġéol and ġéohol, refer to a festival called Yule, which lasted for 12 days. Géola or ġéoli indicated the month of Yule, which also had it variations (ǽrra ġéola as the period before Yule – December – and æftera ġéola as the period after Yule – January). The use of noun Yuletide is dated around 1475. In order to avoid informational chaos and scarring you away, here I focus on Nordic/Scandinavian traditions, putting English/French/Germanic ones aside. So let's start with the father of all, Odin. Yuletiden is strongly connected with him. One of his names in Old Norse was jólfaðr (Yule father) and jólnir (the Yule one) – those names make you wanna study Icelandic, right? Odin has two ravens, Huginn and Muninn and the former one is preserved in an expression hugins jól / Huginn's Yule, which meant „a raven's feast”. This way the word Yule became a synonym of a feast. The Old Norse knew two forms of the Yule word, ýlir as a name of a month and jól as a name of the event.

Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, Wodan's Wild Hunt, 1882, source: en.wikipedia.org

Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, Wodan's Wild Hunt, 1882, source: en.wikipedia.org


Celebration of Yule was connected with celebration of Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession in the winter sky. The Hunt is led by Odin. It is a time of an increased activity of creatures, which you can find nowadays in Skyrim, draugar (I hated those sons of @#$%#@! They were always so creepy and hard to kill!). Besides them as huntsmen, under the command of Odin one can find other deadly creatures as fairies or elves (okay, I wouldn't like to combat Haldir, but Tinker Bell?). Some variations on the story of Wild Hunt puts on the leading position not necessarily a mythical god. It could be Theodoric the Great, Valdemar Atterdag, Gwyn ap Nudd, Herod, Cain, Gabriel or Devil. Seeing the Wild Hunt was a sign of change in the weather, a catastrophe, war, plague ot death to the witness (of course, if the witness had not been kidnapped by draugar or fairies). Other Scandinavian names for the Wild Hunt would be Swedish Odens jakt (the hunt of Odin) or Norwegian Oskoreia (Noisy Riders) or Asgårdsreia (the ride of Asgard).

Odin's hunt was heard but rather not seen. It could be identified by barking of god's dogs. One of them was barking louder, the other one fainter. Maybe one could trace also a sound of a shot. Sometimes a witness of Odin's hunt reported, that the forests were turning silent, so the only sound that could be heard was whining and barking. When the dogs got tired, Odin was replacing them with large birds. In the moment of need, he transformed a bevy of sparrows into an armed host. Odin valued traditions – if he had one road for the hunt, he would burn the houses which were built on his track.

August Malmström, Odin continued to hunt in Swedish folklore, source: en.wikipedia.org

August Malmström, Odin continued to hunt in Swedish folklore, source: en.wikipedia.org

Odin and Andrzej Sapkowski

Could one be safe from Odin on the night of the Wild Hunt? Well... The folks' traditions could be helpful. Accodring to one of them, Odin was not travelling further up than an ox wears his yoke. So when a person hears the hunt, he or she should lie on the ground, which grow into a popular belief, that lying is safer than standing during a storm and prevents from being hit by lightning strikes. You don't feel like getting dirty? People from Småland have another solution. They (especially inhabitants of Älghult) suggest to carry a piece of bread and piece of steel on the way to the church and back on the Yule night. Steel is to be used against a rider, bread is... a bait for the dogs. Why not meat, you might ask? Since when dogs are in fond of bread? Or maybe dogs in Småland are fed with it and live long and happy? As I see a patern of me insulting new group of people in every other text, here comes the continuation of the tradition and I'll just say, that people from Småland are known for their thrift. Bread is cheaper than meat, I am just not sure if more efficient.

Something like Wild Hunt has inspired numerous artists and bands. Through this text you might have spotted some paintings, now let's move on to music. Wild Hunt, Odin, death, Scandinavia... This leads us to metal bands, of course. Okay, not only, so I may mention classical music. Franz Liszt, Karl Maria von Weber and Arnold Schönberg created operas inspired by the Wild Hunt. Black metal band Watain (Swedish, of course) released an album The Wild Hunt in 2013 with a song of the same title. Poles also integrated with the Wild Hunt – Andrzej Sapkowski, to be precise, featured the Wild Hunt in his series of fantasy novels in The Witcher. And as we mention Sapkowski, of course we cannot miss the video game based on his work. The third part of the Witcher was released under a title The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Back to Sankta Lucia

Sankta Lucia, remember her? When I was preparing texts about her, I was thinking why her from all Christians traditions implemented so well in Sweden and was preserved in the times of reformation. The reason of celebrating the light associated with this saint still makes sense, but there might be another cause, not excluding the first one. Sankta Lucia, as well as Yule, are based on the fight with darkness and its forces, as before Georgian calendar was introduced in Sweden, those two events were overlapping each other. Nordic people were celebrating Yule when a female being with evil traits was riding through the air with her followers. The female being was called... Lussi. Her ride called Lussiferda took place one day before Yule. As in the Wild Hunt, evil spirits and trolls could enter the human world (looks like Odin and Lussi divided all the evil creatures available into two teams. I can see Odin calling on the fairies first). However, Lussi served for other purposes than participants of the Wild Hunt. She was the one to bring the gifts to the good children. The bad ones were taken away by Lussi, who entered the house through chimney. This led to a tradition of Lussivaka, staying awake on Lussi Night and guarding oneself against evil.

Swedish Christmas Traditions!

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