It seems, to me, that the ‘spirit of Christmas’ has an origin in Norse and Viking customs and attitudes that took place during the winter.
By ‘spirit of Christmas’ I mean a generalized hopefulness and optimism which appeared during the winter season. This would later be Christianized which would add many Christian qualities, virtues, and traits, such as the idea of love and charity. But, underneath all this is the original sense of hopefulness and optimism which predates Christianity.
THE “DEATH OF WINTER” AND THE ANTICIPATION OF SUMMER
Winter is a time of death. Crops can’t grow. There’s no leaves on the trees. Many animals hibernate or migrate somewhere else. Snow covers the ground. Ice covers the lakes. One lived on what one collected, and grew, during the summer months. The cattle were kept indoors as they would die if left out side. Everyone had to live in a robust insulated home. Ones time was primarily spent indoors. In many ways, life came to a halt in the “death of winter”. In many Viking sagas, and accounts, there is usually a gap during the winter. In many accounts it says things such as ” . . . and he stayed for the winter” and nothing else is said about what he did during the winter. This is probably because there was nothing to write during winter as nothing happened. War stopped. Politics stopped. Socializing stopped. Trade stopped. There’s no cultivating crops. There’s no grazing of animals. Because of this, many Viking accounts are only describing what took place during the summer months of the year and, as a result, are only giving us a small account of actual life. In many ways, the people, and culture, went into hibernation during the “death of winter”.
This hibernation, probably, would instill a great sense of winter as the season of death for the Norse and Viking culture. Accordingly, there would become a great concern for the “death of winter” to end as well as the coming of summer. This fact is even seen in Norse mythology. It is stated that the gods will die when there are three winters in a row (that is, the crops of summer never return). This shows a number of interesting associations:
- That winter is a death (three winters is a perpetual death).
- That summer not returning is a death (hence, the importance of the return of summer with its crops).
- That the seasons are associated with the gods (the continuing of the “death of winter”, and the absence of summer, means the gods will die).
In this way, we see that winter is associated with death which is associated with the gods. Because of this, winter would greatly be associated with the Divine and the “mystery of life”. Because of this, it has become a great symbolic time of the year. In a sense, this association made the winter season a very symbolic time of the year for the Vikings and Norse as well as the most mysterious aspect of life. This attitude, it seems to me, would be passed down to the ‘spirit of Christmas’. It would greatly affect the celebration of the birth of Christ making it associated with the birth of life, so to speak, which is the a mystery, and of hope.
The worry over the returning crop – “guaranteeing the return”
When one lives in nature there often becomes a fear or worry if something disappears, such as the seasons or crops, and that it will not return again. As a result, there became many means of “guaranteeing the return” of these things. We often do not realize the significance of this fact as we have a whole system, nowadays, to comfort us: a government, insurance, reliable ways to store food, etc. As a result, nothing really ever disappears or goes away. This creates, in a sense, a great “blanket” to ease our worries that the people centuries ago did not have. People living in nature simply do not have this comfort and did not know, for certain, if these things would return. As a result, they often developed beliefs and acts created to “guarantee the return” of such important things such as summer with its growing crops.
Some of the ways they attempt to “guarantee the return” appears in ways such as:
As a general attitude. A sense of hope, optimism, and anticipation.
As a festive event. Often, this was as if to recreate the bounty that summer creates. It appeared, with the Norse and Vikings, primarily as eating (feasts) and giving presents. In some respects, this is nothing but replicating summer which gives us “food as presents”, so to speak. By “mimicking” these things we anticipated the coming summer.
As a magical event. This created things like yule tide logs. These are primarily doing some thing that as if helps or guarantees that summer will appear again in a magical way. In some cases, they do something, such as burn the yule tide log, and then keep a portion of it to reignite next years yule tide log. In this way, they have a “thing” (a portion of the yule tide log) which they keep throughout the year to reignite the next log. In this way, it as if “guarantees the return” by replication. These types of magical events are very prevalent in the Halloween seasons in particular. In these cases, it is primarily to replicate the coming of next years crops. The yule tide log, by the way, is associated with the yule tide ham or boar. This has become the “Christmas ham”. It just so happens that the boar is associated with the Norse god Freyr who is associated with things such as fertility, sunshine, and prosperity . . . things associated with summer.
As a religious event. This is like celebrating the birth of Jesus who is the savior. In some ways, summer and its crops becomes the savior as well. This fact may of made the association of crops and Jesus very easy. The ‘Christmas spirit’ is, after all, nothing but the hope for something to sustain us. We know very little of any religious celebration that took place during this time by the Norse and Vikings. There does appear to of been things like feasting and gift giving but any great religious celebration is unclear.
All of these have contributed to the traditional Christmas season and the ‘spirit of Christmas’. In particular, the ‘spirit of Christmas’ has great influence from the general attitude that surrounded this season and time of year: hope. In short, in the midst of the “death of winter”there became a great anticipation, optimism, and hope for summer and its crops. In other words, even though summer is gone there is hope it will return. In many ways, there was more hope during winter than during summer simply because it was in this season when hope was most needed. In this way, the “death of winter” actually brought out some of the greatest hope in the society. This, it seems to me, is the basis of the ‘spirit of Christmas’.
THE NORSE KING AS SANTA CLAUS
I have often felt that Santa Claus, in actuality, has origin from the Norse Kings. I first spoke of this in my article “Thoughts on how Santa Claus may of derived from the Norse Kings“. The Norse King created an image of an important “gift giving man” in the culture. This image would, as a result of the Christian conversion, be the basis for the glorification of “gift giving saints” which would lay the groundwork for Santa Claus.
The Norse Kings as the “gift giving man”, during the winter season, does not appear to be much like Santa Claus at first but one can see many foundations for it, such as:
- The Norse Kings often would travel around the country and would give gifts and feasts during winter. This, in a sense, is like a “reminder” of the coming crops of summer. This may be one of the origins of giving gifts during winter. In this way, “gift giving” is really a reference to anticipating the summers crops (that is, the gifts representing the crops).
- The Norse Kings association with the Divine. Many Norse Kings were viewed as descended from Odin who is a god. In this way, he was the source of the sacred in society, and is what is important in life, and is associated with the giving of life-sustaining things (see my article “Thoughts on the Monarchial Way Of Life“).
- Norse Kings were associated with the land and the crops. Hakon the Black, after his death, was cut up in pieces and planted in many parts of his land to guarantee the crops would grow. The King was only King of the land, not the sea, showing the close relationship between the King and land. Many accounts of the Norse Kings (from the Ynglinga saga) describe statements such as this: ” . . . and the crops were plentiful in his reign”. In ways, such as these, the Norse King was associated with crops.
We see the association:
In this way, the Norse King was greatly associated with the “death of winter” in Norse culture. This may of made the image of Santa Claus so easy to appear during the Christian era.
REACTING TO HARSHER WINTER CONDITIONS: THE “DEATH OF WINTER” AS A LATER CREATION
Despite these things, the winter season does not necessarily seem to hold great religious significance to the Vikings and Norse beyond something like a feast. The great religious celebrations seem to primarily be in spring and especially fall (such as Halloween) which, by the way, are associated with crops (the planting and reaping of crops, respectively). This makes me think that the customs surrounding the “death of winter” actually appeared at a later date, after the other religious times were already established.
It seems, to me, that the Norse, probably, migrated to the north from the south. In other words, they went from temperate climate zones, with mild winters, to the harsher winter conditions of the north. In this way, their culture was based in temperate climate conditions. In other words, they were not originally a “winter-based” culture. Moving up north they confronted harsher winter conditions and so had to react to these conditions. Several ways they reacted to this include:
- A prevalence of hot/cold and summer/winter in the myths. The seasons figure rather prominently in Norse myths. Creation began with a mixing of hot and cold. Frost Giants figure prominently. The death of the gods are associated with three winters in a row. It seems, to me, that the seasons play a greater role in the Norse myths than in other European myths.
- The danger of cold, frost, and winter are emphasized in the myths. Many elements of the Norse myths emphasize the deadly qualities of cold. The most important aspect is portrayed in the Frost Giants as a great threat in the Norse myths.
- The importance of Thor. The harsher winter conditions may be why Thor became popular as he fought the “Frost Giants”. Interestingly, Thor is prevalent in Norway, which would have the harshest of the winters in Scandinavia. Could this be why Thor became so popular there?
- The traditions of the “death of winter” which would become the ‘spirit of Christmas’. The “death of winter”, and the hopefulness of this time, may be nothing but a reaction to the new harsher winter conditions. In this way, the customs surrounding it seem almost an act of necessity more than anything else. Its for this reason that it may of never really had a strong religious overtone in Norse and Viking culture. Christianity, it seems, would take this “act of necessity” and embellish it with Christian belief and values making it an all-important season over the centuries surpassing the original pagan festivities.
- The Norse King as a “gift giving man” during winter. The harsher winter conditions may of necessitated this custom as a symbolic and religious representation of the King’s power and in the return of summer. Of course, the Norse King would be turned into Santa Claus over the centuries.
All these may be reactions to the harsher winter conditions of the north which the Norse and Vikings were unprepared for. If this is the case then one could very well say that the ‘spirit of Christmas’ actually has origin in a reaction to climate conditions that the original Norse culture was not prepared for as a result of their migration from the south to the north.
Copyright by Mike Michelsen