Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Among the Vikings 1857

CHRISTMAS AMONG THE NORSEMEN, article in the Chamber's Journal 1857

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Christmas, regarded in its social aspect, is preeminently a Teutonic festival. Among the Latin and Slavonic races, it is observed as a season of religious joy and thankfulness; among the Norse and Saxon nations alone is it celebrated with social festivity. In Germany, the domestic observance of Christmas is remarkable alike for its childlike physiognomy and its pictorial effect. The Lilliputian fir-tree, with its fairy lights, its glittering gifts, its joyous circle of visitants, all have, of late years, become so familiar to us in our own land, that we stay not to depict them here. Rather would we transport our readers nine hundred years back, to gaze upon a Christmas festivity amidst our Norse forefathers, from whom have been derived many of those social customs which are now entwined within the very heart of Great Britain and its people.

It was towards the close of the tenth century: the scene is laid at Drontheim, within the king of Norway's palace. But let not our readers be misled by these courtly words of 'king' and 'palace,' for in those times the kings of Norway were rather pirate sea-kings than established rulers of the people who owned their sway; and their palaces were merely wooden houses, laid upon a loose stone foundation, and destitute alike of the elegances and luxuries of life.

Only a few years before the period above alluded to, and the winter festival at the 'king's house' in Drontheim was altogether of a heathen character, for he and his bondersmen always met together at midwinter to celebrate a festival called Yule, in honour of Odin, and so designated from Yeolner, one of his names. It was a time of merriment and good cheer, when horses were slain in sacrifice, and their flesh eaten by the guests. It was also called Hoggn Nott (hewing-night), because of the slaughtering of cattle which then took place. At these feasts, the people drank to excess of ale and mead, emptying goblets in memory of departed friends, and offering remembrance-cups to the gods, praying at the same time for a good season during the ensuing summer. Now, however, all this was at an end, at least within the neighbourhood of King Hakon the Good, who had been educated in England under the care of his foster-father, King Athelstan, and who, on his return to Norway, had introduced Christianity into that country. Most of the people were still heathens at heart; but in obedience to King Hakon's order, 'the Yule, or mid-winter festival, was now to be begun at the same time the Christians kept it, and every man was obliged, under a certain penalty, to brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith kept the Yule holy as long as it lasted.' The good king hoped thus to 'entice his subjects into Christianity,' a rather questionable mode of procedure in so grave and important a matter; but however ill he may have succeeded in the great object he had in view, the result henceforth was, that Christmas became indissolubly associated in the Norse mind with merry-making and good cheer.

And now that Christianity was in some fashion established in Norway, let us glance for a moment into King Hakon's hall, while he is seated among his chief bondersmen at the Christian Yule feast. It is a spacious but low apartment, built of wood, and wainscotted with the same, having the floor strewed with juniper-tops, which imparted a peculiar fragrance to the whole dwelling. In the centre of the chamber, upon a broad flag, was piled a fire whose smoke partially escaped through a hole in the roof. The huge Yule-log was placed upon the summit of the pile, and shed its fierce and glowing flame upon the guests, who sat upon two long benches at each side of the fire. A lofty seat was placed upon the middle of one of those benches, and there the king sat high above his subjects. The caldron of horse-flesh was no longer seen upon the fire, for this viand was so closely associated with heathen rites and heathen worship, that King Hakon had absolutely prohibited its use; but the slaughtered ox had been feasted upon by the guests. And now the drinking-horn was filled with ale, which King Hakon quaffed to his father's memory; and as he rose up reverently for that purpose, his bondersmen gazed upon their king with satisfaction; for not only was he tall and comely in person, but there was also an air of sagacity and decision in his countenance which made him feared as well as loved by his subjects.

Next, there was handed to him a larger horn, filled to the brim with foaming ale. Studs were fixed within it at certain intervals, marking the portion of liquor allotted to each guest. This was called drinking by measure. They handed this horn to each other across the fire, each one drinking in succession to Christ's health—a strange idea this, in our eyes, but in those rude and primitive times this social custom was an open and practical testimony that they had abandoned dead idols for a living Saviour. After this solemn draught, the horn circulated freely among the guests, who now quaffed it without measure during many succeeding hours of the night.

After this rude fashion they feasted day after day, until New-year's-eve, when the king dismissed his guests with handsome presents, giving to the most distinguished persons among them gold-mounted swords, which had been prepared for the occasion.

These festal Christmas customs were introduced by the Northmen into Great Britain, which, during the ninth and tenth centuries, suffered severely from the continual inroads of these hardy and adventurous Norsemen, by whom eventually a large portion of Scotland and of England was populated. They brought with them their deep reverence for law, their true loyalty of heart, and—alas! that there should be a dark shade in the picture—their inordinate love of the foaming horn, now exchanged for the tankard.

Amid all the changes of the last eight or nine hundred years, the merry Christmas of the Norseman still lives on in the hearts and homes of Great Britain; but little do many of our hardy northerns, while placing the Yule-log upon their hearths, imagine that the very word itself may be traced back to the dark ages of heathenism, when their forefathers, instead of eating roast-beef at Christmas, devoured horseflesh in honour of Thor and Odin!

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