Before Christmas became known as the celebration of the birth of Christ, the festival of Jól was the Vikings' main party. They sacrificed people and animals, decorated with blood, drank strong beer and over ate on pork in honour of the gods.
The winter was a hard and protracted season for the Vikings. When frost and snow settled over the country, they sought shelter in their dark houses and wrapped themselves in furs to keep warm. The residents had scarce heat sources to prevent the draft from the unsealed longhouses. The fireplace in the middle gave good heat, but also made great daily inroads into the woodpile.
The animals, who lived at one end of the house, also helped to warm up the room. Horses, cows, sheep and goats were given shelter for the winter and contributed with body heat, and milk for butter and cheese.
With animals living so close to the residents they also had to endure a constant whiff of dung, no matter how much it was shoveled away. The stench mingled with the smoke from the fireplace and could be felt in every corner of the room before it seeped out of a hole in the roof.
While the Vikings coughed and crouched under blankets of fur, they had plenty of time to worry about the food supply. Throughout the summer months they had worked hard to get the crops in house, but if the yield was poor, it could be a challenge to sustain the family, animals and slaves throughout the winter, even with strict rationing.
It was not denied that the Vikings were also known for boredom. Time went slow in the dark houses while men and women continuously made clothes, ropes, repaired sails and grinding their tools and weapons.
The Vikings only had one thing to look forward to during the dark season: Christmas. All fear of the future was forgotten and the Vikings gave themselves permission to party without restraint.
The Norse word for Christmas was "Jól." The origin of the word is unknown, but it is well known that it was used for a feasting period that took place in the midwinter months of December and January. The Vikings marked that winter was halfway over and the sun on its way back, and they celebrated thoroughly. According to the Icelandic Sagas, the feast lasted three days to end.
The Vikings gathered as many as possible to eat and drink in the honour of the gods, but few hosts had plenty to offer for a large feast for days, so Christmas was traditionally a joint venture where everyone who participated contributed with something.
In everyday life the Vikings extinguished their thirst with low-alcohol beer that even children could drink. The strong and more tasty brew was spared for important occasions, especially Jól. In addition to beer they also drank mead that was made of honey, water and spices.
Fermentation gave an alcohol percentage of between 10 and 20 - the highest possible until the distillation process became widespread around the year 1500. The Viking chiefs and nobles who felt the need to show their status, instead drank wine that they in one way or another had acquired from southern Europe.
The Christmas guests drank steadily and became increasingly drunk, but they did it with great dignity. At least in the beginning, while they could still remember that they participated in a blót - a ritual in which people try to make contact with the gods.
Saga writer Snorre Sturluson has described the rituals the Vikings used under the feast. Toasts were touted by the host, and the first one was always dedicated to Odin, king of "åsene". Everyone in the room emptied their cup for "victory and power," and so Christmas could begin. The next toast was for the sea-god Njord, who would fill the sea with fish and ensure seafarers a safe voyage.
Then the company drank for the fertility god Frey, with wishes for "years and peace" - meaning a long life, prosperity and happiness. Frey made sure the plants began to sprout and grow after the winter, and the Vikings regarded Frey as the most important god during Christmas.
Now the effect of the strong beer had begun to make the norsemen intoxicated, and now the feast was in focus. Often the next toast therefore went to the poet god Brage, so that entertainment was ensured for the three nights.
When the most significant gods had been remembered, the drunken Vikings began to suggest memory toasts for people who had passed away during the year. Only imagination would set the limit to the names the company would toast to, as they were increasingly wasted for each cup of beer or mead.
During the night or morning hours, the guests just fell over one by one, or the host at a time sent their most drunk friends home to hit the sack. But the next night it was "at it again" for every man.
Pork was important
Although beer was most important during Christmas, also meat played a major role. Livestock and horses were sacrificed, and blood was collected in tanks so that the Vikings could smear it on the walls of buildings. All guests also got a sprinkle of blood over themselves, while the women cooked the meat above the fireplace.
Before the food was put on the long table, the host blessed it with religious words and hand signs. The meat Vikings ate during Jól, both came from sacrifices and from animals that were slaughtered in the autumn and dried or salted. The food made the guests thirsty so they eagerly drank strong beer while stuffing themselves with food.
Fresh fish was a welcome diversion on the Christmas table, but the most sought after dish was pork. It had a high status among the Vikings, and it was believed to be one of the gifts in the afterlife in Valhalla, where one had the opportunity to eat pork every day.
According to mythology, Odin had a pig called sæhrímnir in Valhalla, and every time a piece of side flesh was cut off, it grew right back out again. So one animal could therefore feed all the dead warriors that the worrier god had summoned.
Vikings' pigs was quite different from the ones today. The content of fat was significantly higher, so the Vikings' faces and beard glistened in the dim light while they devoured large pieces of meat with their fingers.
As the Christmas nights progressed, the participants became a more and more filthy sight. They were sprinkled with sacrificial blood, smeared in with juices from meat and wet from beer, mead, and in some cases vomiting. The alcohol did their eyes shining, and they went up in joy or rage over stories other men could tell during the feast.
After three festive nights they were finally out of beer and food, and Christmas was over. The guests were leaving with a thumping headache, while they praised the host and put their trust in that they had toasted so much that the gods were pleased with it. First a few months later they would know if the gods had received enough strength to defeat winter and ensure a fruitful spring.
Then the Vikings crawled back under sheepskins in their longhouses, where the cold again took hold and time again went slowly. But now at least they had some juicy stories from the three-day feast to enjoy themselves over.
Christian priests looked with disgust at the Vikings' pagan beliefs and especially during Christmas, where barbarian habits unfolded. One of the most damning was a German bishop named Thietmar, who around 1015 wrote about a group of Danes. According to the priest, every nine years a big party was held in January where 99 people, 99 horses and a variety of other animals were sacrificed.
60 years later, Adam of Bremen wrote down a related story that unfolded in Uppsala. Archaeological findings in Trelleborg suggests that human sacrifice actually took place during the Viking era - but hardly to the extent that Christian chroniclers claimed, writes History Norway.
The nordic word "skål," which is still used today to make a toast, originates from the Viking era. It refers to the joint skål (bowl) one drank from, as a greeting or in honor of someone or something.
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