No holiday season has a more exciting, changing and enduring history than "jul" (yule), the term for Christmas. In the Norse heathen past it was probably a fertility inducing winter solstice celebration with strong influence of ancestor worship.
In hall and “hov” noblemen and farmers celebrated with rich foods and drink, they drank to their gods for victory, good harvests and peace, and they remembered their dead friends and relations. One of the first things the Christian kings did was to prohibit the blood-dripping sacrifices of horses, dogs and other animals that inevitably attended the yearly heathen festivals. The fellowship of the table and the holiday foods remained - though it would now be tinged with Christian symbolism.
Norway Christmas - after Christianity
In the middle ages the celebration of "jul" was steered the way the new church and Christianity directed. Hundreds of new stone or wooden churches were filled with Roman-catholic mass-celebrations to remember the birth of Christ. No one was to break the Christmas peace with work, use of weapons, weddings, baptisms or legal quarrels. The Christmas season was counted from Christmas Eve (24. December) until epiphany on the 6th of January, or the 13th of January (the 20th day).
Such a long lasting festival left room for many activities, both worldly and religious. Religious events were often theatre-like presentations of the Christmas story and its various aspects. At the time the Norwegian church did not differ much from what was common in other countries – the church presentation of biblical stories was the only form of theatre known at that time.
Norway Christmas - after Reformation
Then came the break from Rome around the year 1500 did not result in much change in the Christmas celebrations – in fact less than what should have been expected. Celebration of 1. Christmas day with midnight mass, “ottesang” and high mass continued for hundreds of years in countryside as well as city. And in its most common forms continued "julebukk" and "stjernegutter" with their appearances in the period between Christmas and New Years continuing the middle-ages-plays, to the pleasure of some and to the annoyance of others.
Religious and worldly authority figures had long attempted to cleanse all holidays of the last remnants of "papal" influences and superstitions.
"Of Holidays Christmas is the most prominent and joyful. Before the sun goes down the livestock must be secured, a bundle of grain (julenek) set out for the birds, and all houses must be marked with the cross on the outside. One takes a bath in warm water, changes clothing, and celebrates in the best way possible."
Norway Christmas - in Telemark
This was said of the Christmas season in Telemark, but it was bedrock tradition in the rest of the country as well. A traditional “farm yule” consisted of Christmas Eve as the high point and included both man and beast in an extraordinary care and common good. It is also said that Christmas Day was the big church day, and that no other holiday was surrounded by so much loud celebration and old superstitions, in spite of all the well meaning efforts to “cultivate” the season.
Norway Christmas - old traditions
Wild "second day" rides took place in the rural communities, social festivities prospered, and it was danced and drunk in houses and shacks. In self-defense against the Christmas Night’s “aasgaardsrei” and other anti-christian dark powers houses and goods were marked with steel and the sign of the cross. Some fired shots over the roofs, slept in a flatbed and kept candles lighted in the darkness of the night. The protector of the farm (the nisse) got a holiday offering of beer and porridge brought out to him in the barn. Signs were interpreted about life and death, weddings, harvests and fisheries. It was first around the 1800s that there happened major changes in this way of celebrating Norwegian Christmas.
Schooling, piety and rational policy had removed the foundation for many superstitious traditions. Gradually the holidays were given new impulses from outside that strengthened and widened the Christian aspects. From Germany, via Denmark, the Christmas tree came to Kristiania in the 1820s and with the encouragement of priests and teachers it spread to the rest of the country in the next decades. It became an important symbol of the Christmas message in private homes and congregations.
The success of the Christmas tree as a marker of Christmas festivities can have several explanations, but it is now firmly established. Most of the songs sung around the tree today were written after 1800.
Around 1900 a number of light-celebrating customs came from the south north to Norway. The Germany-inspired “adventlight” were introduced around 1860, there followed “adventwreath”, “advent-star” and Lucia processions. In addition the mass media gained prominence with magazines, Christmas cards, Christmas books and radio and television programs.
"Jul" is a term that contains a wealth of influences, from the superstitious, ancient, modern, Christian, and finally, in Norway a good helping of Julenissen, our own version of Santa Claus.