We light the candles in the advent candle holder, put an almond in the rice "groet" and fill the Christmas stockings without giving it much thought.
But some of the firmly established yule traditions have their source in old myths.
The Norwegian word Jul – originally Jol, originates in an ancient celebration where one of the instructions was to brew ale – it was the law! Many of the traditions known in the northern part of Europe come from the Roman Saturnalia – mixed in with the Norse traditions.
The myths around Winter Solstice and the Norwegian nisse have taken hold in today’s Christmas celebrations – separate from the religious traditions centering on Bethlehem and the birth of Christ. The celebrations are sometimes religious, sometimes more neutral and secular.
Many myths have their source in religion. Even the Christmas stockings can be traced back to St. Nicholas, who is also the saint of the seafarers and sailors of the world. There was one tradition where gifts were presented to children in miniature ships. When this tradition reached the Netherlands, ships were replaced with wooden shoes; subsequently it was found that stockings were more practical.
The custom of the Advent Candle Holder is not particularly religious in its origin. It is thought to have originated with a lady wanting to make a calendar for her handicapped son. He was so eagerly anticipating Christmas! The four candles should be lit one after the other, one on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve.
A number of yule myths and traditions originate in the North, The Norwegian (and Danish) “nisse” stems from the Norse “farm guardian”. He was the supernatural being guarding the farm (it was an agricultural society).
In Sweden he is known by the name “tomte” or “tomten”. Norwegians have always offered food to the “barn nisse”; it was a way to make sure the livestock would be well taken care of. Nisse originates in the man’s name “Nils”; this again turns out to be the Norwegian version of Nicholas.