Viking Christmas

You know Oðin, the one-eyed god in Norse mythology. He’s the big cheese, the head honcho, the CEO of Asgard, the home of the gods. He’s always fighting frost giants, involved in battles, wandering in search of wisdom, preparing for the end of the world, Ragnarok. At least that’s the Oðin, I´ve known. Feasting, fighting, wenching, wandering, drinking.

However, I´ve stumbled on another aspect of Oðin. Some people say Coca Cola invented Santa Claus. Other people say Santa Claus started when the Vikings invaded England and brought with them the idea of Oðin, the wanderer in the blue hooded cloak who carried a bag of bread in one hand and a staff in the other. The Saxons, the guys already in England, had as one of their customs the welcoming of King Frost or King Winter. It wasn´t hard to join together King Winter and Oðin. It wasn´t unusual for pagan beliefs to be joined with Christian beliefs. At my recent visit to the Royal Museum to see the Viking exhibit, there was a Thor´s hammer that was also a cross. It´s not surpring then that even after the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when the Vikings lost their power in England, when people made oaths, they sometimes still used the phrase “To God and Oðin.” The mysteries of the past that come down to us are many layered.

The Vikings didn´t just bring swords and shields. They brought their beliefs; they brought Oðin. Vikings believed that Oðin would come to earth on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir.

The Oðin described in histories of Christmas is a man who joined people sitting around fires, not participating but listening and observing, seeing if the people were all right and, sometimes, if things were not all right, he would take bread from his sack and leave it for those who were poor and hungry.

It is easy to see the image of Santa Claus beginning to form. A man on a steed. The blue hooded cloak, the unobserved man coming to see if all was well, the leaving of gifts for those in need.

When the Normans came they brought St. Nicholas. For a long time, the image of a benevolent person who came at Christmas time was saintly, stern, lecturing and judging. In a number of countries, he asked questions and decided if you had been naughty and nice and if you had been naughty, you got a lump of coal, or some hay or a potato instead of a desired gift.

Oðin wasn´t the only Nordic god drawn into Christmas. One account says that Frigg, Oðin´s wife, would check to make certain that the entrances to each house were clean. Imagine if you were a housewife and you believed that Odin´s wife was going to come by to check on your housekeeping. What better way to make sure that people kept their places organized and tidy? Although the Viking age ended in 1066, nine hundred years later, my mother always worked hard at making sure our house was tidy and clean for Christmas. I always thought that was because we were going to have relatives coming to visit. But it also may have been part of a tradition started many centuries before with the original tradition forgotten but the need to get organized and keep chaos from descending still at work. If I had said to my mother will you be ready when Frigg checks the house, she wouldn´t have known what I was talking about. She would have said, “Your grandparents are coming. I have to have the house spotless for Christmas.”

Before they became Christian, the Germanic people celebrated Yule. When people became Christian they didn´t automatically give up their traditions and beliefs. Yule celebrations became part of Christmas. For people of Icelandic descent, this keeping of old traditions in spite of the new religion is easy to understand. After all, when a political deal was made for Iceland to become Christian, part of the deal was that people could keep practicing the old religion as long as they did it in private.

If you know your Norse mythology, you’ll know about one of these traditions, The Wild Hunt. When the Wild Hunt takes place, there is a ghostly procession of hunters led by Oðin riding across the sky. When I think about this ghostly procession I remember the Northern Lights on cold clear nights in Gimli, Manitoba. When Oðin leads the procession, he is called Jólnir or Jule figure. He is also referred to as Langbarðr which means long beard. So, we have a long bearded figure in a hooded cloak, riding an eight legged horse across the sky. It´s not too hard to see Oðin turn into Santa Claus and Sleipnir with his eight legs turn into eight reindeer. There are even some traditions of Oðin coming down chimneys. Although, that couldn´t have been an Icelandic tradition since turf houses didn´t have chimneys. There were no stoves or fireplaces, just a fire on the stone floor and a hole in the roof. In Reykjavik today, Oðin or Santa Claus would still have a hard time finding chimneys to climb down because most of the heating is from hot water piped from volcanic areas. No chimneys for a fat man in a red suit with a large bag of toys to scurry down. For that trick, he needs the chimneys of large stone fireplaces.

A lot of people got into the act before we moved from Oðin to our present day image of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas and Sinterklass and Father Christmas plus others. The result is that we no longer have the all-knowing Oðin, no longer the stern saints, no longer the demanding Santa Clauses in shopping malls insisting on knowing if you have been good or bad. Instead, we have a jolly old elf. A gift giver who makes no demands, asks no awkward questions, does his best to meet extravagent requests even if it means maxing out a credit card.

I used to be terrified when I heard the song that said, “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you´re awake, he knows when you´ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” I prefer the jolly old elf, an elf filled with kindness at the darkest time of the year. Yet, yet, in the winter months, especially around Christmas, if I’m lucky enough to be where there are Northern Lights, I am transfixed by the pulsating colors, red, green, blue, traveling across the sky. Watching them I think I see this figure in his blue cloak, riding his eight legged horse over the arc of the world, leading his wildly riding huntsmen. Although I am in awe of these spectral figures, of the shimmering lights, of the majesty of the sky, I have not yet been given a gift of gold. At the same time, I haven´t mocked these huntsmen and so haven´t been taken away with them never to be seen again.

All of this, along with the multiple layers of tradition over the centuries, have often led me along a snowy path to a quiet church service, some joyful singing of hymns and carols, a crèche scene with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. To Oðin, to Frigg, to all their companions, to Father Christmas, to Saint Nicholas, to the Frost King, to all the Santa Clauses in the malls of the world, to mothers and fathers decorating the sacred Christmas tree, the lovers kissing under the magic Christmas bow, to Joseph and Mary and Jesus, Merry Christmas to all.

Thor’s hammer:Icelandic Celebration, 2012


That Thor was raging about was first noticeable during the Gimli Film Festival. During the showing of the  movie, Bob Marley, on the screen in the lake, the sky to the north lit up with lightening flashing through dark clouds. It ran in great flashes of horizontal flame. Gradually, it spread to the East side of the lake and started moving westward toward us. The movie was shut down before the electrical storm got too close. There were well over a thousand people on the beach.

The Icelandic Celebration was coming a few days later. Those of us who have spent a lifetime in Manitoba sniffed the air, kept an eye on the barometer, watched the sky. The heat became oppressive, the air muggy.

Friday, all hell broke loose, lightening and thunder and with a resounding crash, the thunder announced a downpour. Not a few drops, not a drizzle, not a light rain. Water was pouring off my roof in rivers. Water filled every low spot in the roads, filled the ditches, water poured down relentlessly.

During a break, I went out. There wasn’t a single person on the beach, no one on first avenue, all the food vans that had come to town were shuttered and dark.

It’s high summer and two brave customers in jackets order BBQ.

Saturday, the barometer started rising but the rain came again, not as bad. Some people braved the rain. There were a group of young women in front of the Credit Union selling tickets from under a bevy of umbrellas but there was no one to sell them to. I went to the harbour. There was hot dog vendor open and a couple were standing in front of it. All else was shuttered.

Even the Vikings from the hill abandoned camp for a breakfast at the white hotel. They came double file down the sidewalk, eight of them, one holding a recently born baby.

Sidewalk vendors are a determined lot. Some were trying to get their tents up in spite of the wind and rain but others left. There was no one to sell jewelry to, model airplanes to, no one to give henna tattoos to or read horoscopes for. One brave soul was setting up odd looking candles. I went to the pancake breakfast at the New Horizons Centre. Where, normally, there would be a line through the building and out the door onto the parking lot, there were empty tables and about six people lined up for sausages, pancakes, eggs, coffee.

The shot put, the sand castle building, the volleyball had to be delayed until the next day.

The weather report said sunny for Sunday and Monday. But later it said cloudy for Sunday. All eyes were fixed on Monday, the day of the parade. A year’s work goes into the parade. Normally, the streets are lined many deep as people come from all over to watch and listen as the bands, the floats, the dignitaries, go by.  The parade is where the distinguished guests are presented to the community, where the local politicians ride or walk to demonstrate their solidarity with the people. The Fjallkona, in her costume representing Iceland, flanked by her princesses, leads the way, first to the shrine to the first settlers, then to the stage to oversee the formal program with its speeches about the bonds between New Iceland and Old Iceland.

To make matters worse, the Kvennakór Akureyrar (Akureyri Ladies Choir), would be on a large float. They had come from Iceland to sing, not to be drowned traveling down Centre Street.

Sunday morning there were clouds, even a slight sprinkle of rain, but no thunderheads. If there had been, it would have been time to make a sacrifice of a bull calf to Thor. The weather improved enough that a viking need for donuts asserted itself.

The clouds dissipated. The road races were on. A great gust of wind appeared. It was the vendors sighing with relief. The cultural and heritage pavilion opened. The Vikings had dried out and in the afternoon were ready to put on an entertaining example of Viking warfare. The Wondershow Midway and Rides was operating.

But all eyes were on the weather report for Monday. The day dawned bright and clear. When I walked down Centre Street to the staging area, optimism had returned. The sidewalks were already lined with chairs.

The Kvennakór Akureyrar (The Akreyri Laies Choir) ready to roll.

The parade was a great success. There were cheers and hand waving, candy throwing, blown kisses, wonderful Icelandic costumes, enthusiastic floats with people playing music and singing. The laying of the wreath by Fjallkona Connie Magnusson-Schimnowski was heartfelt. The speeches were passionate expressions of pride and love.

On the hill, the Vikings gathered for one last battle.

In the pavilion people slurped up Icelandic dainties and coffee in Amma’s kitchen, then came out to buy Icelandic coffee from Nelson Gerrard and Harley Jonasson, books from Lorna Tergesen and historic Icelandic books from Jim Anderson. Conversation was everything.

Oli Narfason talking to Þruður Helgadóttir and Þóra Margrét Baldvinsdóttir. You can be sure he´s speaking Icelandic. He not only speaks Icelandic but sings in it as well.

There were historic photos for sale, a new Icelandic alphabet book, vinartera. You could subscribe to Logberg-Heimskringla and purchase an Icelandic National League calendar.

And then it was over, the weather had held, friends and relatives had been reunited, visitors had been reminded of our Icelandic heritage, the Reykjavik Bakery had gone through rivers of kaffi and mountains of kleinur.

Now, it was time to take down the tents, stack up the chairs, sweep the floors and put everything away for when we meet again next year.