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The Nordic Twelve Days of Christmas


I was seated beside CNS President Karin Birnbaum at the CNS Christmas Luncheon, and we chatted a little in Norwegian. This was a bit of a struggle for me as I had spent most of the previous day with my Franco-Ontarian choir friends speaking French, and it takes me a little while to “switch gears.” She asked me where I would be spending Christmas and I told her I would be in Toronto this year, awaiting the arrival of my second grandchild, a boy, who was due on Christmas Day. I was trying to express to her in Norwegian that he was due on Christmas Day itself, and she replied “Altså første jule dag?” - in other words, so the first day of Christmas? And of course she was right. I’m just not used to thinking of it as the first of the 12 days of Christmas. Like many English- speaking Canadians I suppose, I just think of it as Christmas Day, which is the day after my Norwegian family actually celebrates Christmas. Then we get a few days of Boxing Day sales, finishing up with New Year’s Eve parties and the New Year’s Day statutory holiday.

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the 12 days only because of the traditional carol of that name. But the 12 days of Christmas are still very significant in many cultures, including the Nordic ones, where the traditions around them evolved as a real mix of Christian teachings and ancient pagan lore.

Early in the 3rd century, the theologian Hippolytus of Rome wrote that Christ was born on December 25. This date was based on the premise that he was conceived on the date of the spring equinox. Many Christian churches, including the Lutheran Church (historically the religion of the Nordic countries since about the 16th century) celebrate “Christmastide”, the period between the birth of Christ and the day before he was revealed as divine by the visit of the Magi on Epiphany, which is January 6. So the days from December 25 up to and including January 5 (“Twelfth Night”) are part of Christmastide - the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Following the Lutheran tradition, the Nordic countries recognize the 2nd day of Christmas as St. Stephen’s Day (not Boxing Day). St. Stephen is honoured as the first Christian martyr. While not statutory holidays, the 3rd and 4th day of Christmas are recognized respectively as the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents Day, commemorating the massacre ordered by Herod the Great of the young male children around Bethlehem. The Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Christ is the 8th day of Christmas, based on the Jewish tradition of circumcising infant boys on the 8th day day after their birth. This turns out to be January 1, New Year’s Day, and is still retained as the Feast of the Circumcision by the Lutheran Church.

But at least in Norway, there is one more day of Christmas - ”Trettende dag jul" (the 13th day of Christmas), which is the official day for "harvesting" the Christmas tree. Traditionally it is on this day that the family takes down the tree and the children collect the raisins and nuts that were placed in the heart-shaped woven baskets. CNS council member Hanne Sjøborg tells me that after all her years in Canada, she still finds herself reluctant to take down the tree before that day.

Despite the strong Christian tradition around the twelve days of Christmas, the way Nordics (and many others) celebrate the period is still connected to the old pagan ways of marking the seasons, known as “Yuletide” in English, and “Juletid” in Norwegian. Yule was a midwinter festival among the Norse that lasted for a few weeks around the time of the winter solstice. According to the Saga of Håkon the Good, Håkon had a law passed establishing that Yule celebrations were to take place at the same time as the Christians celebrated Christmas, "and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.” The narrative continues that toasts were to be drunk. The first toast was to be drunk to Odin "for victory and power to the king", the second to the gods Njörðr and Freyr "for good harvests and for peace", and thirdly a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. The Hervarar Saga refers to the tradition of swearing oaths on Yule Eve by laying hands on the bristles of a boar, who was then sacrificed. This is thought to be the origin of the custom among some Nordics of eating ham or pork on Christmas Eve, as well as the custom of eating cakes or marzipan in the shape of pigs.

In ancient Scandinavia as well as in many other cultures, there was a concept known as the “Wild Hunt,” a ghostly procession of the dead across the night sky during the winter solstice season. In Nordic cultures it was associated with the god Odin, who has a particular connection with the Yule season. He was called the “Yule father” and is depicted with a long beard, and wearing a cloak and a broad hat. In many regions, when Odin's hunt was heard it was a sign that the weather was about to change, but it could also mean a period of war and unrest was on its way. On the Wild Hunt, Odin was often depicted riding an 8-legged horse named Sleipnir, and accompanied by two wolves. So here we have an image of a man with a long beard and a large hat riding through the air with several animals. Many scholars have argued that Santa and his sleigh are connected to the Wild Hunt.

The Yule goat is another Nordic Yule tradition, with modern representations of the Yule goat typically made of straw. During the 19th century the Yule goat's role all over Scandinavia shifted towards becoming the giver of Christmas gifts. The goat was then replaced by the jultomte or julenisse during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, but is still called the Joulupukki (Yule goat) in Finland.

The long, cold, dark nights of the Yuletide season seemed to connect the harvest of the past summer with hopes for a good harvest in the coming year. The last sheaf of grain bundled in the harvest was credited with magical properties as the “spirit of the harvest” and saved for the Yule celebrations. In Norway and Sweden, it is still the custom to put out a sheaf of oats for the birds on Christmas Eve.

(In case you’re wondering, my new grandson wisely chose to be born three days before Christmas, on December 22, thus ensuring the proper celebration of his birthday before all the Yuletide commotion begins.)

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