Midwinter Nordic Traditions: Celebrating the Harvest, Honoring the Light

Cultural traditions Himmeli

Many pagan solstice traditions from Northern Europe are the cultural roots of modern Christmas traditions found throughout the Western world. For example, the yule log, now thought to be the name of a fancy holiday dessert, was part of an ancient tradition commemorating the return of longer days. An entire tree was brought into the home for midwinter festivities and burned in the fireplace, large end first. For several nights, nearing the longest night of the year, the tree would gradually be fed into the fire. The warmth and light from the burning tree welcomed the return of the Sun and the rebirth of the fertile land.

Yule log burning

Burning the yule log

The crafting of himmeli is another way that Nordic folks honored the land during midwinter. The word himmeli comes from the Swedish word for sky or heaven, (although this craft can be found throughout Northwestern Europe going by many names.) Traditionally, himmeli were crafted with straw, often resilient rye straw. This light weight material allowed the structure, hanging from midwinter to midsummer, to move gently in the air above the family dining table. The geometric structures, often extremely elaborate are thought to depict a resplendent crown or even a map of the universe. These ornate pieces are believed to have magical qualities. The larger the himmeli above your family table, the larger your next year’s harvest will be. Furthermore, himmeli attract positive energy while simultaneously repelling the negative, in this way acting as a protective talisman for the home. (Learn to make your own here).

Himmeli by Heta Haavisto

Himmeli by Heta Haavisto

Like himmeli and the yule log, the Julbock (pronounced yule-bock) or Straw Goat is connected to an ancient tradition that predates Christianity in Scandinavia. The symbol of the goat is associated with the two goats that pulled the chariot of the Norse God Thor. Pre-Christian midwinter celebrations included the juleoffer or Yule sacrifice. A man dressed in goatskins was symbolically killed and then brought back to life during the pageant, just as the sun “dies” at Yule, the shortest day and the longest night. The winter solstice marks the transition to days that increasingly become longer until midsummer. Early Christian leaders proclaimed the julbock to be a horned demon. But eventually, the Yule goat’s reputation changed to a kind and generous being traveling from house to house bringing small gifts to families. Much like modern Christmas celebrations, the act of sharing and generosity during a time of winter darkness is a source of warmth and light.



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