Jul or jol ([jʉːɽ]) is the term used for the Christmas holiday season in Scandinavia and parts of Scotland. Originally, “jul” was the name of a month in the old Germanic calendar. The concept of “jul” was a period of time rather than a specific event prevailing in Scandinavia. In modern times, “Jul” is a general time stretching from mid-November to mid-January, with Christmas and the week up to New Year as the highlight. The modern English yule and yuletide derive from this term.
The term “Jul” is common throughout Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, Denmark, Scotland and the Faroe Islands.
Whereas the start of “jul” proper is announced by the chiming of church bells throughout the country in the afternoon of 24 December, it is more accurate to describe the season as an eight-week event. It consists of five phases: Advent, Julaften, Romjul, Nyttår, and The End of Christmas, very often with Epiphany, the thirteenth day of Christmas, as the final day of the season. From the original beginning on Christmas Day, the custom of Julebord has spread to the entire season and beyond, often beginning well in advance of December.
The modern day celebration is largely based on the Church year and has retained several pre-Reformation and pre-Christian elements.
The central event in Scandinavia is Christmas Eve (julaften), when the main Christmas meal is served and gifts are exchanged. This might be due to the old Germanic custom of counting time in nights, not days (e.g. “forthnight”), as it holds for other holidays like Midsummer Eve (Jonsok, lit. “Wake of St. John”) and St. Olavs Mass (Olsok, lit. “Wake of St. Olav”), with the main celebration on the eve of the official Church day.
“Jul” or “Jol” are cognates of Norse “Jòlnir” or “Ýlir”, which are alternate names of Odin, although the root itself is debated. Jul was celebrated during the second moon (from new moon to new moon) of the winter half of the year – roughly from the new moon of November to the new moon of December. At this time, the animals for slaughter were the fattest, flour had been processed, all the work of autumn was completed, and it was time to celebrate.
The time of celebration has varied. According to written sources such as the legislation of Gulaþing, it was mandatory for farmers to have a beer drinking party with at least three farmers attending. If a farmer was so far away from his neighbours that this was difficult, he still had to brew as much beer as if he had been taking part of such a party. The beer should be ready by November 1.
The tradition of Yule Ale and “drinking Jul” is symbolized by a drinking horn on December 25 on the Runic calendar, with an upside-down drinking horn depicted on January 13, symbolizing that the ale should be finished by then.
By the wording of the legislation, there are two celebrations where beer drinking was mandatory. The first was a form of thanksgiving (where at least three farmers attended), while the second was a smaller party for the family.
The old tradition of brewing Yule ale and drinking in honor of the Æsir, friends and kinfolk also remained in the time following the Christianization, with the law demanding people to brew enough as well as strong enough, but people were now to drink in honor of Christ and the virgin Mary instead.
The figure of the mischievous but gift-bearing Norse nisse, a mythological creature associated with the Winter solstice in Scandinavian folklore, is a white-bearded, red-wearing ancestral spirit also known as Julenissen (Jul spirit), which has been integrated with the figure of Sinterklaas to comprise the modern-day figure of Santa Claus. Like the cookies traditionally left for “Santa Claus” today, it was customary to leave a bowl of rice porridge with butter for the Jul spirit, in gratitude. The food represented a sacramental meal. Sacramental meals were formally called a blót—in this particular instance, yuleblót or winterblót.
Culinary traditions vary regionally. In Northern and Western Norway, pinnekjøtt (ribs of mutton which are steamed, salted and dried, and some places also smoked) is a common dish, whereas Lutefisk and cod are popular in Southern Norway. In Eastern Norway, pork rib roast is common, usually served with medisterkaker and medisterpølser (dumplings and sausages made of minced pork meat). Turkey has recently made its way into the variety of cuisines enjoyed during Jul.
Other traditional foods are eaten at Første Juledags Frokost, a Christmas Day luncheon where the household serves all available delicacies in a grand buffet. Families might serve several kinds of meat such as ham, fenalaar (ham of lamb), cooked cured leg of lamb, pickled pigs’ trotters, head cheese, mutton roll, pork roll, or ox tongue; and several kinds of fish such as smoked salmon, gravlax, rakfisk, and pickled herring. There will also be a range of cheeses and various types of jam. After the meal, tradition prescribes serving seven kinds of julebakst, pastries and coffee breads associated with the holiday. Gingerbread and gingerbread houses are commonly decorated with sugar frosting. In some instances, gingerbread cookies are used for decorating windows as well as the Christmas tree.
On Christmas Eve, many families eat risengrynsgrøt, a type of rice porridge that includes a single almond, scalded of its skin to leave it white. Whomever gets the almond wins a prize, usually a marzipan pig.
Brewing is closely associated with the preparations for jul, and most Norwegian breweries release a traditional Christmas beer, which is darker, stronger and more flavorful than the common Norwegian lagers. Breweries also produce a special soda, known as julebrus. Aquavit is also commonly served as a digestif to accompany the heavy, often fatty meals.
“Julebukk,” a Norwegian noun, translates to “Yule Goat”. Today it is commonly known of as a goat figurine made out of straw, created in the beginning of December often used as a Christmas ornament. The Yule Goat’s oldest representation is that of Thorr’s magical Goats, which would lead him through the night sky. The Yule Goat was also a spirit that would protect the house during Yuletide and it was tradition to sacrifice a goat to the Gods and accompanying spirits during the time span between the Winter Solstice “Winter Night” and the New Year called “Romjul”. It was during Romul that a goat or Julebukk was sacrificed, adults then donned guises to personify the Julebukk. Animal masks and skins, commonly goats and horses were donned in an activity called “hoodening”. Participants would parade from house to house, disguising their voices, singing, offering spiritual protection and warnings. The group would receive small amounts of money, food and drink in exchange for the blessing they offered.
Text from Wikipedia