Highlands & Islands

Frozen factors: Nordic influences on the festive season

Image copyright PA

Academics at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) have been examining some of the Nordic influences to the festive season in UK.

They include old traditions such as Yule-goating and even a connection between Arendal - the inspiration for Arendelle in Disney's Frozen - and the Northern Isles.

And even though some of the influences are centuries old, people cannot seem to let them go.


While Christmas is a Christian celebration, many of the traditions associated with it are thought to have origins in Viking culture, according to UHI's Centre for Nordic Studies.

Scandinavians marked the time around the winter solstice, when daylight hours start to lengthen, long before Christianity came to Nordic regions.

They would prepare food, brew alcohol and visit friends and relatives in the festival known as Yule, a term possibly derived from the Old Norse word "jól".

Dr Alex Sanmark, reader at the Orkney-based centre, said: "The meaning of jól is uncertain and no satisfactory explanation has been put forward, but suggestions have ranged from 'the time of blizzards' to 'joyous feast' and even 'magic'.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Acting the goat is a long-standing tradition in Norway

"Drinking played an important part in the celebrations.

"According to early Christian laws, all the farmers had to join together to brew beer for Christmas and this beer should then be drunk at a party for 'peace and prosperity'.

"This is clearly a Christian version of a much older, pagan tradition relating to the fertility cult - a form of nature worship used to try to ensure that people, plants and animals were productive."

Dr Sanmark added: "One of the earliest usages of the word jól is in a poem probably composed around the year 900, where we find the typical expression 'to drink jól', again showing that alcohol was a central part of Viking midwinter celebrations."

A further Nordic tradition associated with Christmas involves dressing up, visiting the homes of family, friends and neighbours and singing songs.

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland said all were key features of Yule.

The researcher said: "As a child in Norway in the 1980s, I remember dressing up to "gå julebukk" - to go Yule-goating.

"Julebukk involves dressing up with a mask and going to people's doors to chase out Christmas around New Year time. You sing and carry a sack to collect cakes and sweeties.

"If we go a couple of hundred years further back in time, people used to walk in a group around the farms in the parish, dressed up so that nobody would recognise them. It was the custom for them to be offered something to drink and eat at each farm.

"These costumes could be rather frightening and represent fantastical animals, such as an effigy of a billy goat's - or Yule Goat's - head on a stick.

"Folk belief had it that supernatural beings were extra active at this time of year, so the costumes could also have represented the 'Oskoreia' - a frightening collection of supernatural creatures chasing about. It was best to stay indoors when the Oskoreia sweeps across your farmyard."

Pointed hat

Another creature in Scandinavian folklore is known as the "tomte" or "nisse", thought to live in byres and stables and an influence on the look of today's Christmas elves.

Dr Ljosland said: "The tomte or nisse was an elf-like creature in grey clothing and a pointed hat.

"It was a good idea to be nice to this being, for example by offering him some food and drink now and then, as he could be helpful if you were kind to him and naughty if you were not.

"Nowadays, the 'Jultomte' or 'Julenisse' - meaning 'Yule-tomte' or 'Yule-nisse' is the one who brings presents on Christmas Eve.

"As a child living in a city, I remember putting out Christmas porridge for the nisse in our garage, in the lack of a stable. But it must have worked as it was all gone on Christmas morning."

Image copyright AP/Disney
Image caption A scene from Disney's Frozen

A more recent addition to some families' experience of Christmas is the Disney blockbuster, Frozen, whether it be watching the DVD, singing its songs or asking Santa for the toys.

The film's plot draws on Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Snow Queen and references Scandinavian traditions.

Frozen's city of Arendelle is based on Arendal, a town in southern Norway.

"There is no doubt the North has had an influence on the modern concept of Christmas and this is now being seen in popular culture, for example, in films like Frozen," said Prof Donna Heddle, the director of the Centre for Nordic Studies.

"There is a real place in Norway called Arendal and Orkney gets our municipal Christmas tree from there every year - an interesting link which bridges the real and the imagined Nordic world."

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