It’s the most wonderful time of the year, the time countless amateur historians and amateur theologians come out to write blog posts about how Christmas is *ackchyually* a Pagan feast stolen from [insert select group here]. Usually, it is about how Christians stole everything from Mithraism or Roman religion, stuff that has been debunked countless times,but as a Norwegian, I mostly hear about how we actually stole the Pagan celebration of jól (yule) from the Pagans Scandinavians. This is false but it is often accompanied with some equally erroneous claims concerning the Winter Solstice.
First, jól was not ever celebrated in December. It was celebrated around 12-14th January, and the main part of the celebration was the Midwinter sacrifice (blot). Christmas was celebrated on 25th December (or the night before) and it had only one thing in common with the Norse celebration of jól; the brewing of mead. And not all people called this jól either. That was more of a cultural thing, based on the mead. The name of the feast itself was Christmas (Kristmesse).
Second, as Old Norse philologist Eirik Storesund points out,the Winter Solstice had almost nothing to do with jól or the Midwinter Sacrifice. It may have been used to calculate the time of jól, but that’s it. Citing Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg, Storesund points out that we have no contemporary evidence that the Norse pagans actually celebrated the Winter Solstice. They may have used it as a tool to calculate jól but unlike their counterparts in other European countries, they did not celebrate it. As he puts it: “And it’s not as if Old Norse texts never said anything about exactly when the yuletide sacrifices should commence, because they totally do, and it coincides with the astronomical winter solstice in exactly no source whatsoever.”
And third, neither Scandinavians not Romans marked or celebrated the Winter Solstice on or near December 25th. Now, we mark the Solstice on December 21 or 22, which for some people seem to be very important, even though that’s 3-4 days before Christmas, but the interesting part is that this can only have been the case from 1582 at the earliest. Before pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, in 1582, the calendar in use was the Julian calendar. On that calendar, the winter solstice was around December 13th, also being combined with the celebration of St. Lucy. The Winter Solstice wasn’t important for the Norse pagans, and it was celebrated almost two weeks before Christmas which was, in turn, celebrated almost three weeks before jól. None of these coincided with each other.
So no, Christmas is not *ackchyually* a Pagan feast stolen from [insert select group here].
Eirik Storesund, “Norse Yuletide Sacrifices Had (Almost) Nothing To Do With The Winter Solstice” (Brute Norse, December 22nd, 2017).
Andreas Nordberg, Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden. Uppsala: Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien för svensk folkkultur, 2006.
AMEN! And you can bet those people knew when the solstice was to the minute; winter was rough.