Going back at least to the neolithic or “Stone Age” era, humans have celebrated the winter solstice, that time when the longest night of the year has finally come and the days begin to shine longer and brighter once again. In Western civilization, the midwinter traditions of our European ancestors have been incorporated into the Christmas and New Year holiday period.
The pre-Christian Germanic peoples celebrated the solstice in the festival known as Yule (Old Norse: jól). Yule is attested in mythology, in the book Heimskringla and Ynglinga Saga, and shows up in alternative names for the gods: for instance, Odin is Jólnir, and the gods themselves are Yule-Beings. Yule turns up in month names, Ylir in Old Norse, giuli in Anglo-Saxon, fruma jiuleis in Gothic.
Some of what we know of Yule traditions comes from literature, especially in the Saga of Hakon the Good, part of the story told in Heimskringla, the chronicle of Norwegian kings. Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson reports in this saga that Hakon, who had been converted to Christianity, came back to pagan lands and hoped to convert his people. At first they were resistant, and Snorri mentioned Yule in particular as a period during which the pagans were resistant to change. He eventually was able to get the Norwegians to begin to adopt Christmas as their celebration, but many pagan practices were preserved.
But most of our understanding of Yule comes from the actual traditions that were preserved after Hakon and other kings converted their subjects to Christianity (or when Iceland converted, which was a democratic decision, but it’s worth noting that for none of Scandinavian society was conversion optional: it was legally mandatory once the decision was made, and holding to the Old Way was punishable by law). Therefore, much of what we know of ancient Yule is somewhat conjectural.
Odin was the father of Yule, and Ynglinga Saga makes it clear that Yule was one of three great sacrifices decreed by Odin when civilization was established in the North. Scholar Rudolf Simek points out that the festival had a predominantly religious character and was celebrated “for a fertile and peaceful season” – the sacrifices held during this period were for fertility, for crops and livestock during the growing season especially, but for humans as well.
There was also a strong association with Odin in his role as leader of the Wild Hunt and father of the slain. It’s unclear exactly what role Yule had in the cult of the dead and ancestor veneration, but the association with the Wild Hunt makes it seem likely that this was a time when death and rebirth were celebrated – the last sheaf of grain from the harvest was held especially for this festival, the last livestock of the season were slaughtered, the mead and wine that had only just reached peak vintage were brought out for this festival, and so on. This festival seems likely to have been a time when the past was celebrated, and all the great things that the now-deceased plants, animals, and humans had given to the community. And with the fertility celebration, it was a time to look forward to all the things that new life would bring with the dawning of a newly strengthening sun and the coming of new life and new crops.
It’s also worth noting that Yule was especially well-reputed as a drinking feast, so emphasis was more on celebrating through libations than through feast, as food still had to be preserved for some of winter. Given traditional drinking of egg nog, punch, and wine that lasts for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in the West even today, this strong association seems to have been preserved.
It’s in other traditions of Yule that we begin to see evidence of Thor.
At first blush, there are obvious roles in Yule for Odin, Freyja and the Vanir, Sól/Sunna, and even Balder, as all have roles in death (Odin), birth (Freyja et al.), rebirth (Balder), Sól as the sun herself, and so on. Thor’s role from a theoretical perspective is on a couple of levels. First, Thor is the protector of life, and drives away the darkness that encroaches upon Sól as she tries to bring light and warmth to the world. He, like Odin, has a key role in the “life” part of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. But Thor also plays a key role in fertility cults, as a bringer of rain and defender of the common worker, including farmers. At Yule, he might be invoked to keep crops growing safely; the Vanir gods may be the primary drivers of growth, but Thor aids them in this quest.
Pagan traditions that survived into Christian conversion include such things as gift-giving, tree decoration, the Yule log, Christmas ham, Yule singing (Christmas caroling), a Scandinavian tradition called the Yule goat, a wandering man rushing through the town, a red-dressed, red-faced charioteer, and so on.
The most obvious connection to Thor is the Yule goat. In the tale where Thor and Loki meet the human children Thjalfi and Röskva, Thor has a meal with the children’s family while staying with them one night. He slaughters his goats Teeth-Grinder and Teeth-Gnasher in sacrifice, and they share the communal meal. The next morning, Thor uses Mjölnir to bless the goats and they are brought back to life, intact and ready for a new day (with an exception that you can read more about elsewhere). These goats are Thor’s steeds, his companions, and partially responsible for the sound of thunder and are intrinsically associated with Thor himself.
The Yule goat is a tradition in which the figure of a goat is bound together from the last sheaf of grain gathered at the end of the harvest (mentioned above). By binding this grain in the shape of a symbol dedicated to Thor and his renewable blessing of success in the fields, the community hopes to continue to gain his favor. Of course, it’s hard to be sure that’s the intent of the Yule goat tradition, that it’s an intentional reference to Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, or anything like that, since it’s not explicitly described as such in any writing that survived Christian conversion. The Yule goat tradition survives to this day, though, so it is a powerful symbol that has lasted long in the hearts of the Scandinavian people.
Another part of the surviving tradition which survives to this day is that of wearing Yule goat masks, where people, especially children, put on these masks and go in groups to sing songs to their neighbors in the expectation of receiving food for their performance, a practice known historically as wassailing, though you may call a slightly modified version Christmas caroling. The original intention may have been that the food was an offering to Thor, or at least it was an offering to his children to reward them for carrying on his spirit. One version of wassailing involves taking the songs to orchards to encourage the trees and plants to grow during the new year.
Given our well-known associations of Thor and the Germanic pagan gods with trees and orchards, it’s no surprise that there’s strong evidence that the Yule log and tree decorating pre-date the adoption of Christianity in the North. The extent to which Thor in particular can be associated with these practices is unclear, but our understanding of the gods’ relationship with trees includes Thor having an especially strong connection to those trees, especially to the oak, a traditional candidate for Yule log burning.
And I’ve read a million interpretations of who Santa Claus really is, since there’s no obvious association to Christianity, and he fits with several historical figures and mythological figures. He might be Odin the wanderer, who disguises himself, often wears a hat, and is associated with the wind and magic. But Thor, the champion of the people, who rides a chariot pulled by two horned goats (Donner and Blitzen = Thunder and Lightning; no Toothgrinder and Toothgnasher, though) that flies through the sky.
Perhaps that’s the association that Peter Nicolai Arbo was trying to get across in his famous painting, which I analyzed earlier this year. There are probably a few Northern traditions that got spliced together into a Santa Claus Frankenstein, but it’s not really my purpose to uncover that here.
However Yule was specifically celebrated by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, it seems most likely that it was about the turning point in the year, how winter solstice indicated that the darkness had been defeated and the days were going to start getting longer again. That festival lasted at least three days, if The Saga of Hakon the Good is to be believed, and may have been as many as twelve (as in, the twelve days of Christmas). It was a fertility festival focused on drink and merriment, and there were many traditions beyond even those mentioned here. And while Odin was the father of Yule, it seems likely the other gods had roles, too, and there’s strong evidence that Thor’s fertility function made him an important part of the traditions of these peoples and we can likely see his influence in several traditions that survive today, from Yule goats to Christmas carols to the Yule log.
Whether we ascribe to any of these traditions or not, it’s awe-inspiring that a god with a pedigree going back at least two thousand years and likely much longer, a god who the sovereigns of the North worked for centuries to expunge from the Earth, has managed to continue to have a deep influence on traditions and culture and undoubtedly will for many years to come.