Modern times, in highly Christianized America, we are persistently insistently demanded to view the annual solar minimum as somehow related to the birth of Christ, the god-child Messiah. The association is a lot of baloney, of course, conjured up by latecomers to the feast who for reasons unfathomable to me insist that their Mysterious Giant Talking Head In The Sky is somehow more believable than anyone else’s Mysterious Giant Talking Head In The Sky. First come, first claimed is what I say, and the Christ-child and his believers can take a hike and find their own damn holiday season because my people got here first.
Beginning in the Stone Age and probably much earlier, long before Christians emerged from the benighted remnants of a rag-tag desert tribe, my ancestors celebrated the Winter Solstice with feasting and fear. Much of the meat and fish as well as vegetables and berries so carefully preserved would be starting to spoil and must be consumed or lost, so a feast was the solution; eat it or lose it, just that simple. As well, in those days one could never be certain that the sun would return to its summer position, allowing plants to grow and the game to come for the hunters, so propitiation of what gods there were seemed like a prudent proposition. Combine the imperative with impulse and you have Yule, from the Old Norse jól, the most ancient and important of the Nordic traditions.
Well south, in the land of the Jews and the Romans and later the Christians and Islamists, there was no proper understanding of the true rigor and fearsomeness of the Winter Solstice. In their warmer clime food was indeed more abundant in summer but could still be harvested and easily husbanded in winter while fisheries, even if dangerous, were open year-round. In the far North such was not the case and winter was a time of fear and deprivation, when people starved and whole settlements could be wiped out from lack of food and freezing weather. Observing Yule in the North Countries was a serious business, not something to be fooled with or taken lightly.
Once the Northern peoples had their own gods and their own rituals, but the relentless conquest of militant Christianity eventually reached them too. While there are many theories about the usurpation of Yule, the most persuasive revolves around Hákon, a son of Norway who spent some years among Christians in his conquered Scottish lands. Recognizing the powerful nature of despotism provided by combining Christianity with militancy, on his return to Norway he first consolidated political power through conventional conquest and patronage but soon invoked Christianity as a means of finally driving the established Nordic rituals and their base of power from his realm. His story, the Saga of Hákon the Good, is of course a history told by the victors and paints him as a benevolent bringer of peace and justice rather than the manipulative and brutal tyrant he really was.
As he brought the native religion to heel, there was an inherent limitation in his new myth; imposing a celebration of the birth of the Christian god could only cover one night and day while the Yule feast lasted for three days, from the time of the sun first reaching Solstice minimum until, by the crude methods of the time, the sun could be seen to have clearly reversed its course and the warm days to come were assured.
The existing Nordic ritual began with an evening feast on the night of December 21. As midnight approached, the middle of the longest night of the year, all lights including all fires would be extinguished and for long moments a silence would take hold while everyone contemplated the full awesomeness of the moment, the absolute grip of power to which they were subjugated by forces outside their control or understanding, a pause long enough to let the cruel fingers of outside cold penetrate the gathering.
Then to everyone’s relief a single candle would be lit and passed around, igniting other candles until the feasting hall would be filled by dozens then hundreds of points of light. It is from this ritual that we get our modern tradition of decorating with Christmas lights. Then the fire would be re-lit, at its center a giant Yule log large enough to burn continuously for three nights and days, the power invoked by the sustained fire driving the sun back upon its southward course thereby ensuring rebirth of warmth, food and security.
No problem making the adaptation, since any lie would do as well as another; Hákon and his priests substituted the birth of the Christ for the apparent shift in the sun’s position, one rebirth for another. From the original Yule beginning on December 21 Hákon settled on the eve of the sun’s resurgence three nights later, December 24, as the nativity feast night and so we have Christmas Eve followed by Christmas Day on December 25. Presto-Change-o, old gods gone, new god in, and give me all your gold and allegiance or die by my sword. Only the compliant survived, and so by dint of force a new ritual supplanted the old.
The Norse, however, never forgot their emotional and spiritual roots in a more organic religiosity, one built upon darker tactile forces and more somber, more immediate consequence. Modern Nordic music continues to hold that spare solemnity, as evidenced here by the brilliant first movement to the Molde Canticle written by the gifted Norwegian musician Jan Garbarek, named for a spectacularly sited town on the northwest coast of Norway with a wonderful summer jazz fest.
Garbarek builds his Canticle upon ancient Nordic folk themes, and the plaintive cry for deliverance is clear and strong.
Jan Garbarek , soprano saxophone; Eberhard Weber, custom solid-body electric bass with additional C-string; Rainer Brüninghaus, keyboards; and Marilyn Mazur, percussion:
Musical instruments are mere substitutes for the human voice, attempts at mechanical reproduction that even in their wonder cannot fully replicate that richness of sound. Compare the sharp brilliance of Garbarek’s saxophone to the lush rounded beauty of this rendition by the magnificent Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø, and feel the icy blue fingers of bitter-sweet Nordic mordancy crawl up your spine:
Farther north than even the Norse lived other more ancient tribes, whose true history has faded from memory and whose trials at the hands of nature and of man are one long saga of pain and suffering. Among them are the Sámi, a gentle people much persecuted by my Norwegian ancestors from the arrival of Hákon and his punitive Christianists right through most of the 20th Century. Living above the Arctic Circle, the Sámi knew the full terror of Winter-time and of the dark that encompasses all, when the sun disappears and an endless night envelopes the land and blackens the soul.
They had their own gods, of course, and knew an intimate relationship with each. When nights were longest a powerful spirit, a sort of succubus, would emerge from the underworld and possess the minds of men, enslaving them within her grip for eternity to fantasies of sexual ecstasy. Here the wondrous Sámi artist Mari Boine tells the tale of how the female shamans joined their powers together to defeat the underworld femme-demon and release their men folk, who could then return to more useful pursuits like hunting game, dragging home some firewood and probably, though not mentioned, taking out the garbage. Some things are universal cultural constants.
(With its sustained vowels, spoken Sámi words sound odd to our Western ears; it is an ancient language, meant for chanting, for ritual expression. If you have never heard the Sámi language sung, you are in for a rare treat.)
Mari Boine, Idjadiegas (In the hand of the Night)
Shiny, eh? Here’s one more from Boine, somber, as befits the season:
Ipmiliin Hálesteapmi (Conversation With God)
Best wishes for a joyous Yule whatever gods or goddesses you worship or none at all, and may the resurgent sun warm us every one, body and soul.