Most of the Western world is about to celebrate a festival that’s usually referred to as Christmas (or “jól” in Icelandic). “Christmas” was originally known as the winter solstice festival. It always been an important heathen celebration and is indeed much older than Christianity. In Iceland, heathendom is still very much alive. Case in point: the Ásatrú Association was granted recognition as a registered religious organization in 1973 and currently has 1.382 members (and counting).
Ásatrú is a heathen religion that has been practiced in Iceland since its settlement and throughout it’s periods of Christianisation and Christendom. The purpose of the Ásatrú Association today is to keep alive the old traditions and beliefs of the Nordic folklore. The priests, or goðar, conduct name-giving ceremonies, weddings and funerals and the most important ritual, the communal blót. “During a blót we gather around a fire and call for the gods and wights [“vættir” – supernatural beings] to join us. We call to the north, south, east and west. A horn filled with any kind of drink goes around the circle and you lift the horn and hail to what ever is in your heart,” Alda Vala Ásdísardóttir from the Ásatrú Association tells me as I pay her a visit.
Followers of Ásatrú believe in spirits, gods and other beings from the Nordic pantheism. “Believing in your own might and power is also accepted,” she says. The Eddas, the poems and tales of Norse Mythology written down in Iceland during the 13th century, are used as a source of wisdom. The poem Hávamál is used as a moral guide and the poem Völuspá tells of the creation of the Earth. An important part of ásatrú is being in contact with earth and nature according to Alda Vala. “We are a part of nature and nature is a part of us. We interact. Many religions don’t have that point of view; in other religions the higher power only comes from above. In heathendom, we work together with nature.”
The heathens were first!
“The winter solstice festival is the original Christmas,” says Alda Vala. The heathen festival was celebrated because the days were getting brighter. It was later absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas. During Christianisation, church leaders hoped to replace the heathen customs with Christian traditions by making the winter solstice festival coincide with the Christian celebrations held at the time. The effort was never completely successful, however, and eventually many winter solstice customs were simply incorporated into Christmas observances.
In ásatrú, jól is recognized as lasting for 12 days. It begins on the date of the winter solstice, which usually takes place around December 21 to 22. At the time of the solstice the members of the Ásatrú Association get together and have a blót. Afterwards they share a meal that is preceded by welcoming the sun back. “The children have a vital part of the ceremony. They are given candles to spiral more light.”
Alda Vala explains that even the modern Christmas tree is derived from heathendom. “During jól you decorated the tree of life. Decorating, or making offerings to a tree during this time was a prayer for fruitful times ahead.”
The ásatrú flock celebrate Christmas just like anyone else after the winter solstice ceremony has taken place. They gather with friends and family and exchange gifts. “All the days around jól have always been a big festival for heathens. It is the darkest time of year, so why not fest when you need it the most?