For practitioners of Ásatrú, a contemporary form of Norse paganism whose beliefs are based in an abiding respect for nature, as well as ancient Norse culture, folk belief, and mythology, Jól is the most important holiday of the year. A celebration of the winter solstice, rebirth, and the start of the new year, Jól—from which the Icelandic word for Christmas is derived—dates back much earlier than the Christian holiday, but has been absorbed by Christmas in the intervening centuries.
“Christians got Christmas from us,” says Jóhanna Harðardóttir, the Ásatrú Association’s Deputy High Priestess, although, of course, the reason for the celebration obviously changed quite a bit. But although Ásatrú believers have their own special observances during the holiday season, Jóhanna says that most people still share many common Christmas traditions, such as sending cards and exchanging gifts. And, of course, wishing each other a “Gleðileg Jól!”
Like many of the blóts, or ritual observances which Ásatrú practitioners hold each year, Jól is deeply connected to the seasons. “Jól is when the sun is born again,” says Jóhanna, noting that Jól celebrations in Iceland are particularly well attended by many who don’t belong to the Ásatrú religion. For Icelanders, with their notoriously dark winters, she says, the winter solstice has particular resonance: “it’s in our souls to be happy when the sun begins to rise again.”
Jól celebrations begin with an outdoor Jólablót on the first of December. During the ceremony, attendees circle together around a fire with candles, and listen to what Jóhanna calls “our Christmas story,” or how Freyr, the god of fertility and growth, fell in love with the Jötunn maiden Gerður, and made great sacrifices in order to win her as his bride. As Jóhanna explains, during the darkest hours of the winter, “Freyr falls in love with the daughter of a giant—Gerður—who is beautiful and light, a token of the sun.” When Gerður agrees to marry Freyr, the sun begins to rise again, bringing with it “a promise of longer and better days to come.”
After listening to this story, those who wish to can gather together to share a drink from a sacred drinking horn. Hangikjöt, or smoked lamb which is traditionally served at the holidays, is also eaten. Following the blot, a lavish feast is held. Children help to make a sun out of candles and receive small gifts, and music performances and other entertainment is enjoyed. It is a very family-oriented celebration, Jóhanna says, and “a very good place to be with children.”
In pagan tradition, night is understood to precede the day, and so many important celebrations begin at nightfall. (This is actually the reason that Christmas celebrations in Iceland begin at 18:00 on Christmas Eve here in Iceland.) On December 1 this year, five Jólablóts were held simultaneously at 18:00 around the country—one at Þingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament, and one in each quarter of Iceland: North, South, East, and West.
The Ásatrú Jól Story
Each year, the story of the Vanir god Freyr and his love for the Jötunn maiden Gerður are told at Ásatrú Jólablóts. Although the story sometimes reads as a romantic one, it is also one of sacrifice and self-destruction; in order to woo Gerður, Freyr must give up his magic sword. It is said that if he had kept this weapon, he would have survived the battles of Ragnarök.
The story of Freyr and Gerður is related in The Prose Edda, recorded by Snorri Sturlasson around the year 1200. Below is an excerpt from the tale, translated by the English scholar Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur in 1916.
“A certain man was called Gýmir, and his wife Aurboda: she was of the stock of the Hill-Giants; their daughter was Gerdr, who was fairest of all women. It chanced one day that Freyr had gone to Hlidskjálf [Odin’s seat, from which he can see all worlds] and gazed over all the world; but when he looked over into the northern region, he saw on an estate a house great and fair. And toward this house went a woman; when she raised her hands and opened the door before her, brightness gleamed from her hands, both over sky and sea, and all the worlds were illumined of her. Thus his overweening pride, in having presumed to sit in that holy seat, was avenged upon him, that he went away full of sorrow. When he had come home, he spake not, he slept not, he drank not; no man dared speak to him. Then Njördr [Freyr’s father] summoned to him Skírnir, Freyr’s foot-page, and bade him go to Freyr and beg speech of him and ask for whose sake he was so bitter that he would not speak with men. But Skírnir said he would go, albeit unwillingly; and said that evil answers were to be expected of Freyr.
But when he came to Freyr, straightway he asked why Freyr was so downcast, and spake not with men. Then Freyr answered and said that he had seen a fair woman; and for her sake he was so full of grief that he would not live long if he were not to obtain her. ‘And now thou shalt go and woo her on my behalf and have her hither, whether her father will or no. I will reward thee well for it.’ Then Skírnir answered thus: he would go on his errand, but Freyr should give him his own sword—which is so good that it fights of itself—and Freyr did not refuse, but gave him the sword. Then Skírnir went forth and wooed the woman for him, and received her promise; and nine nights later she was to come to the place called Barrey, and then go to the bridal with Freyr…
This was to blame for Freyr’s being so weaponless, when he fought with Beli, and slew him with the horn of a hart. Then said Gangleri: “‘Tis much to be wondered at, that such a great chief as Freyr is would give away his sword, not having another equally good. It was a great privation to him, when he fought with him called Beli; by my faith, he must have rued that gift.”
The Ásatrú Association’s office is located at Síðumúli 15, and is open weekdays from 13:00 to 16:00, as well as every Saturdays 14:00 – 16:00. The office has rotating art exhibitions on view, and members often hold open coffee chats, lectures, and movie screenings on the weekend. More info at www.asatru.is.