The Norse people celebrated a midwinter feast which is now called Jul in Scandinavia and Yule in other countries. The Old Norse words Jól was used to describe a feast, and Jólablót was a midwinter festival associated with the rebirth of the sun. Blót or blot does not mean blood as many believe, but means ritual of sacrifice or worship. The verb blóta meant "to worship with sacrifice" or "to strengthen".
The long white-bearded Norse god Odin also had the name Jólfaðr, which in Old Norse meant "Yule father", and Jólnir, meaning "the Yule one".
In Old Norse poetry, the word Jól was often used as a synonym for 'feast', such as in the kenning Hugins jól, meaning "Huginn's Yule" (Hugin being one of Odins ravens).
During the celebration of Jól the community would take up the drinking horn, and drink mead, beer and wine. This is now called “å drikke jul” meaning to drink Yule and celebrate the Norse gods, dead friends and relatives, and peace and harmony.
Yule is attested early in the history of the Germanic peoples from the 4th century. In the 8th century, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included the months geola or giuli (Yule) which were either modern December or December and January.
The Old Norse name jól is mentioned in the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál. Here different names for the gods are given and one of the names provided is "Yule-beings". The skald Eyvindr Skáldaspillir uses the term which reads "again we have produced Yule-being's feast [mead of poetry], our rulers' eulogy, like a bridge of masonry".
In the Saga of Hákon the Good, King Haakon I of Norway, who was responsible for the Christianisation of Norway, rescheduled the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. The saga describes how toasts were to be drunk, and it is also stated that King Haakon had a law passed that everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines. The Norwegians also had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.
The oldest written source of the Viking Yule celebrations is Hrafnsmál, which means "raven speech" in Old Norse. This poem was composed around the 9th century by the Norwegian skald Þorbjörn Hornklofi. Hrafnsmál is mainly about a conversation between an unnamed valkyrie and a raven, who discuss the life and martial deeds of Harald Fairhair. Because of this, the poem is sometimes referred to as Haraldskvæði.
Toast in Old Norse: Úti vill jól drekka, Ef skal einn ráða, Fylkir enn framlyndi, Ok Freys leik heyja; (Drink out Yule, if one will advise, the fame-seeking ruler, and perform Frey's game). The first toast was to be drunk to Odin "for victory and power to the king", the second to the gods Njörðr and Freyr" for good harvests and for peace", and third, a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. In addition, toasts were drunk to the memory of departed kinsfolk. These were called "minni [memorial toast]".
The Yule tree, holly, mistletoe, Yule log and Yule tree decorations, all have Scandinavian origins. The traditions of the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar (Sonargöltr) reflected in the Christmas ham, Yule singing, and other such traditions, stem from Pagan Yule customs. The Yule Goat (Norwegian julebukk) is one of the oldest Scandinavian Jul symbols. Its origin is the legend about Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, who rode in the sky in a wagon pulled by two goats.
The Yule tree, known as Jultre in Scandinavia, and Christmas tree in other lands, is usually an evergreen conifer such as spruce, pine, or fir. The use of evergreen trees symbolized eternal life to many ancient cultures. Tree worship was common among pagan Scandinavians and Europeans, and survived their conversion to Christianity.
Scandinavians cut down trees to cut into firewood. The top of the tree used to keep the people of the cold North warm during the Yule period, was used as both decoration and sacred symbol. The Yule log was important because it kept fire in the world and helped to ensure the next harvest would be good.
The noun Yuletide is first attested from around 1475, and the Germanic and Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens began to spread in the 15th and 16th centuries. This custom blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The famous Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a Jultre donated to the people of Britain by Norway each year since 1947. Every year the city of Oslo sends this gift as a token of gratitude for British support of Norway during the Second World War. The tree is typically a 50- to 60-year-old Norwegian spruce, generally over 20 metres tall, and prominently displayed in Trafalgar Square from the beginning of December until 6 January.
Gifts don’t need
To be extravagant
A little praise is often enough
And something to drink
Has secured many friendships
HÁVAMÁL - verse 52
One Old Norse toast used at Yule was “til árs ok friðar", meaning for a good year and frith (peace). This toast was for fertility, good health, a good life and peace and harmony between the people and the powers. This ancient Norse toast would be drunk at the Jólablót, a feast that took place at the first full moon after the winter solstice, which occurs each year around the 21st of December.
In Shetland, where the Viking influence was strongest, New Year is called Yules, from the Norwegian Jul (Old Norse - Jól). The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule was "Hoggo-nott" which is one theory as to the derivation of the word "Hogmanay".
A new Years Eve tradition is Scotland is called "First footing". This is the name for the first foot in the house after midnight. To ensure good luck for the house, the first foot should belong to a dark haired male, who should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky. The reason for a dark hair is believed to be a throwback to the Viking days when blond strangers arriving on your doorstep meant trouble.