Yule Celebrations in Medieval Times

In early Medieval times, the Yule feasts were continued, even if the occasion had changed. In the Thirteenth Century several of the most powerful chieftains in Iceland, such as the historian Snorri Sturluson, his nemesis Gissur Ţorvaldsson, Snorri's kinsmen Ţórđur kakali and Ţorgils skarđi, all held large feasts at Yule. And so did the Bishops of the bishopric at Hólar. These were large feasts, which lasted for several days and included dancing, games and sports and other entertainment.

In some areas the local folk gathered together and held a joint feast at Yule, which was called Jólagleđi, Yule Joy.

These feasts continued until the Reformation, Catholicism being more tolerant of enjoyment at Yule than the reformers. The last Catholic Bishop at Hólar, Jón Arason, held large Yule feasts. But after that time there exist many letters from religious and lay leaders complaining about the dancing and merriment at Yule. And this had the effect that these feasts and dancing were not allowed for a couple of centuries. And Iceland lost most of it's native Folk dances as a result.

There are many folk tales about dancing on Yule Eve and as people usually went to church on Yule Eve, somebody was left to guard the house against elves, who came to empty houses and danced the night away. This may be an indication that the people of Iceland sought out empty farmhouses on Yule Eve and danced there.

A Royal Decree on Holidays states: "All chess, games, running, card games, loose talk and entertainment are hereby strongly forbidden ..." Even though this has long since been rescinded, this attitude still has some effects, as among many elderly people it is considered a bad omen to play cards on Yule. Strange attitude, when one considers that the Yule presents they usually received as children were a candle and a deck of cards.

All this started to change just before 1900 and Yule merriment was rekindled, especially for children. The Jólaskemmtanir, Yule Entertainment, started then and are still going strong. They were started by the Trade Unions top provide children from poor families with a chance to see a Yule Tree, dance around the tree, and have a little fun.

But public entertainment is still considered inappropriate on Yule Eve and Yule Day, and it is only on Boxing Day that dancing is allowed in public.

Some Yule Beliefs:

In the Medieval Era there arose a lot of superstitions and folk beliefs that still are in existence in Iceland, some of them are retold here. Many of them are connected to either Yule Eve, New Year's Eve or Ţrettándinn, as these days have been moved around in the calendar, and beliefs have been transposed from one to the other.

Churchyards are supposed to "rise" on these nights, that is to say: the dead walk the graveyard.

Water is supposed to turn into wine for a short time on New Year's Eve or Ţrettándinn, this is mainly connected to the river Öxará at Ţingvellir. This river also sometimes turns into blood, and then one can expect the Alţing (the old Icelandic Parliament) to be bloody the next year.

The Búrdrífa, Larder Fall, was the rime that collected on the larder floor on New Year's Eve, and was supposed to bring wealth and happiness.

One is supposed to be able to see one's future husband, or wife, on New Year's Eve by looking in a mirror in a pitch-black room. Nobody else may be present, and you must chant a magical lay, and then a hand with a knife appears in the mirror three times, but after that the picture will solidify into the face of one's intended.
The passing of the Old Year is always an integral part of Yule, especially as the feast may have started out as the celebration of a New Year, and in Christianity the year used to start on the birthday of Jesus.



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