Freya, the Norse goddess, was the goddess of fertility. Traditionally Friday is named after her. The midwinter festival celebrated by the Norse incorporated Mother’s Night – the feminine festival that Bede definitely disapproved. And how does this get us to ham?
Well, Freya rode a boar with golden bristles when she wasn’t using her other method of transport – a chariot pulled by two black cats. Pigs were sacred to her and yes we have arrived at feasting and pork.
From there it is a short step to the medieval boar’s head and with a hop and a skip you have arrived at glazed ham.
Let’s try and be a little practical here. In rural communities many families kept a pig – did you ever read the Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden? It could be fed from household scraps rather than requiring an expensive diet, acorns could be foraged. Even during World War Two people were encouraged to keep a pig.
So it really isn’t such a step to see how practicality and a tradition of pork on the festive table gives us a glazed ham. Now where is my recipe book? And how long will it take two people to eat a ham that can feed ten people comfortably for two days…
Prior to adopting Christianity – which was between the eleventh and twelfth centuries (the Swedes were a bit slow to adopt the “White Christ”) -Vikings held a range of seasonal feasts such as Jul in the winter ( Jolnir was one of Odin’s many names) and harvest festivals such as Mabon.
Adam of Bremen describes a festival that took place at Uppsala in Sweden once every nine years at the vernal equinox (the start of Spring) that involved sacrificing nine of every kind of male animal – and yes he does mention human sacrifice.
Major festivals involved feasting for twelve days and for those of you looking for an excuse to get the Christmas decorations out early many Germanic peoples celebrated a form of winter festival that fell somewhere between the middle of November and early January – quick break out the mead! It was King Haakon 1 of Norway who scheduled the winter holiday in the middle of the tenth century to coincide with Christmas, plied everyone with much ale across the celebration and ensured that there was lots of preaching resulting in some festive conversions to Christianity. It wasn’t entirely a smooth transition as the historic painting by Arbo demonstrates. Haakon, a Christian, first had to resist his people’s determination that he should celebrate Jol in the old style with a sacrifice.
Haakon is also known as Haakon the Good. His father was Harold Fairhair. Harold sent Haakon to England where he was raised at the court of King Athelstan and pick dup Christianity along the way. The only problem with all of that is that the earliest written source that alludes to all of this is twelfth century. Haakon’s half brother was Eric Bloodaxe and in order to become king Haakon had to depose Eric which is why Eric ended up in Yorkshire or Jorvik.
But back to the Norse before Christianity – there is evidence to suggest that the midwinter feast was linked to the so-called Wild Hunt which turns up in many European pre-Christian religious beliefs where lost souls are hunted across the night sky. In the North of England the pack of other-worldly hounds that Odin uses for his hunt are called Gabriel hounds and their howling is an omen of death – cheery.
I think I’ll return to the Norse festival of drinking and feasting designed to bring back the sun – and that brings us to those wreaths we hang on our front doors. Really they should be much larger and should be rolled down a hill whilst on fire to encourage the return of the sun… please don’t try it at home.
Other traditions with a Norse flavour include the yule log (which was very clearly not a chocolate confection in its original guise); Yule goats – which we don’t have but Scandinavians do; Old Man Winter; trees and mistletoe balls.
The first of the History Jar Zoom classes on Christmas and the festive season through the centuries begins on Monday 9th November 3pm (Greenwich Meantime.) Please see the Zoom class page for details.