Yule ale: a tradition older than Christmas

Skål for jul!

Norwegian Yule ale

Photo: Judith Gabriel Vinje
The symbol for jul on an old primstav is the drinking horn. So hoist a brew this Christmas. It’s tradition!

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

Beer is the oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. And it just might be the root of the festival season known as jul (yule, jøl).

In ancient days, all the peasants in Norway would travel to the local heathen temple, bringing along food and beer for a feast. Everyone was expected to take part in the drinking of ale. The first toast was to be made to Odin, then the other gods. Additional toasts were drunk to the memory of the departed.

The tradition of brewing Christmas beer and drinking in honor of the old gods remained in the time following Christianization. There was once actually a law requiring everyone to brew lots of it, and to make it strong enough.

With the passage of time, people were to drink in honor of Christ and the Virgin Mary instead of the old gods. But the role of ale in jul has been paramount since ancient days.

Viking Age brewing
Beer has a long history in Norway, going back at least 1,000 years to long before Christianity was slowly imposed on the country. Brewing experts think that surviving ale brewing practices in rural western Norway today may actually be Viking Age techniques.

The making of the brew was the biggest task of the early winter season. Until about 200 years ago, no farm was complete without a brewhouse—the bryggehus. Peasants mainly made a malty juleøl, a dark beer brewed traditionally for the Christmas season, a variety still in vogue as the season’s signature brew.

The first of the season’s brewing would be laid out or poured on a stone for the Vettir and nisser, the local gnomes and spirits.

So pronounced was the tradition of Yule Ale and “drinking Jul” that the drinking horn became the most important symbol of the season. On the old wooden calendar stick known as the primstav, replete with carved symbols for annual holidays and other important occasions, it is the drinking horn that signifies Christmas. Some stick calendars also depicted an upside-down drinking horn for Jan. 13, symbolizing that the juleøl should be finished by then.

Sorcery and magic
Some clues are contained within the word itself. To the Norse, it’s øl. In old English, “ale” is ealu. In proto-Germanic, the ancient root language, it was alu, a term that held connotations of sorcery, magic, and intoxication.

Ale played a part in religious rites as well as in the telling of Norse myth. It was not just a matter involving thirsty earthlings. The 12th century Icelandic poem Álvissmal says, “Ale it is called among men, but among the gods, beer.”

Jul is a period of time stretching from mid-November to mid-January, with Christmas and the week before New Year as the highlight. Jul was once the name of that month in the old Germanic calendar.

While many think jul comes from an old term for wheel, and that the wheel is symbolic of the changing of seasons and the completion of the year, others think it may have other connotations.

Beer for Odin
Many history buffs insist it was all about Odin, and that old juløl has become just yule. And beer is at the bottom of it all, the root of the season as well as a toast to the gods.

For one thing, among Odin’s many names is Jølnir. It sounds a lot like yule and a lot like ale. Could the two be connected? According to a skaldic poem from the Viking Age, Odin was considered the “protector of beer,” which was first made by two dwarves out of the god Kvasir’s blood, which they mixed with honey.

Kvasir’s head had been chopped off in a feud. The head was taken to Odin, who sang charms over it and gave it back the power of speech. Its wisdom became Odin’s wisdom, and poetry was referred to as Kvasir’s blood.

But beer and ale were not so ominous. Great fun is associated with the brew. There’s another connection with Jul. Some say the term stems from the old Norwegian word ylir, which translates into the “person who organizes fun parties.” It was ale that livened up the guests, loosened their tongues, and helped make the darkness of winter bearable.

In fact, it was absolutely required that everybody had to make ale for the Yule season. According to written sources from the Sagas, it was mandatory for farmers to have a beer-drinking party with at least three farmers attending, or at least to make enough brew for three drinkers, even if the farmer was going to be alone. After the Christianization of the Norse, it was the church that insisted each household produce yule ale. And a farmer could be fined if their beer barrel was empty.

Mandatory brew
The tradition of brewing Yule ale and drinking in honor of the old gods remained in the time following Christianization, with the law requiring people to brew enough, as well as to brew it strong enough, but people were now to drink in honor of Christ and the Virgin Mary instead of the old gods.

Speaking of the church, another major figure enters into the jul/ale picture. In enticing the peasants away from their attachment to Odin and the old religion, it was declared that December 21 would be celebrated as the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle
The day was particularly important because all brewing and Christmas preparations were required to be completed by St. Thomas Day, which happened to coincide with the Winter Solstice. So connected was the saint with ale that long ago he acquired the nickname “Thomas the Brewer.” (In the biblical sense, he was known as “Doubting Thomas.”)

In old Norway, the “peace of Christmas” began on St. Thomas Day. Norwegians would visit each other on that day to sample one another’s Christmas ale. (St. Thomas, alas, has since had his day moved to July 3 and is no longer is associated with Yule drinking.)

So as you hoist your own brew this Christmas season, make sure to leave some for the nisser and know that that dark frothy mug means it’s that time of year again. In the old days, those were the nights that Odin—Jólnir—himself might be soaring through the skies with his spooky consort known as the Wild Hunt. Perhaps they were out looking for a nightcap! Or perhaps they’d already had one too many.

So stay warm. Hoist that brew! God jul and good øl.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784.4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.