Traditions of “Yule” began as pagan celebrations after the midwinter solstice in the Northern European countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Festivals to mark the end of the longest days of the year included feasting, toasting and animal sacrifice in celebration of food as a “last feast” before the famine months of January through April.
This ancient holiday was transformed during the Christianization of Germanic peoples and as a result, Yule traditions in Scandinavia today usually include Roman-Catholic Christmas rituals. Modern celebrations, called Yulefest or Julefest, begin after the midwinter solstice, lasting 12 days from December 22nd through January 2nd.
Julefest Celebrations in Scandinavia
During the season of Jule, Denmark is known for hosting outdoor holiday markets full of handcrafted decorations, food and drink. These markets draw tourists from around the world who want to get a taste of traditional Scandinavian Christmas fare. A popular drink at the holiday markets is Gløgg, an alcoholic beverage served hot with mulled spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. To accompany this savory drink are sweet æbleskiver, popover-like pastries that are covered in powdered sugar, served with a jam or sweet sauce for dipping.
Danes also enjoy the food tradition of Julekrost, a Christmas lunch, that is served buffet style with large amounts of food and alcohol. Also celebrated in Sweden as Julbord, this event is usually an all-day feast between co-workers or family, sometimes held in a relative’s cozy home and sometimes hosted by a more formal restaurant. There are lots of variations of Julekrost, and most Danes will attend at least one of these lunches at the beginning of the Jule season. Sometimes small gifts are exchanged or games may be played, but it’s always a given that one will be eating and drinking for hours and hours at any Julekrost.
Family celebrations during Jule often include games. “Finding the Almond” is played while guests share a sweet rice pudding course. They pass the bowl and each take a bite. The person to find the almond is the winner, awarded a small gift of marzipan or chocolate. White Elephant gift exchanges are also popular. Guests roll dice to open a gift or steal a gift from another guest. The gifts are usually silly, with little value so part of the fun watching to see what gifts the other guests will open. Giftwrap layering is another fun way to entertain friends and family. The host passes a gift from guest to guest, each one unwrapping one layer of paper. When the final layer of paper is unwrapped, the guest wins the gift.
Julefest Celebrations in the U.S.
In the United States, festivals held by Scandinavian communities occur well beyond the 12 days following the solstice. These Julefest events draw tourism that is a financial benefit to “Christmas town” communities, resulting in the delightful expansion of the holiday season.
Some example of these Scandinavian heritage towns are Solvang, California and Elk Horn, Iowa. These cities enrich their communities by honoring their Scandinavian roots and carry-on many ancient Yule traditions.
In the spirit of the original Danish settlers, Solvang, CA offers some of the most Danish-spirited and light-filled events of the Christmas season. Local eateries serve roast duck, roast goose, caramelized potatoes, pickled red cabbage, ginger cookies and warmed wine with brandy & dried fruit cocktails. One can enjoy candlelight tours of city and a meeting with Santa Clause in Solvang Park. Tree lighting events and biblical pageants add to the joyous co-existence of pagan and Christian traditions.
In Elk Horn, IA visitors can enjoy craft demonstrations, Christmas concerts, tours of historical Danish-American landmarks and free genealogy research education. This community just recently celebrated 40 years of hosting Julefest festivities and is continuously working to enrich the Danish-American culture with a focus on their history of immigration and settlement.
Traditionally, most Danish heritage communities enjoy the playfulness of the Nisser or Gnomes. Santa Clause is considered the Gnome Father by Danes and they will leave risengrød, or sweet rice porridge for him on Christmas Eve symbolizing an intent to do good deeds in the year to come. Without leaving this offering for Santa, one can risk a gnome playing tricks on their family throughout the year.
How Julefest Unites People
Denmark's winter is at its darkest on December 21st, when the sunlight lasts only seven hours per day. This results in much celebration for the end of the dark days, and it prior to the famine days of winter that are yet to come. A feast is in order!