Winter Feasting: Keeping Your Spirits Up

OldManWinterThe Feast of Thorri, or Þorrablót in Old Norse, has some ancient, and mostly lost roots, that are referenced in Orkneyinga saga and a section of Flateyjarbók called Hversu Noregr byggðist (How Norway was settled). Þorri is a mythical human king who is a descendant of a giant named Fornjót, who had three sons, Hlér (Ægir), Logi (fire), and Kári (cold). Kári had a son named Frosti (frost), who is called Jökull (glacier) in Hversu Noregr byggðist. Frosti’s son is Snær (snow), the father of Þorri, king of Finland, Gotland, and Kvenland. Þorri’s sisters are Fönn (snowdrift), Drífa (snowfall), and Mjöll (snow powder). It is said that one of Þorri’s descendants is Nór, who gave his name to Norway. Þorri gave his name to the first month of the Norse calendar. We can even seem remnants of it in the Old Swedish calendar where the name survives as Torremånad.

According to Orkneyinga saga, Þorri was the first to hold a midwinter feast, which gets its name from him, Þorrablót. Hversu Noregr byggðist tells us that the Kvens continued to sacrifice to Þorri for good snow. The 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius wrote that the residents of Thule (most likely Scandinavia) celebrated a great feast in celebration of the days growing longer, which would have been notable some time after the winter solstice. Procopius didn’t observe this himself. Instead, he tells us that this was told to him by natives of Thule.

The modern celebration of Þorrablót isn’t ancient at all. In truth, it’s part of the Romantic and nationalistic revival of the 19th century. Still, the Icelanders today make great use of it as a means of celebrating their national heritage and as a means of keeping up their spirits in some of the coldest months of the year. Thankfully, for those of us who aren’t Icelandic, most of the traditional foods they eat at this time aren’t exported to the rest of the world. It will be a very cold day in Muspelheim before I could bring myself to eat hákarl or a sheep’s head. Lutfisk is bad enough, and I’ll have you note that I refuse to eat that as well, thank you very much!

Now, I don’t mean to be unfair to the Icelanders. I like them and they are a friendly lot. In fact, I appreciate their efforts to find a way to stave off those bad feelings of being cooped up inside during the later winter months. Just the other day, my wife mentioned to me that she hates this time of year because it’s cold out, you can’t really go do much, and there are no more holidays to look forward to. This got me thinking about how we go about keeping things feeling cozy and just right. In Swedish, there’s a word that doesn’t quite translate well into English, gemytlig, that means “cozy” but it’s more like feeling like things are right and good in your home. Part of this is not just the appreciation of family time but also those times when really good company comes over, or even going to visit dear friends, and feeling connected to those that matter most to you.

This is the value I see in some sort of festivity like Þorrablót. For those who would rather not associate a celebration with someone of giant kinship, some modern American customs have been to celebrate a Feast of Thor (not at all linguistically related to Þorri) as a means of warding against the cold and asking for Thor’s protections against the ice and cold. Interestingly enough, the first month of the Old Swedish calendar has Torsmånad, Thor’s Month, as an alternate name for the first month of the year. Which ever way you choose to go, or even if you don’t make too big a deal out of it and just have a nice dinner party, the real value here is in keeping connected with friends and family.


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