What’s your opinion of pigs? Do you like them better when their small and dainty, or do you prefer big and chunky? How about with wings?
Never seen a winged pig?
Where I live they come out every Christmas. There are winged pigs made of porcelain, fabric, candy, and my personal favorite big wire-framed light up pigs for the yard.
Now, some might wonder how and when the pig got promoted from barnyard mud wallower to Christmas queen. Surely they never talk about him in any of those animated Christmas shows. I don’t recall George Bailey having a flying pig in It’s a Wonderful Life. Either someone added too much rum to Old McDonald’s eggnog, or there’s some history to be discovered.
While we can’t be sure of Old McDonald’s drinking habits, we can trace the link between our porcine brethren and Christmas back to ancient Norse Yule traditions. According to legend, the boar was the scared animal of Freyr, the god of peace, fertility, rain, and sunshine. Whew, that’s a lot of work! Freyr had a sister named Freyja, and although they both had a fondness for boars, it’s Freyr we’re concerned with today.
Now, Freyr had a boar friend named Gullinbursti who was quite magical. Gullinbursti could travel fast. Like really, really fast. It just so happens that his name translates as golden bristles, and for a good reason. As he traveled, he would exude a golden glow so bright night would be turned into day. All that pig-shine would make the plants grow too. I guess that’s the reason he also taught people good plowing techniques by raking the earth with his tusks. Truly, he was a pig-lanthropist for all seasons. It’s no wonder he came to symbolize abundance and prosperity.
Golden Bristles association with turning night into day came to be celebrated during yule. After all there he was showering the earth with light, restoring the earths fertility, and bringing peace to all men. I think you’d agree these are good things to celebrate, and since Yule comes at the darkest time of the year, it’s when the world is most in need of all these things. Of course all boars are related to Gullinbursti, therefore all boars had a special link with Freyr. So on the eve of Yule the men would gather up the choicest boar, place their hands on his head and swear their sacred oaths. The pig, now loaded with sacred messages, would then be sacrificed as an offering to Freyr. The hope was he might smile on them and grant them safety through the rest of the winter.
As a side note, this ritual of making a vow was called Heitstrenging. The oath taking was a pretty serious affair, and punishment could be in store for anyone who broke their vow. Only thing is, drinking was involved.
According to the Norse sagas, guys tended to get blasted before making their oaths. Maybe that’s why Harald Fairhair made an oath he would not comb or cut his hair until he became king of Norway. He eventually succeeded although he did consent to a slight trim ten years in. Some other oaths were not so benign. In the Jomsvikinga saga, for example, one guy makes a vow to destroy Norway with a little extra murder and rape thrown in. I’m not sure Old Golden Bristles would approve of that one.
Anyway, after awhile they streamlined the whole piggy process. Things would be a lot easier if they just made cakes into the shape of a boar. The Yule boar cake was made with the remnants of the Autumn harvest and stayed on display through the entire season. Some brave souls kept it until the spring planting when it was then eaten by the men and animals doing the sowing. Nothing like a finely aged cornbread, don’t you agree?
Of course the Norse liked the weather down south in merry old England, and when they moved in they brought their piggy passion with them. Hunting boar wasn’t anything new, but their Yule traditions helped incorporated the custom into the christian English Christmas feast. The finest halls of England developed their own ceremony just using the boars head. Being proper people they bedecked the beast with garlands and fruit, then carried him with all the pomp the could muster. A special platter of gold or silver was his chariot; minstrels, servants, and cooks were his escorts. They even had a special song, The Boar’s Head Carol, just for the occasion. You can hear it here.
England isn’t the only place where pigs are held in high esteem. Germany likes them too. The term Schwein gehabt translates to “having a pig” and is a leftover from medieval days. In those days if you were a farmer with lots of pigs you were a pretty luck guy. Most people don’t have pigs in their backyard these days but the pig can still be a symbol of luck. All you have to do is give out cute little Marzipan pigs. Marzipan is a delicious paste made of almonds, milk, and sugar. Think of it as eatable play-dough. So if you give one of these pigs to your friends, it’s not only a yummy treat, but a way of wishing them luck in the new year as well.
While some may have visions of sugar plums dancing in their head, the Czech’s often have visions of golden pigs. You see, Catholics used to be required to fast on Christmas eve. If you managed to get through it without over eating that beautiful vision might just be your reward. Those who saw the golden pig were sure to have good luck in the coming year.
Lest you think the U.S. isn’t fortunate enough to have their own piggy tradition, you might want to check out Saratoga Sweets.
So, now you know the truth. The Christmas pig is better than Santa Claus. Ok, maybe he doesn’t give gifts, but he’s much cuter. Don’t you agree?
Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan by Clement A. Miles