December 12, 2010
Okay – so the Holiday Madness is upon us, yet again! Since I’m a transplant away from my own country, I always think it’s fun to compare traditions – especially since the US represents such a wide range of cultures. Even more so, I find it fascinating to try to track where all these traditions originated and how they have developed along the way. There are parallels in the most unexpected places!
Here in the US, Thanksgiving kicks it off. I’m sad to say we don’t have a version of that overseas, as I think it’s a really nice holiday. We’re so incredibly lucky, it should do us well to sit down and meditate awhile on how fortunate we are, and give thanks accordingly. Instead, in my native Sweden, the kickoff off the Holiday Season starts with the First of Advent. It’s usually not much more than lighting a candle (you light a new one each Sunday, so by Christmas you have a nice, four-tiered arrangement) and hanging a lit star in your window. This is also when the normally scarce church attendance spikes in Sweden, as there are usually fabulous concerts offered in the churches. Then, there’s the Glögg! A wonderful mulled wine, which is enjoyed warm and served with slivered almonds and raisins. This treat premieres every year on the First of Advent. To me, this is one of the most quintessential parts of the Holidays. In fact, it’s not Christmas without it! Stand by for a recipe in a separate posting!
Lusse or Lucia According to the Julian calendar, December 13 was the day of the Winter Solstice. This was considered a dangerous night, where animals were thought to be able to speak, and spirits and supernatural beings abound. The harvest, the threshing and the slaughter had to be finished before the so called “Lusse-night” and all the storage sheds filled with food and barrels of mead in preparation for winter. If you were done with all the work, you would paint a sign on your door with charcoal which would ensure your safety and protect you from all the supernatural activity going on outside. On this night, Swedes celebrated Lusse, the Goddess of Light, or as she has later come to be called – S:t Lucia. There are definite undertones of fertility rites in the original portrayal of the “Lusse bride”. According to one source, the girl picked for the role of the “bride” occasionally (but not always) had somewhat of a questionable reputation, and was adorned with often gaudy decorations and in some instances a crown on her head. She was surrounded by an entourage of other girls. People often stayed up the entire night, as it was thought unsafe to go to sleep. They would dress up as “Lusse-gubbar” and go from house to house caroling, goofing around, and playing tricks, in hope that they would receive food, drink, or money. In that sense, it’s probably as close as Swedes will ever get to Halloween.
In the part of Sweden called Västergötland (the part of Sweden where archaeological remnants of prehistoric settlements and evidence of viking life is most abundant), a heffer with a candle-lit straw wreath between its horns was often paraded around. This tradition continued well into the 20th century. My mother grew up there and still remembers it.
The Christian conversion efforts responded to these festivities by introducing an obscure Sicilian saint from Syracusa named Lucia. She was executed by sword in 304 CE after an attempt to burn her failed. That her life is hardly celebrated anywhere else indicates what a longshot this connection was. According to legend, Lucia’s eyes were stuck out, but she magically grew new ones – thus the “Goddess of Light” epithet. So, okay, Lucia it is… The celebrations evolved over time to involve a Lucia dressed in a white gown with a red sash. The sash is said to symbolize the martyr death of S: Lucia. On her head – not unlike the heffer mentioned earlier – Lucia wears a wreath with lit candles, only hers are made of evergreen Lingonberry leaves. Lucia’s entourage has been transformed into a singing train of maidens, carrying candles. You can check it out here:
During the catholic Middle Ages, the Lusse Day was the last day of eating, before entering a fast that would last until Christmas. The gluttonous feast started early in the morning and lasted all day, with an abundance of food and drink. Since then, the pig-out has been much toned down, and is generally replaced by generous helpings of coffee, saffron buns (lussekatter) and ginger bread cookies (pepparkakor). These treats are enjoyed at home, in schools, hospitals, work – everywhere! Note however, the shapes of the saffron buns. They take on some of the same symbolic forms that are found in the Bronze Age rock carvings throughout Scandinavia. The gingerbread shapes too, hark back to earlier times. Aside from the common hearts and stars, you often see goats and pigs. You will learn more about the goat in the Yule portion of this entry. The pig is of course Särimner – Odin’s pig – that was slaughtered every night in order to feed the fallen heroes at Valhalla. Lucia is still one of the biggest party nights of the year in Sweden, except the emphasis is no longer on food, but on the drinking. And, yes – many still stay up all night!
In 1753, Sweden adopted the Gregorian calendar, which resulted in the Winter Solstice being moved to December 21. Ancient rites die slowly, however, and to this day, Lucia is celebrated on the 13th. The first written mention of a modern day, singing Lucia train hails from 1764. The beginning of the 1800’s brought several reports of Lucia trains from areas in and surrounding Västergötland, but it would take over a hundred years before this ritual became common with the general public. When Stockholm in 1927 crowned their very own “Stockholm’s Lucia”, it became all the rage. By now, every town with self respect selects their own Lucia. It is essentially a nationwide beauty contest. Around five or six candidates are selected and their photos posted publicly. After that the town residents cast their votes, and the winner is crowned under much pomp and circumstance.
Star-boys You will often see young men or boys clad in cone-shaped hats carrying a star – so called Stjärngossar, or “star-boys”, as part of the Lucia train. The star-boys are a remnant from catholic days. As they symbolize the three wise men, they originally had their time in the days following Christmas, leading up to Epiphany. When protestantism took over, the former catholic church boys found themselves out of work, and took the winter festivities as an opportunity to earn some food and perhaps even some money, by performing songs and putting on a nativity play of sorts. Along the way, their performance merged with another age-old tradition. On the third day of the Midvinterblot (the prehistoric Midwinter Sacrifices), all the young boys of the village were sent out by horse to find a spring flowing in a northern direction, with the aim of watering their horses. The boy and the horse who first found it would have a prosperous year. The only trace left of this ancient tradition is found in the songs that the Star boys sing during Lucia. (Staffan var en stalledräng…etc.)
Yule The Midvinterblot, or Yule – a three day long festival of sacrificial rites – has been celebrated since prehistoric times in Germanic cultures. Sources debate the exact timing of this festival, but it is said to have begun 12 days after the Winter Solstice which, according to the Julian calendar, would put it right on December 25th. Bede – an English historian dating from around 730 CE, refers to it as the Germanic New Year. He also mentions that the Anglo-Saxons celebrate the Germanic “divine mothers”. Norse mythology will have these “mothers” out to be the three “norns”. They were three giantesses that arrived from Jötunheim – one of the Nine Worlds of the Norse myths – and they alone control the Fate of all gods and men. They also care for the roots of Yggdrasil – the Tree of Life. The arrival of the norns effectively ended the “golden age of the gods”. I’d imagine it was pretty important to stay on their good side.
Together with the Lusse celebrations of 12 days prior, Yule marked the beginning of winter or “the famine months”, but also the return of the light. Starvation was common, and cattle were often slaughtered early on, so they would not have to be fed during the winter. Beer, mead and wine that had fermented for months was finally ready to be enjoyed. Swedish traditions to this day are very meat-centric, and yes – there is of course still the drink! Many cultures hide a coin or a nut in the food. The Swedes hide it in the rice porridge. The lucky person who gets the hidden treasure, will have good luck in the year to come, and will get his/her wish come true.
The Yule Celebration is also thought to be where the idea of evergreen trees as symbols of the returning light and survival through the hard times, began. There are very few hours of daylight during winter on Swedish latitudes. Even with electricity, the darkness can be rather oppressive. Sources mention that two of each specie (including humans!) – one male, one female, were sacrificed to appease the norns (and the gods) to bring the light back at the midwinter celebrations. All the gruesome bodies of those sacrificed were hung as offerings from branches of giant evergreen spruces. And there you have it – the origins of the now domesticated Christmas Tree! As one book I read would have it – the red balls we adorn our trees with today hark back to those carcasses dangling from the branches. That puts an interesting twist on it, doesn’t it?
The Goat The Yule Goat was the Scandinavian precursor to Santa Claus’s reindeer and was traditionally a tribute to Thor. Thor had a chariot drawn by two goats that would pull him across the skies. Odin’s horse Sleipnir has also been credited with serving as a prototype for Santa’s reindeer. More about that later… Caroling, riddles, poems, playing tricks and delivering gifts were all part of the game. The gifts were delivered by goat. To this day, many Swedes still write a poem for each gift he or she gives. In my family, we still do too, even if we most often don’t achieve the lyricism of poems past. For the most part, it turns in to good-humored mocking sessions of the paltry attempts of the various poets – it’s a lot of fun! The Goat survived long into the 1800’s when it was replaced with the “Tomte”. But the goat still lives! Each year since the 60’s, the city of Gävle erects a 12 meter tall straw goat in their town square, before Christmas. It’s an impressive sight! Almost as many times it has survived, it has gotten burned down by vandals.
The Tomte or Tomtenisse The “Tomte” – the Scandinavian version of Santa Claus – does not use the chimney, nor does he have a pack of reindeer pulling his sleigh. No, he comes to your home and delivers the gifts in person. And, unless you have been “good”, you don’t get any. Actually, your home is his home, too. Every home has a “live-in caretaker” – a nature spirit of sorts. You will do well to be nice to him. The Swedish word for “homestead, lot or site” or is “tomt” which will explain why each homestead has their own “Tomte” or “Tomtenisse”. Every Christmas Eve, Swedes put a bowl of rice porridge out for him. In return he will look after your home during the year to come. If ignored or forgotten, bad things are said to happen.
As we all know, Yule was later absorbed into Christianity. The Christians figured that if they were to squash these powerful heathen traditions, they had to come up with something good. Although calculations based on Jewish Orthodox traditions and holy days indicate that Jesus was born either in late August or early September, the story worked well enough.
S:t Nicholas The St. Nick character developed from a generous, early Christian bishop of the 3rd century CE, from Myra in present day Turkey. S:t Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th. Also called Nicholas the Wonderworker, he had a reputation for secret gift giving. He used to anonymously put coins in people’s shoes if they left them out for him. In many countries, children still put their shoes outside before bedtime, and if they have been good – in the morning they will be filled with sweets and gifts. Those who have not been good get a stick or a cane. Likewise, in Germany and several other European countries, S:t Nick often has a scary looking helper named Krampus that either has deer legs or resembles a goat with horns. If the children have not been good, they get “caned” by him. Today’s candy canes are a lot less scary than the prospect of a good beating!
From Sinterklaas to Santa Claus In the Netherlands, the S:t Nick equivalent is called “Sinterklaas” and is dressed in a red cape and mitre (like a bishop). He rides from rooftop to rooftop on a white or gray horse.There are definite parallels between Sinterklaas and Odin, as Odin too, would ride his eight-footed gray horse Sleipnir across the skies, leading a great hunting party during the Yule festivities. In Icelandic poetry, Odin was often described with various names which all mean “long-beard”. This feature has survived in ancient as well as modern depiction of St Nick, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus – they all have impressive beards.
Sinterklaas has dark-faced helpers called “Zwarte Pieten”, which I suspect are the precursors of elves. The reason they have dark faces is that they travel through the chimney, so Dutch kids put their shoes by the fireplace. I’m guessing the American custom of Santa coming through the chimney probably stems from here. In parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, children would leave carrots, hay or sugar cubes in their shoes as a treat for Sleipnir, in front of the fire place. This custom is still practiced, but now in the name of Sinterklaas. Further evolution can be seen in our hanging of stockings from the mantle piece, here in the US.
In its pre-modern development, church history and folklore fused to form Santa Claus. The merge of Odin, St Nick, Sinterklaas and the British Father Christmas resulted in the jolly, well-fed, bearded old man we know today. I apologize for a terribly long blog entry, but I find this stuff fascinating! It is amazing how this stuff has spread around the world. From having begun as a desperate attempt by the natives to bring back the sun to northern latitudes, it has become a jumble of layered customs and rituals as varied as the countries Christmas is celebrated in. From a cynic’s perspective, I can see how the Church managed to convince the heathen Norsemen that the light of Christ would bring back spring, but I fail to see how that argument could have worked in countries such as Brazil. Granted, the Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors brought the religion to southern latitudes as an already accepted “fact”, but given that Jesus, according to meticulous calculations by scholars of Jewish religious liturgy, was born in late summer, one would think that the reasoning regarding certain holidays would have met with a little more resistance? How did they manage to sell the idea of Christmas to people living in the perpetually sunny tropics? It’s marvelously intriguing, and I would love if some scholarly type would write a book on the matter, tracing the evolution from the Scandinavian sun worship of prehistory, to the mapping out of the international spread it currently enjoys. I envision a coffee table type book where the text is supported by astonishing color photography, documenting and showcasing the various regional flavors of international Christmas development throughout the centuries. Seriously, the best of the world’s arts, architecture, literature and music have gone into creating and supporting these traditions. It would be a beautiful book, and I’d be the first one to buy it.
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thankyou lots, I am obliged to announce that your blog is excellent!
Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it!
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Fascinating. I read it all but I like your closing sentence best. Some of the most beautiful music in the world has been composed to tell the Christmas story. I avoid all shopping malls in December as the tinny speed-up music is appalling. Instead I go to as many orchestra / choir events as possible and soar with the live music. Whether it is all myth and legend or real is neither here nor there; it is such a beautiful story.
So true – all the layers of cultural expression, and how they continue to shape the narrative are nothing short of fascinating! I loved your comment about the stars in the Pink Flamingo post – a sea of stars on Vietnamese roofs is a hugely compelling image.
I wholeheartedly agree with you about the music. One of my last memories of my grandmother is she and I getting up at 5 am to be in church at 6 for the “julotta’. It’s freezing cold, the snow is crunching under our feet, and the warm glow of candles are everywhere. We’re still in a half-sleepy way, bundled up in boots and warm jackets. After an hour of slowly waking up to candlelight, music, and rustling in the pews we head back out into the starry darkness, and head home to a cup of hot cocoa, and a crisp bread and christmas ham sandwich. Then, nap-time!
Really – that book needs to be written…
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