Superstitions and Omens
Now we are soon in the tvelwth and last month of the year, but in ancient times while the Julian calendar ruled it was the tenth month of the year. Decem means ten in Latin. The medieval Danish name was Kristmåned (Christ's Month), the month where you celebrate the birth of Christ.
Ploughed field, Fulden.
The farmer had to finish his ploughing in the first days of December. After this he brought liquid manure to the winter rye and fetched thorn and staves for building and repairing the fences. If the meadows and the moors were frozen, he cut willow twigs for his furlong fences -and if he had no longstraw for his roof repair, he fetched reed in the frozen meadows and marshes.
He also had to repair the watermills and the sluices. Indoor the farmer family was concentrated around the Christmas preparations, but the whole family helped each other to repair tools and make twine and ropes. There was no time for laziness in the farmer's family.
Weather omens were serious matters then, not just something to make fun about. If an omen said that a cold and snowy December promised a fertile year and a good summer, then the farmer wanted cold and snow. A mild month with rain and fog made him worried. But else the weather omens were few in December, although three unlucky days kept people inside the house - the 6th, 11th and 18th of December. The 6th of December was Sct. Nicolai's Day, and if the weather was good it would be good the rest of the month. If the 8th of December (Sct. Anna's Day) came with thaw the whole winter would be mild.
The night between 12th and 13th December (Sct. Lucia) was a dangerous night. Before people went inside in the evening the whole year's work had to be finished and all crops be under cover, or else they would be destroyed by de underjordiske/the underground people (trolls, pixies etc.) It was an exciting night for the young girls on the farm. It was possible for the girl to see her future fiancé, if she held a lit candle in each hand and looked into a mirror while she spoke a verse:
Luci du blide
skal lade mig vide:
hvis dug jeg skal brede,
hvis seng jeg skal rede,
hvis kærest' jeg skal være,
hvis barn jeg skal bære,
i hvis arm jeg skal sove.
Luci you gentle one,
let me know,
whose table cloth I shall spread,
whose bed I shall make,
whose sweetheart I shall be,
whose child I shall bear,
in whose arm I shall sleep.
The night before Christmas the stables were cleaned extra thoroughly and the livestock had plenty of clean bedding and extra fodder. The superstition said that the animals found their tongue on Christmas Eve, and if everything wasn't quite allright then they would speak evil about their master and his house.
The family also had to consider "the underground people", and it was necessary to do a lot of preparations in order to prevent their destructive power. The farmer had to put steel above the stable door, and the teeth of the cattle had to be rubbed in salt and soot, (poor cattle!) to prevent the underground people from harming the animals. Plough, harrow and other tools had to be indoor, when Jerusalems shoemaker - the Wandering Jew - was out walking that night. If he rested upon a forgotten implement, then nothing was able to grow in that field the following year.
All things made of iron had a great power, and besides the steel above the stable door the farmer had to put a solid scythe into the corn pile, an axe into the dunghill and a big knife into the eaves.
Overall were dangerous creatures at work, numerous tales were told about helhesten(a ghost horse with three legs), trolls, witches, evil minded pixies, vætter (elves) and other dangerous underground people, who were the cause of misfortune to people who did not take precautions against them.
The farmer's wife and the farm girls had to see to that all clothes had been washed and dried before Christmas Eve - all clothes had to be indoor. The saying was: Den der klæder gærder i julen skal klæde lig inden året er omme. /He who dresses the fence in clothes during Christmas must dress a dead body before the end of the year.
The Christmas dinner went on and on - and on. Many believed that he who first stopped eating would die before the end of the coming year. This must really have been a hard nut to crack. They had to stop eating at the same time!
Often people put an extra, lit candle in the window. It had to show all wayfarers where the farm was , but it also had to lead the departed of the family, when they visited their home this night. Some put an extra setting on the Christmas table.
Many of our Christmas dishes come from the pagan solstitial celebrations. The special tradition where the farmer puts porridge upon the loft for the Christmas pixy is probably even older than this - probably from bondestenalderen (4000 bc) . In this period porridge was offered to friendly gods who lived by the settlement.
The Christmas pork roast is an old tradition too, way back to the pagan sacrificial celebrations before Christ, when the biggest hog (gilded orne) was sacrificed to the fertility god Frej, (Frodi) so that he would bring "year and peace" to the farm.
Christmas Day was a very important time. The farmer was dependent on the weather like the farmer has always been and still is. He had to imagine the weather in the year to come. In the morning the farmer cut twelve grooves (for the twelve days of Christmas) in a beam in the ceiling, and around every groove he made a chalk circle. Every day he wrote signs in a circle - if it was raining he wrote dots, if it was storming he wrote stripes and so on. He marked every circle with a sign which he himself knew the meaning of and which he had learned from his father. When Christmas was over he could easily see how the weather would be in the next twelve months. Actually a long-term forecast of that time. Today our long-term forecasts on TV are somewhat more advanced, but this doesn't mean they are more reliable. When I remember my umbrella the sun starts to shine and when I forget my umbrella it rains cats and dogs.
On this first day of Christmas it was not allowed to walk about in the farm. Fodder for the livestock were ready for several days. The farmer had to keep away from the grindstone, his wife had to keep away from the spinning wheel. Sewing and knitting were also forbidden, both this day and the rest of the Christmas days. If people crossed this line they were almost sure to get swellen fingers the next year. On every one of the twelve Christmas days it was widely forbidden to make practical and useful things, except when it was necessary to supply the fodder for the livestock and other necessary things.
Most omens were taken the night before the festival and the farmer was very interested in the weather on the last day of the year. If it was raining on exactly this day (Sylvesterdag) the harvest would be a difficult one. Furthermore he took a slice of bred on New Year's Eve, smeared lard on and cut it in four. Those four pieces were put on the floor. The chained dog was brought into the room and held back while the farmer pointed at the bread slices one by one and told the dog: "This is my rye, this is my oat, this is my wheat and this is my barley". The dog was loosened and the bread slice he eat first told the farmer which kind of corn would bring the best yield in the following season. And the next slices the dog eat were also put in order in the farmer's mind. So if the omen later showed to be wrong it wasn't his fault. Maybe he thought it was the dog's fault!
The young farm girls played fortunetellers. One girl went outside the room, and the girl who wanted to know about her future took four little bowls. The first one was placed over a tiny bunch of soil , the other above a ring, the third above a comb and the fourth above nothing. Then the girl outside was called upon and she pointed on one of the four bowls. The soil meant death, the ring meant early betrothal, the comb was marriage - and the empty bowl meant that nothing would change in the coming year.
Shortly before twelve according to the custom people started making a terrible noise with pots and pans in order to chase away evil spirits, but at twelve there was silence for a short moment, and then everyone wished one another a Happy New Year. We still make some noise but we don't believe in evil spirits - do we? We still wish each other a Happy New Year, and I wonder how old that tradition is.
Some people back then even believed that if they on New year's night at twelve stood in the middle of a crossroad and called out three times for a dear departed, then he or she would show and answer three questions.
Whatever! A new year began, and people way back then were dependent on so many things and afraid of so many things that it is impossible to imagine for us today. But if you have ever been out in the country on a completely dark night then you might catch an ancient feeling of fear. No moon, no stars, no street lights. You cannot even see your own hand. On a Christmas holiday by my grandmother, when I was about ten years, I had to fetch milk for her on a farm nearby on such a dark night. I was terribly scared and couldn't find my way in some critical moments. And in the old days, in the Middle Ages and long before, way back in time people really believed that out in the dark were evil spirits, the ghost horse, trolls, witches, pixies, elves and many more dangerous creatures.
Source: Ruth Gunnarsen: Familiens Højtider i gamle dage.
photo/mostly from Hjerl Hede Open Air Museum, Jutland: grethe bachmann