Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas Evening of a peasant family in the 16th Century

Baking in December.

baking in the sauna-oven.

baking bread

two guys with a beer barrel.

Christmas Preparations: The preparations for Christmas evening began several weeks before Christmas. An old almanak from 1399 has described that the baking was considered the most important housework in December, but brewing the beer was next important. The brewing had to be done with the utmost care, and even the poorest household had to brew a good beer stock for Christmas, called the "Christmas Barrel". If you had "tasted the Christmas barrel", it meant you were rather drunk. In order to secure the Christmas beer against the evil spirits, a portion of beer was sacrificed to the patron of the house by the big tree in the courtyard.

dried and salted fish

The meal on Christmas evening was either dried fish or sweet porridge, or ham with stewed green cabbage and porridge, in wealthy families mostly rice-porridge. A pie or applecakes often finished the meal.  Christmas evening was to some people - according to strict Catholic custom - a fish day or a fasting day, to others a meat day. Some dishes have kept unchanged until our days,  but there was a strange mix of ancient customs at that time. Meat and fish were served on Christmas evening in Norway, first steak, mostly sheep, later fresh fish and milk soup. In Småland in Sweden everything was served in one meal, first cooked, dry fish and a Christmas soup, which was only served on this day of the year, cooked on the backpiece of a pig and sweet milk, and then Christmas porridge, rib roast and finally a pie. The porridge was marked with a cross across the hole with the butter in the middle, the look of the ancient wheel cross, the symbol of the sun. Some sources indicate that people already knew the habit of putting an almond in the porridge.

baking forms, Sweden

One of the oldest forms of a meat dish on Christmas Eve is probably a dish from Jutland, where the cooked head of a pig was served. But also in Sweden and in some districts of England was placed a decorated head of a pig upon the table. There is no trace in the 16th century of the later custom to let the roast goose be the festival meal of Christmas evening, and the turkey was not known. It arrived later in the 19th century's Scandinavia.

dish for porridge, hole in the middle for butter.
The stewed green cabbage was an ancient Christmas dish. Here is an old recipe from Skåne in Sweden: a boy went out in the cabbage garden and filled a basket with green cabbage, cut it in pieces in the cutting chest; the kitchen maid put it into the vessel, where the Christmas ham was cooked, and kept filling the cabbage on gradually, while it was cooking; the cabbage was stirred with a long wooden stick in the shape of an oar. When it was as thick as a dough it was poured up in a sieve to let the water run off. The stew was made in huge portions to last the whole Chistmas - like the Christmas ham.
farm Norway

butter, milk, cheese and bread.
A special thing was to place a "skueret" ( a display-dish) upon the table, the so-called *julegalt (galt =hog). It was a big cake, baked from wheat flour, shaped like a pig. It stayed at the table all Christmas, but no one took a bite from it. When Christmas was over, it was wrapped up and stored and was first taken out when the spring-work began. Then it was divided and shared among everyone, some of the cake was mixed with the barley and given to the ploughing horses, and some was put into the basket with the seed in hope of a better harvest. These customs were memories from ancient times when a real pig on Christmas Eve was led in to be sacrificed for good luck.

Before Christmas dinner had finished and before the prayer was said, another custom had to be complied. The father of the house proposed the toast of Christ or of the New Year. This was repeated round the table. The oldest and most honorable drinking bowl of the house was used, and in some places, especially among the peasants in Norway an old drinking horn was found from the depth of the cabinet.

Christmas cake
A very common gift from the husband and wife of the house to their servants and relatives were the socalled Christmas cakes. They were finer cakes, made partly of honey or pepper, partly rough of rye flour. Their shape was ancient and symbolic, round like the sun or in a shape of a living creature, mostly men, bucks and pigs. It seems unmistakeable that this originally referred to Thor's bucks and Frejr's pig, the present trace from this custom are the strange children-cakes in Scandinavia: cake men and sugar pigs. The round Christmas cakes were decorated with figures. A baking pan from 1637 displays upon the surface of the cake figures dressed in contemporary party clothes. Such Christmas cakes could be as big as a baby. The custom was old and wellknown to the Vikings in England. The old Danish name "youle-cake" is still known. the archbishop Olaus Magnus, who lived in the 16th century, remembers the monstrous cakes which were baked in his home at Christmas time and sent to friends and relatives. Even in the 19th century 24 pounds cakes are mentioned at Sjælland (Zealand), where the farmers gave those cakes as Christmas gifts to their servants and to the children and to every poor man who came to their house. This was a custom which possibly had not changed much since ancient time.

house from Thy, North Jutland
When the meal was finished the table was not  being tidied up, it was just  filled with more food, when it was needed all through Christmas. It was necessary to have food ready for any guest, poor or rich, no one "must carry the Christmas out of the house", even the invisible spirits took food from the table. The women of the house had been cooking meals for the next fortnight, so they could now enjoy a little Christmas peace. The dining room was also a living room and a common bedroom, which was a usual thing, the hay which was strewn upon the floor before Christmas was now spread all over, after the family and friends had been playing the Christmas plays, the domestic animals were living in the room, chicken and dogs and cats , and gradually the room and the Christmas table looked like a mess, but no one complained about that.

Omens were taken after the Christmas dinner, this was sometimes done during meal. Someone would sneak out into the dark courtyard and look into the lit room. If he saw someon sitting by the table without a head this person would die the next year. This was however considered a dangerous way of taking omens. The proper way was first of all by using the Christmas candles upon the table.  In the 16th century people were not accustomed to lighting, and to burn candles was a rare luxury - but during Christmas even the poorest home had to be honoured in this way. The candles had  to burn all night through.

candlestick , iron
The Christmas candles were used in different ways in various districts of Scandinavia. In some places they had only one big candle, in other places one candle was lit for each person present, in a few districts the candles were burning each night during the Christmas period. The most common way was to consider two specific candles as the real candles of Christmas and to connect a special superstition to them. Those two candles revealed the happiness and peace of the home in the year to come, therefore it was a custom in some districts to put all their silver and coins upon the table to let the candles shine upon them. Or they hang all their outerwear in the room to secure them from moths in the shine of the candles. To avoid fire they were placed in a kette. Before people went to bed at midnight when Christ was born the flame divided in two, and close to morning the fate of the husband and wife was decided. If the candles kept burning, they would live all next year, if the flames burnt out they had to die.

No matter how different the customs around the Christmas candles were in Scandinavia there is no trace that the candles were placed otherwise than in candlesticks , they were never placed upon a tree. The tree decorated with candles was not known yet. In Sweden they celebrated Christmas by rising a fir or a spruce outside the house, the natural symbol of the unconquered life, the tree, which was green even in winter. The same custom is known from Germany. The palm tree was used in similar occasions in the South as a symbol of the year and the life, since the tree shoots new branches each month of the year. The custom to decorate trees with candles was not of Nordic origin, as far as known this custom came from ancient Egypt and later from the Roman Saturnalias, where children were dancing around the lit tree and its gifts.

19th century Denmark
From what's known the custom can be followed back to France in the 12th or 13th century. Two various old French poets mention Christmas trees, decorated with candles,and in top of one of the trees was a naked baby !! The Baby Jesus. The custom about the decorated tree is mentioned in Germany in the 16th century, and from here it came to Alsace in the 17th century. In the 18th century the custom invaded the cities in Northern Germany, and in the beginning of the 19th century it came to Sweden from some Baltic islands and about the same time to Denmark from the South. The decorated tree became popular in Scandinavia, but it was even more popular in England where queen Victoria's husband prince Albert transferred it from Germany - and holly and mistleltoe were the homely English Christmas plants. After the middle of the 19th century the custom arrived in North America, where it spread extremely fast. Wherever the Christmas tree came, it ousted or changed the old customs with the Christmas candles.

house, Norway.
Another way to take omen by the assistance of the Christmas candles was to let them drip down into water or to melt lead by their help and let it drip down into weater. The figure which appeared gave the answer of what had been asked. If the family looked into the bible that evening, the first verse they read gave an answer to one's secret wish, a method, which was often used by women to find out the name of their husband-to-be - or they could peel an apple in one peel and throw it back the head, and when it fell down to the floor, it would show his name. The same could also be deciphered by the help of eggwhite, beaten out into a cup with a drink. A very common way to take an omen, which was used all over Scandinavia, was to throw one shoe back the head. The nature of the question was either: if one should die, change service, be married etc. and the answer was seen in the position of the shoe with the toe or the heel towards the door.

There was another question where the answer could not be told until the last day of Christmas: the question about the weather in the year to come. This was always important to a farmer. In order to find out the answer twelve circles were drawn with chalk upon the loft-beam, one circle for each month of the next year. Every day of the twelve days of Christmas a circle was marked. If it was a good weather-day the circle stayed empty, but if the weather was cloudy, rainy snowy the circle was crossed. After the twelve days of Christmas the circles on the loft-beam would show the farmer a weather map of the year to come.

Source for Chrismas evening in the countryside in the 16th century:  Dagligt liv i Norden im det sekstende århundrede, Tr. Fr. Troels-Lund , Middelalder, Dansk Literatur. 

Images from the same source.

EXTRA: recipe for apple-cakes:

180 g butter
5 dl milk  (whole milk)
500 gram wheat flour
2 table spoon sugar
6 eggs
50 gram yeast
a little lemon zest 
butter for baking.

melt butter, warm the milk in this, grate the lemon zest finely, gather the ingrediences and whip them into a ligth - uniform dough, which has to raise for 1/2 hour. 
Bake the apple cakes in melted butter - in an apple-cake pan. (see image)
The apple cakes taste good with jam and sugar

variation: fill the cakes with a piece of apple. 


Haverose said...

Det var sørme spændende læsning. Sjovt at der blev bagt i saunaen, den gang var man også opmærksom på at spare på varmen ;) julekagernes udseende som kan føres tilbage til Odin og Thor; fascinerende! Jernlysestagen har jeg en tro kopi af, en gave fra en ven.
God Jul :-)
Kh Rose

Wanda..... said...

I think most would be thankful some of those Christmas traditions have changed over the centuries, but love the cooking, baking, candle lighting and decorating the tree.

I'm baking bread today and sending out some cards; the tree was put up over the weekend. Have a warm and Merry Christmas, Grethe!

Thyra said...

Hej Haverose, har du sådan en lysestage? det er da spændende. Den er meget dekorativ og kunne sagtens være designet i dag.
Det dér lille billede af badstuen og ovnen er så morsomt, og det er jo her fra Norden fra den tid. Vores saunaer i dagens Danmark bliver mest brugt til opbevaring! I Finland bruger de stadig deres saunaer til det oprindelige formål! Måske også udbredt i Sverige?
Mange hilsner og i lige måde god jul!
Grethe `)

Thyra said...

Hello Wanda, thank you for visiting here before Christmas in the midst of your baking and decorating.

Have a Merry and Wonderful Christmas.
Thank you for your good wishes! We've got snow here, but I don't know if it will stay for Christmas!!

Grethe ´)

stardust said...

Dear Grethe

Thank you for your heartfelt message on my last post this year. I’m grateful to Wanda who let us meet online, too. Thank you for the pleasure of your friendship and information about your fairy land (including this fabulous post) as well as your lovely visit to my blog. I’m taking care of my 2-year-old granddaughter for a while, as her mother got hospitalized. She is cute ,curious, adventuresome bundle of energy, so my days will be revolving around her for the time being. Wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year full of good health and prosperity. Give my best regards to your son.


Thyra said...

Thank you Yoko, you'll be busy now with your little energy-bundle of a granddaughter. And they are so funny at that age. Merry Christmas and happy New Year and best wishes for the little girl's mother. Thank you for good regards to my son. He is very fascinated by your blog.
Grethe ´)