Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas Food and Drink and Dangers outside...

Now it  is soon Christmas again!

We are so used to our Christmas traditions that we don't wonder much about from where they come. Before Christianity was held a midwinterfeast, and it is not exactly known how it was celebrated, but the Icelandic chronicle writer Snorre Sturlasson (1178-1241) tells a Saga about Hakon the Good of Norway, where king Hakon had decided that the midwinterfeast - called Jól - had to be celebrated at the same time as the Christian feast on 24-25 December. The Jól was originally placed at the midwinternight, which at Snorre's time was in the middle of January. The name  Jól is of pre-Christian origin and means feasts.

Hakon the Good, P.N. Arbo  1800s
The ancient midwinterfeast was a celebration, where the wish about peace and fertility for the next year was dominant. King Hakon was very interested in Christianity, which was not a popular hobby in Norway at that time, and on his visit to one of his landlords,where the king had to bless the beer, he cheated by making the sign of the cross.This was rather unwelcome.

There is only one pre-Christian source about the ancient Jul. The singer says in a ballad that he wants "to drink Jul" while sailing on the sea. "To drink Jul" was one of the important elements of Christmas, and  this tradition goes back to pre-Christian times, but it is not certain if the beerdrinking and the intoxication might have had a cultic significance.

Julafton, Carl Larsson, Sweden
Together with Christianity the Jul gradually became a feast of the birth of Jesus, but since he is called the "Light of the World" it is actually correlating well with the basic idea of Christmas and the old celebration of the New Year and the coming light. The birth of Jesus was in the 300s defined as 25 December. Winter solstice was placed on this day in the Roman Empire- this created a situation where Jesus could compete with other deities who also had their main holy days around winter solstice - like in the Mithras religion. In the North the Jul was put together with the Christian feast for the birth of Christ, but the church did not succeed in naming the feast Kristmesse (Christmas). In Denmark it is still called JUL.

Food and Drink for Christmas

Ham and bacon were important. The pig had to die!

When the Christmas food had to be prepared for the table the pig had to be slaughtered. During the Christmas period people had -  if they could afford it - enough fat food and strong beer. In the 1700-1800s it was especially the meat from pork which was served on the Christmas table, and it was prepared into fresh boiled ham, sausage, blood sausage and salt food. The pigs had ideally been out in the forest all autumn, eating themselves fat in beech seeds and acorns. After autumn came November, named slagtermåned (slaughter month). And the fat pigs were being slaughtered.

Slaughtering the pig was an event above the usual. The farm people had to prevent someone from looking at the pig with evil eyes - and after the pig had been scalded and opened, the guts had to be brought into the house as soon as possible, and doors and windows of the scullery were closed, for if they were open, they might risc that the pig's intestines broke or all other kinds of misfortune happened. In order to prevent "unauthorized" persons to get into the scullery during the work, a cross was cut in the pig's heart, lungs and liver, before it was put into a water-filled vessel.  In a village at Zealand an ancient custom was still kept alive in the 1800s: the upper cervical vertebra was given to the dog. If a human eat the meat of this piece, it meant that he or she would be decapitated the next year. 

Wheat Bread was a special form of giant Christmas cakes and they were often decorated with  refined patterns. But the small Christmas cakes similar to what we know today were also a part of the Christmas delights. 
Giant Christmas bread cake 1637

In a farm the Christmas baking was another important task, especially the baking of sigtebrød (rye bread), a delicacy which people rarely had on daily terms. The large ovens were filled with  big delicious bread. Some breads were round or oval and were called cakes, some of these cakes were immensely giant and might have a weight of 12 kilos. Regardless of shape or weight they were equipped with some decorations. Around 1850s the patterns were drawn with a quill pen, a comb or other pointed things, circles were made by pressing a drinking glass into the dough, creative people stamped potato prints with figures cut in raw potatoes - or they made wooden stamps, where the figures were hearts, pentagrammes, stars and alike.

christmas cake molds 1600s.

There were special aromatic scents of all spices in the house during Christmas, both around the slaughter time and the baking time. When the breadbaking was finished, the next baking was the real cakes. The traditional peppernuts were made without leavening - and those small spicy cakes were as hard as stone. Spices were purchased as whole spices and grounded in a mortar, and the scent and aroma of allspice, cinnamon, pepper, clove, cardamom were the spirit of Christmas. Klejner, applecakes and various waffles also belonged to the Christmas assortment.

christmas beer 1896

Christmas beer had to be sweet. Good and strong and sweet beer was made in the home brewery.
eating and drinking 1600s
In the oldest source about the Nordic Christmas feast was a song from the end of the 800s. Here was no talk about celebrating Jul, but about "drinking jul". In the medieval folk songs the expression "to drink jul" was still used - and in the peasant society juletønden, the Christmas barrel, was the name of the sweet, strong and good beer made on the occassion of  the upcoming Christmas feast. The beer had to be strong and sweet, both honey and extra malt were added. The brewing work was hard, it gave thirst and the wife who did the brewing, might have taken the opportunity "to gaze a little too deep" in the newly brewed beer. A farmer's wife from Zealand had been gazing so deeply in the strong beer that her husband invited the lord of the manor to see the drunken housewife!  She was jumping around singing a song with an uncertain voice. "Is your wife always that happy ?" asked the landlord. The farmer said with a smile. "Well, we did brew some beer yesterday."

Brewery 1600s

The official breweries took gradually over and sent various types of beer on the market around Christmas time. Today, when Tuborg's Christmas beer is sent out the day is called J-day, and the beer is expected with excitement at the pubs.

The society's eating and drinking in Christmas time in the previous centuries might have had several reasons. People undoubtedly both eat and drank plenty when they had the possibility to do so, and Christmas time meant good and delicious food and strong and sweet beer, which contributed to the cosiness in the dark season. Some people meant that the Christmas-eating and drinking might be a means to secure a fertile year. Christmas was an event before the coming year, and by eating and drinking well during this special time people might influence the new year to contain some of the same abundance and ample supply like the previous year.

The Dangers outside

Today we connect Christmas with cosiness and security,  but for people in the old days - especially out in the country - Christmas had another and more gloomy dimension. It was the darkest time of the year and in the dark many dangers and nasty creatures might lurk. Many legends tell about people meeting ghosts and supernatural creatures at Christmas time.

The church service of the deceased:  A wellknown legend is about the church service of the deceased on Christmas night and takes place at a farm near Vokslev church in Himmerland. The farmhand were out early to fodder the horses on Christmas morning. The farm had no clock, and he went into the house to wake up the farmer and his wife. He told them they had slept over, he had heard some singing in the church - and the farmer's wife jumped out of bed. She must not be late for the church service. She dressed and hurried off to  church and into her church stool, but then she discovered that sitting next to her was someone who had died years ago. All the church goers were deceased people. Her neighbour whispered to her that she had to hurry out of the church and hold on to her cape, if she felt that someone was grasping it. She did as she was told - and when she came to the church door her cape was torn away from her. When the village people came to the church in the morning they saw her cape lie outside the church door, torn into little pieces

White Lady, wikipedia

Christmas ghosts. Other legends describe real Christmas ghosts at Kongensgård in Thy. A young girl was haunting each Christmas and New Years Eve, even in the stable where she had once hung herself.  At Spentrup churchyard near Randers a child murderer was haunting between Christmas and New Year, and in Besser vicarage at the island Samsø a child was heard crying on Christmas Eve.

At Høegholm manor a daughter of the landlord was evoked down in the forest, and when she was lowered to her neck she asked permission to come close to the manor by a hanefjed (tiny step) each Christmas Eve. She was allowed to do so and when she will reach the castle on Christmas Eve once upon a time, the castle will sink into the ground . At a farm at Balleskov field near Skanderborg was always a racket at Christmas and New Year, and at a farm in Keldernæs at Lolland "the ghosting" started already in November, increasing during Christmas and diminishing in January.

The Wild Hunt, P.N.Arbo 1872

Hans Lindenow, who died in 1659, drove through Skibbrogade in Kalundborg with his head under his arm. Many had seen this! They were said to be sober!In the town Nordborg at the island Samsø the Helhesten (a ghost horse) came and drank from the water trough. In some districts people might risc to meet "the Wild Hunt",  a society of hunting men and howling dogs, led by "the Night Hunter",  the "Wojensjæger" (the Odinshunter). He meant death and misfortune, if he did not get a ward off sacrifice. He wanted mostly meat for his dogs. The Night Hunter might be what some names suggest, namely nobody else than Odin himself, the Nordic Asatru's wise, but gloomy leader.
Helhesten/ The ghost horse

Death Omens: Christmas was also  - because of its special magic -  very well suited for taking omens, like about weddings, weather, harvest, death and alike. He, who during Christmas dinner sneaked outside and looked through the window, would discover who was a coward and who had to die in the year to come, for this person was sitting by the table without a head or without a shadow. But it was not without a risc to watch this. He might see something shocking and end up being crazy from agitation. This happened to a young guy at Zealand.

Another method was to walk to the churchyard on Christmas midnight and sit upon the church gate with a green turf or some grave mould upon his head. This would make him able to see the shadows of those who had to die in the coming year. This was a most dangerous thing to do. A guy who tried this had his head twisted around. Another guy saw all the shadows, but also someone with a rope around his neck . This was the guy himself who hung himself before the year had gone.  

The grave sow

But there was no security indoors either. If the farm people had forgotten to give a couple of extra sheaves to the gloso (a special staring sow) at the end of the harvest, they would risc that the sinister sow came into the house making lots of ravage on Christmas Eve. The gloso or the grave sow was a giant pig with a knifesharp back with bristly brushes and with staring eyes, announcing death and disaster.

invisible creatures. 1600s
Many ancient stories indicate that some of those supernatural guests were wellknown and expected. In Helsinge parish and in the Århus district the tradition was that the house wife put an extra setting upon the table. At Bornholm and at Zealand the food had to stay on the table on Christmas night and the candles had to burn all night. In some places the residents slept in a bunch of hay on the floor on Christmas night, while the covered beds were empty, ready for the special guests.

Christmas goat

rumble pot

Human Scary Creatures:  Some of the sinister guests were real. Documents from the 1700s tell about the Christmas goat, a dressed-up guy, who was jumping around and goring all people, trying to scare them. A story from the beginning of the 1500s tells about young people running around in "devil's clothes", scaring people and making trouble. The human Christmas ghosts made noise with rumble pots and threw pieces of pots and ash bags on the house doors.  In the end of the 1600s it was forbidden to walk around with the rumble pots  in Copenhagen. But the human scary creatures took the sting out from the terrible supernatural creatures of the Christmas nights by giving them a concrete and harmless form - and there was no risc inviting the human ghosts into the house for a Christmas snaps.

photo from wikipedia and Nordisk folkeliv i det 16 århundrede




Out on the prairie said...

Lots of different ideals, I shall have to watch for ghosts

Kittie Howard said...

I'd wondered how JUL/Jule had come about and thank you for sharing this and so much other fascinating information. But I chuckled about the ghost stories as it's amazing what scared people everywhere.

Thyra said...

Hej Steve, yes, when it's a dark black night out in the country side you might see many sinister shadows!

Grethe ´)

Thyra said...

Hej Kittie, yes the ghost stories are sometimes very funny. Can't you imagine the guy with the green turf on his head, waiting to see the shadows by the church gate?
See you
Grethe ´)

HitchHikers Handbook said...

Great post, Thyra! We are running a Christmas photo challenge at the moment by which we hope to gather photos and descriptions of Christmas traditions from all around the world. If you'd like to participate, write a couple of sentences about Christmas in your country, send us a photo to represent it and we will publish the best entries on our blog with a link to your site. Sounds good? :) Here you will find more details:
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! :)

Cynthia said...

So interesting! Thank you for helping a 3rd generation Danish American pass on the histories to the next generation!
Glaede Jul!