Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Poinsettia/ Julestjerne/ Christmas Star

A popular Christmas flower in many countries

The Poinsettia / DK: Julestjerne  (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a decorative plant which originally comes from Mexico. The Danish name Julestjerne means Christmas Star and the pretty plant has a name referring to Christmas in many countries. It is a commercially important plant species  and it  is indigenous to Mexico. It is particularly well known for its red and green foliage and is widely used in Christmas floral displays.

Euphorbia pulcherrima is a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of 0.6–4 metres. The plant bears dark green dentate leaves that measure 7–16 centimetres in length. The colored bracts which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white, or marbled—are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but are actually leaves.The colors of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color. The flowers of the poinsettia are unassuming and do not attract pollinators. They are grouped within small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and are called cyathia. The poinsettia is native to Mexico. It is found in the wild in deciduous tropical forests at moderate elevations. It is also found in the interior in hot, seasonally dry forests. There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia.
Poinsettia tree in Mexico/ pinterest

The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication. In the language of the aztecs, the plant is called Cuetlaxochitl, meaning "Wilting flower". Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as Flor de Noche Buena, meaning Christmas Eve Flower. In Spain it is known as Flor de Pascua or Pascua, meaning Easter Flower. In Chile and Peru, the plant became known as Crown of the Andes. In Turkey, it is called Atatürk's flower because Atatürk, the founder of the Republic, liked this flower and made a significant contribution to its cultivation in Turkey. In Hungarian, it is called Santa Slaus Flower and it's widely used as a Christmas decoration. In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.

It is one of the most polular Christmas plants in Denmark and is sold in millions, I presume. Eveyone wants to have the pretty red Christmas Star in their home in the month of December.  

Silver star, goldsmith F.Hingelberg, Århus (1960s)

The plant's association with Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico, where a legend tells of a girl, commonly called Pepita or Maria, who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday and was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.

 While the sap and latex of many plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic, the poinsettia's toxicity is relatively mild. Its latex can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.
Poinsettias are susceptible to several diseases, mostly fungal, but also bacterial and parasitic.Cultivation areas outside are its natural environment, it is commonly grown as an indoor plant where it prefers good morning sun, then shade in the hotter part of the day. Contrary to popular belief, flowering poinsettia can be kept outside, even during winter, as long as it is kept frost-free. It is widely grown and very popular in subtropical climates.
Star of Bethlehem

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Scandinavian Woman in Viking Age

Viking grave site, Lindholm Høje, photo:GB

The Viking Age is often displayed as a violent time, dominated by  men who conquered countries and built kingdoms, but the image has changed during the latest 20 years. Archaeological finds from Scandinavia and the Continent bear witness  about the Viking women's daily activities, their power and status from slave to queen.

The daily Life of a Viking woman.

Hjerl Hede, photo:GB
Silkeborg Bymuseum, photo:GB
Most people in  Viking Age were farmers -  or they lived in farms. The management was maintained by a household: the family, some slaves, farm workers and servants, although the knowledge about a Viking household like this is limited today. The economy of the farm was (in Dk) based upon livestock, agriculture and production of textiles and other things for own use. All members of the house took probably part in the daily doings - the archaeological finds show that the production of textiles and metal objects and timber work were gender based for respectively women and men.

Textiles, Silkeborg Bymuseum, photo:GB

textiles, photo:GB
Women could work as craftsmen in the cities, often with the production of textiles for trade, and  they might also take part in doing the trade on behalf of the family. It seems that some women were specialized textile workers since the production- techniques were complicated. The production and trade of textiles were an important part of the economy.

The daily life in the city and on the farm was lived both inside and outside the house. Women took care of the children and of the elderly, they made food and conserved food, like dairy-products and other processing of raw products. The textile production included also processing of wool, spinning and weaving. Unfortunately the textiles from Viking Age are rarely preserved up till today, but some small fragments are found and they show a wide width in the techniques they used and in the quality of the textiles.

The gender roles via the burials of the Vikings tells something. Men and women were often buried in
Højstrup viking graves, photo: GB
their prettiest clothes with grave goods and eventually with sacrificed animals. During the 9th century and in the first half of the 10th century wealthy women wore a dress held together with two oval clamps on the shoulders and with more grave goods  like broches and pearl necklaces and spindle-things - often also with small chests containing textile equipment. Keys are also a common thing in women-graves - maybe marking the status of a house wife. But rich women-graves and rich men- graves were in general rather few. The rich graves seem reserved to the highest class in the social hierarchy. Common people were buried with one or two objects or nothing.

Silkeborg Bymuseum, photo:GB
The ideal Viking woman was a woman between 16-40 years of age. At 16 she was ready to marry and have children and she could take part in the physical hard life on the farm.She enjoyed to some extent more freedom than women in other parts of the medieval contemporary Europe. Written sources represent the Scandinavian woman of Viking age as independent and with rights. Runic inscriptions, especially from Mid Sweden, bear witness about the woman's right to dispose over her property and her rights to inherit. The married couple was jointly responsible for the household and had to trust the partner's willingness to cooperate. An apparently good relation was between a Swedish couple, Holmgaut and Odendisa, since Holmgaut let carve runes in a memorial after his wife "no better housewife will come to Hassmyra to look after the farm" This inscription describes the woman's role in the management of the farm, the organisation of the household and maybe the control of people, animals and ressources. If the husband was out on a Viking expedition the responsibility of everything at home fell to the woman.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Famous Cat Maru on the Sofa

If you're stressed  and need to relax here in these busy Christmas preparations -  then look at Maru.
He knows how to relax...................

Maru on the Sofa 

Friday, December 02, 2016


Scandinavian Jul in the Viking period and in the early Middle Ages.
(source: Middelalderhistorie, Århus Universitet)

Candle in Vor Frue Kirke, Århus/ GB
The word Jul or the Old Norse Jól was used long before Christianity came to Denmark and Scandinavia. Jul was the term for the winter feasts when days of the year again began to grow longer - but today it is difficult to know what these ancient feasts really meant to people. 

Carl Larsson, Midvinterblót, (wikipedia)
The linguistic history of the word Jul are somewhat lost, but it has probably German roots. An early example of the use of the word is in the Gothic language spoken in Central and South Eruope in late Antiquity and in the early Middle Ages. The word Jul is first seen in the 300s. It was among others used in the form jiuleis which was the name for November or December. A few centuries later it is seen in Old English where it occurs as goiuli giulæi or youle  - as a description  of the period December-January. In Old Norse ( the language in Scandinavia in the Viking Age) the word seems to have had several meanings, but everything points to that the Old Norse Jól can be translated into feast. The word seems to have spread in Europe in Antiquity and early Middle Ages, the periods which in Denmark are named Iron Age and Viking Age. It was everywhere used about the same time of the year, but it is uncertain what the word actually covered -  also in the Nordic context.

Viking House, Fyrkat/ GB
There are no contemporary written sources which describe the before-Christian Jul. A few Nordic sources like scaldic verses and sagas, which use the word jul/jól, were written down in the Christian period, and they therefore reflect the world view of the Christian writer. In most source-cases where jul is mentioned, it is used about the Christian celebration, but a few Nordic sources indicate that the jul in Scandinavia  - also in the time before Christianity -  was a special event in December or January.

Harald Haarfager/ wikipedia
This is seen in the probably earliest Nordic source which mentions the word jul. It is a scaldic verse ( ab. year 900) by the scald Thorbjørn Hornklofi,  composed to king Harald Haarfager of Norway (king ca. 872-930). The  verse sounds like this: "the king will drink jul out ... and make Frej's play". The first words probably refer to how a ruler in the Viking Age had to move around a lot if he wanted to keep his power. It is not clear what is meant by Frej's play, but the drink sacrifice took a central role in the before-Christian religion, where the Vikings drank to honor gods like Frej and Odin. Maybe the verse refers to a sacrifice like this.

Odin, Hugin and Munin/wikipedia
Another scaldic verse pays tribute to king Harald Hardrada of Norway (king 1046-1066) for his victory at the battle field. It was said that the king prepared jul for Hugin's hird. Hugin was one of Odin's ravens, so the verse refers probably to the men killed in the battle and being food for the ravens. Maybe here is also referred to the unusual numbers of food taken in at the feasts of jul.

Hakon the Good/ wikipedia
The Icelandic Christian chronicle writer Snorri Sturlasson mentions jul in a saga about the Norwegian king Hakon the Good  (king ab.
933- 959). The saga was written down in ab. 1230. He describes that king Hakon decides to celebrate jul at the same time as the Christians. The saga also tells the story about a Viking chief, who after being a Christian, still held on to the tradition to celebrate three big feasts during each year, three yearly sacrifice feasts: one at the beginning of winter, one in midwinter and one in the start of summer.
Snorri Sturlasson,C.Krogh/ Wikipedia
When he became a Christian he continued celebrating three feasts each year, which were now named gæstebud (banquets): one in autumn, a jul-feast in winter and one at Easter. How the feasts were celebrated is told by Snorri: "the Christian king Hakon was invited to a jul-feast by some heathen farmers, who according to tradition wanted the king to take part in the sacrifice. (blót) The Christian king would not take part in this, but he needed to have the support of the farmers, so he found a compromise: he eat a little horse liver and drank some memorial cheers without crossing his drinking cup. Making the sign of the cross was a Christian custom which the farmers would never accept.

Jolagjafir/ wikipedia
The sagas holds also the first example e of the word julegave (Christmas gift). It is seen in a description of Norway's king Hakon (king 1093-1095). He was supported by a part of the Norwegian population if he refrained from filing the traditional taxes which the Norwegian people had to give the king, including julegaver/jolagjafir. In other parts of the sagas are examples of julegaver which remind of the phenomenon, known today. Scandinavian Viking chiefs gave gifts to their families around the turn of the year, and thus he followed a custom which had spread in the European courts. Princes also used gifts traditionally to attract important people and thereby establish or hold on to their social status. In time these gifts were connected to the jule feast.

Jul in Lejre, Zealand/ wikipedia
The German history writer Thietmar of Merseburg wrote in the beginning of the 1000s about a sacrifice feast which was held each year at Lejre in the Danish isle Zealand. Archeologists have here found a very important place, which probably functioned as the royal court of the Danes. According to Thietmar the Danes sacrificed humans and  animals in Lejre at a time where Christians celebrated the Holy three kings on 6 January, these sacrifices were held in order to please the underground people. Thietmar's descriptions reflects a Christian's negative view upon a heathen society -  and it is not certain if his description can be connected to the before-Christian jul, but it indicates that people of Scandinavia in December or January celebrated ritual blót-feasts.

Sacrifice place, reconstruction, DK/ wikipedia
After the introduction of Christianity in Denmark several sources mention how Danish kings kept magnificent feasts in order to celebrate the Christian jul. German history writers like Arnold of Lübeck describe in the 1100s how Danish kings had great drinking feasts. Similar descriptions are also seen in the Danish chronicles. The history writer Saxo wrote ab.year 1200 about a jule feast at the Danish court. The king invited the greatest men of the kingdom to magnificent feasts where they eat and drak for several days.

Sacrifice of food,reconstruction, DK/ wikipedia
Some are of the opinion that the before-Christian jul was at winter solstice, 21 or 22 December, others that it was at midwinter night between 19-20 January. Both suggestions could be true. There were probably several ritual feasts, which were held on various times in December or January. The feasts have varied from district to district, maybe even from family to family in some cases. There was probably a summer solstice feasts,  a feast at midwinter, and in other cases a fertility feast. The jól of winter was regarded as one of the intersection points of the year.

Feast in Middle Ages/ wikipedia
The jul was a ritual event, connected to the middle of winter. It seems that great men from the social elite often were the focal point of important feasts. Like the king the powerful men of the kingdom were often central in the ceremonies which were connected to the practice of the before-Christian religion - and they played undoubtedly an important role in marking the Jul. They drank, eat and sacrificed, and the sacrifice was probably held in one of the great halls where the elite resided. The jul-feast contributed to hold on to and to develop the social and religious structures of society.

Earliest Danish cross, Vor Frue kirke, Århus/ GB
In Scandinavia the word jul survived the introduction of Christianity, while other parts of Europe began to use words, which came from Christianity, like the English Christmas, the German Weihnacht and the Spanish Navidad etc. Likewise the considerable intake of food and drink seemed to live on in new forms. People did not cheer in the honor of Odin and Frej, but celebrated the birth of Christ. Although it immediately looks as if central parts of the before-Christian jul continued after the introduction of Christianity, it is important to say that the informations were written down by later Christian writers. They saw the past through a Christian lens and might therefore have transferred a part of their contemporary jul-celebration to their description of the past.

Source:, Århus Universitet.