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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Thou green and glittering tree, good day!

To decorate for a feast with something green indoors is ancient custom throughout Europe, Scandinavia included. In Ofoten in Northern Norway it was said that it was life-giving to have juniper, pine or branch of fir in the house around Christmas, dispossessing "the undead and other evil spirits" from exercising their wicked games. In 1850, vicar M.B. Landstad wrote that it was an old custom among farmers to fetch a rowan from the woods, complete with root and top, and place it in the corner of the living room. "When the tree began to bud, it was believed to predict how the coming of spring and summer. The sooner the Christmas tree went popping, the sooner spring to arrive; the more abundant the tree grew to be, the more fruitful the year would be."

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Christmas tree quickly spread and was met with limited resistance in the rural communities when it was first introduced - it prolonged a custom that was already familiar. 

Norwegian Christmas card, 1880: The National Library of Norway

Already in 1605, notions of the Christmas tree was featured in anonymous records from Strasbourg in Alsace, telling about fir trees being placed in people's living rooms at Christmas, embellished with colorful paper roses, apples, cakes and the like. During the 1700's, the custom spread to Germany, and was expanded with new symbolic effects and features: candlelit branches, an imitation of the Betlehem star in the top, followed by a gift ceremony on Christmas Eve. The first known description of Christmas candles also originate from Strasbourg, in 1765. In the 1790s, paintings of candlelit Christmas trees  occur. In the 1840s, Christmas trees had gained a place among wealthy families in all the larger German cities, and from there on, the custom spread to the rural communities.

The first to bring the Christmas tree to Denmark, were
supposedly German dignitary families who immigrated to Copenhagen around 1810. However, until 1850, the practice rarely occurred among other than landlords and the city's civil servants, as was the case in Norway as well. The great breakthrough came in the 1870s-1880s, and the influence can be traced in a similar fashion as in Germany: springing from the wealthy, to the broad sections of the population in urban and rural communities.

The most ardent proponents of the new custom were found among priests and teachers. In Jølster, in western Norway, an old man recounted that, as a child, he attended a Christmas party at the vicorage in 1876: "We came in from the kitchen into the living room and saw the Christmas tree. It was like coming into the holy of holies." 

"There was always a sense of feast and excitement associated with the excursion"
Artist uknown

The Christmas tree was chopped and brought to the farm in due time before Christmas Eve. In case of great snowfall and heavy lead, it was convenient to have decided for appropriate tree in advance, and there was always a sense of feast and excitement associated with the excursion and return.

"It had to be tall enough to catch the ceiling and were transported home on the toboggan of us children. At that point, we had been acquainted with it for some time, for it was carefully chosen for our Christmas tree that very same summer. "

In the cities, the new custom led to rapid growth in the sale of Christmas trees. In Oslo, it was considered warmhearted charity to provide poor people with free-of-charge trees; it was contrary to the meaning of the festival that not everyone could afford to celebrate it in a full-fledged way. The Christmas tree had become a focal point on common values and an expression of social equality.

As a rule, it was the children's privilege to decorate the tree on the morning of Christmas Eve, while the adults completed the final preparations. In older times however, and in affluent families, the children were often left outside, and had to wait in tension behind closed doors while the parents carried out the decorations in the room next door. The great moment arose when the doors were opened, and the tree was revealed in all its splendor. 

Illustration for Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale "The Fir Tree", 
by Danish artist Svend Otto Sørensen

From Gildeskål in northern Norway it has been told: "Mother and father disappeared and we sat listening to the sounds in the living room: now they decorated the Christmas tree, now they brought in the presents. It was nice and warm in there, for the fire had been burning since early morning. And then finally the doors were opened. I’ll never forget the wonderful, indescribable feeling of the sight of the decorated Christmas tree with candlelight. And on the table with the fine cloth on, there were bowls with cakes and fruits and nuts, bottles of wine and holstein mead and shiny glasses."

The oldest Christmas decorations were simple and homemade: molded candles with old-fashioned holders, colorful paperchains, flowers and tiny wicker baskets, small figurines of pastries, some fruit (apples, raisins, oranges) and other Christmas treats to fill in the baskets. A man from Evanger in western Norway wrote in 1964: “But what sparkled most was the silver ribbon from mother's wedding dress, which she had kept hidden; and of course, the star in the top.”

It is still unclear when it became custom to walk around the tree and sing Christmas songs. From the 16th century there are records from Germany, telling about people decorating a tree outside, dancing around it at Christmas or New Year’s. To do that at home together with family members and close friends was a form of privatization that happened a lot later. The Danish poet B.S. Ingemann mentioned the custom in 1818, and from Denmark it probably came to Norway with the introduction of the Christmas tree in the mid 1800's. 

Danish Christmas card, probably 1900. The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen

It was characteristic of the home's Christmas tree that it was consistently a part of to the entire feast, not just a particular day. It gave rise to social gatherings at home both before and after New Year’s. Such Christmas visits often coincided with the "harvesting" of the tree, i.e. to strip it for edible treats and other decorations and distribute the sweets. This was the children's field of expertise, a popular “after-party” and a solemn occasion they had all to themselves.

Nowadays, electrical lighting has helped extend the life of the Christmas tree. In thousands of gardens, bushes and trees with lit light bulbs are twinkling in the winter darkness several weeks into the new year. In some cases, this form of privatization of the public, outdoor Christmas tree can easily be perceived as waste of resources and status symbol for wealthy homeowners.

In most cases, however, this practice is most likely a symbolic expression, more than socially conditioned. The lights bring some of the Christmas spirit and atmosphere into the future, keeping the memory of the Christmas feast alive. 

Thou green and glittering tree, good day!

Released in 1951, the following short film, loosely translated to "The Chime of Church Bells", was created as a Christmas greeting by Oslo Cinemas. Inviting the audience to sing along with the carols, the film truly captures some of the magic and fairy dust many of us associate with our childhood's Christmas - regardsless of age and mother tongue. The song performed by the end of the film, is one of the most well-known Scandinavian Christmas songs to date, written by German-Danish composer Cristoph E.F. Weyse, and Danish poet Johan Krohn. First published in Denmark in 1866, the lyrics were translated to Norwegian in 1892, bearing the title Song to the Christmas Tree. Nowadays, however, it is simply known by the first line of the first verse, emphasizing the song as a tribute and salute to the tree:
Thou green and glittering tree, good day!
With joy and gladness we hial your comingt;
Bedecked with candles and spangles gay,
Your topmost star is as sunlight dawning!
Our hearts' reminder, of Heaven's splendor,
Our hearts' reminder of Heaven's splendor,
And God's great love, And God's great love. 


  • Ørnulf Hodne (1996). Jul i Norge. Gamle og nye tradisjoner. Cappelen. 
  • Stovner, Ina Louise. (2018, 8. februar). Juletre. I Store norske leksikon:
  • Thank you to for a beautiful translation of Du grønne glitrende tre, goddag!

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Christmas Sheaf

The first written notions about the Christmas sheaf is found in Norway's Natural History (1753), written by Danish-Norwegian author, bishop and historian, Erik Pontoppidan. According to Pontoppidan, at "Christmas Eve, the hospitality of the Norwegian farmer goes to great lengths, by also inviting the birds for a feast. Setting up an elaborate bunch of cereal-crop stems bound together outside the door on a rod, this practice facilitate a joyous Christmas party for sparrows and other little birds." More recent traditions can confirm that such Christmas sheafs have been common in farms and dwellings all over the country, gradually gaining ground in in the cities. 

Christmas preperations. Siblings pictured in Oslo, 1905

© Museum of Oslo

The lifespan and purpose of this custom is difficult to identify. However, several theories have been suggested, more or less justified within the tradition itself. Norwegian theologist and sociologist Eilert Sundt, for example, thought that the sheaf was a pagan protecting agent against evil spirits, in the same way as fire, burnt bread, green leaves and twigs. For most, however, a set up sheaf unlikely had no other meaning than letting even the smallest of creatures in on the fun; for also the birds were entitled to the same care and consideration on Christmas Eve, as other animals on the farm.

There were a number of regulations for when and how a sheaf should be set up. First and foremost, it had to be placed high and visible to birds and people, on a set stake or in a tree. In Hemne, a municipality in the county of Trøndelag, a young spruce with many branches were placed in the top, so the birds had "something to sit on while they had their meal." Below the snow had to be swept away, so that the little ones could jump and dance and make merry. 

Immediately after the Chritmas sheaf was set up, it was important to make observations; of what kind of birds were visiting, and how they conducted. If the sparrows and bullfinches flocked to the sheaf, being  cheerful and voracious,  it was a sign of a fruitful forthcoming crop. If the birds were few and far between, eating very little, it was believed that a future famine was in store. At Christmas, nearly everything came a warning. Originally, the sheafs were placed at the foot of the barn bridge – in recent times however, it became more common to place them so that the birds could be seen from the living room windows.

Whether they were made out of barley or oats, the sheafs should be large and have plenty of food. Otherwise, the bird food consisted of tallow and bits of pork for the tits, grains and bread "sprinkled on the roof tops". The magpies and crows got something from slaughter and other scraps from the household kitchen – and "even a glass of liquor" (!). On Christmas eve all living beings should have peace and an abundance of food and drink.

In "Norheimsund in the county of Hordaland it was said: "The Christmas sheaf was the well-established Christmas dinner for birds. The old society showed great care for the animals, always having the birds in mind.” 

Painting by Adolph Tidemand, Traditions of Christmas, 1846

  • Ørnulf Hodne (1999). Jul i Norge: gamle og nye tradisjoner. Cappelen

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"Úlfhéðnar" - or Ravaging Lunetics? Manbeasts and Shapeshifting in the Nordic Tradition

“Once there was so mighty a man, that his equal was not to be found; already as a youngster, he ravaged with the Vikings. […] He was a good farmer, and had a habit of getting up at dawn, tending to the livestock, his craftsmen and his fields. Many were those who sought his counseling, and as he was wise man, he had good advice for them all.

Every evening however, when darkness fell, he became spiteful, with an erratic temper. Early at nightfall, he became sleepy, and word got around that he frequently changed his human shape and form, earning the name Kveldulv (“Nightwolf”).
From the Saga of Egil Skallagrimssons
Nowadays, the creatures we call werewolves, are mostly known from glossy television shows and motion pictures, or from classic literature such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The stories are most often about a man who is transformed at full moon, either as a wolf larger than a real wolf or an anthropomorphic figure resembling a wolf. In some stories, the werewolves have been portrayed more positively, with the premise that the human mind continues to work within the beast itself, such as the comedic but tortured protagonist David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London (1981), and a less anguished and more confident and charismatic Jack Nicholson in the 1994 film Wolf

Within the ancient myths and legends however, the actual belief in shape-shifting were regarded as the consequence of a real molt.

Although the strange notions of werewolves has never reached the same widespread distribution in Europe as witchcraft, they are in many ways closely connected. In both cases, the narrative traditions revolve around a condition which could be actively produced, by using an ointment or the like. In the terms of the “shape-shifting” tales however, there are a few other factors to be considered.

Already from Greek antiquity, there was a living notion of certain people being able transform themselves into wild animals, in order to perform wicked deeds.  As in any rural community, at large consisting of farmers and shepherds often having to fight of predators attacking their herds, an intimate knowledge of and a strong fear of the wolf has probably contributed to these notions. 

"I'm so hungry, my intestines are shrieking," said the wolf.

Painting by Theodor Kittelsen (1900)

Concurrently however, these notions are often been associated with cases of insanity or psychosis, in which the indisposed themselves believed to be a wild animal – in many cases, a wolf. According to Norwegian medical historian Fredrik Grøn (1871-1947), there are several things that indicate that the belief in werewolves is also associated with the illness, which we also know from our time, called rabies. It is an utterly ghastly disease that attacks dogs, and occasionally other animals such as wolves – bitten by a diseased animal, the condition can also be transmitted to humans. The illness achieved international reputation through the work of French biologist Louis Pasteur, for his remarkable efforts to find a remedy for it – in 1885 he successfully developed effective vaccine.

This illness was undoubtedly far more prevalent in the past, and even if one assumed that it was the bite of "old dogs" that evoked the disease, unfounded beliefs had a free rein. For the diseased conducted in a most peculiar way, with severe cramps, biting and barking like dogs, in short; behaving like animals. In retrospect, it is no wonder that ideas of something supernatural emerged. Even as late as the 16th century, pursuits for presumed werewolves were conducted, and those who were caught condemned mercilessly to the fires, just as the witches and warlocks.

Perhaps it was no wonder, when a learned man like Swedish scholar Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) during the mid-1500s concluded that "that kind of wolves really are people transformed into wolves" still appeared numerous in the Nordic border region and the Baltic States. Especially during Christmas, it was believed that these creatures ravaged worse among humans and animals than the "real and natural wolves." The Swedish folklorist Ella Odstedt interpreted this phenomenon as violent orgies instituted by licentious and starving people whom, taking advantage by the folk belief, acquired food and drink on any farm at close range. During the war in 1808, rumors even spread that the Russians transformed the Swedish prisoners into werewolves and sent them home to plague the country!

Researchers have also pointed to the Old Norse tradition of the Vikings era’s berserker; furious, invulnerable warriors who bet in the shield and hooted like dogs when they went to battle. Presumably, they also clothed themselves in the pelts of wild animals to scare the enemy and take part in the animal's ferocity and strength.

King Harald Hairfair's berserker were called Úlfhéðnar (wolfs’s skin), and the word berskerk can in fact be interpreted as ber (bear) serk (clothing) - that is, bjørneham, or bear vesture. The word werewolf is associated with the old Norse word for man – verr – straightforward translated to "man wolf". 

An engraving of an image shown on a Vendel era (550-793) bronze plate discovered in Öland, Sweden. Depicted are a berserker about to decapitate his enemy on the right and Oden on the left. Oden's famous characters markers are not present.
From Oscar Montelius, "Om lifvet i Sverige under hednatiden" (Stockholm 1905)

These notions indicate that the berserk cult was an ecstatic and imitating devotion to the war god Odin, who was the master in the art of procreating different shapes and forms, making travels “in mind and spirit" while the body seemed apparently lifeless. This ability could also acquired by the use of sorcery, or witchcraft. Both the Edda poems and saga literature serve as examples of that the belief in shape-shifting were regarded as the consequence of a real molt.

For anyone wanting to be free from their animal vesture, could manage to do so, either by themselves or the help of others. In the ancient sagas and fairytales, love and marriage were important aids. Most common however, was to burn the vesture or mention the animal by its human name if you recognized it. Then it would shed the animal flesh and become human again. If you felt sorry for the creature and fed it, the same effect could the obtained.

Even from our own day and age, there are records of “shape-shifters”. In Danish Sjælland, the belief in werewolves lived on well into the 19th century. As late as 1911, there is a record from a village in Østfold in the eastern part of Norway, where there lived a man who was supposedly a werewolf. According to the folktales, “something” suddenly came over him, and he disappeared for a fortnight. There was to record of his disappearance, and nobody knew when he would return. But he was doing, was not known, yet people assumed that he was running about in the woods.

From the western region of Norway, from Sunnfjord, there is a similar story of a man who owned a bear vesture, and when he wore it, no one was safe from his ravaging. If there was moonlight, he went out into the field and killed goats. If it was a bright summer night, he was found brawling with the horses. At last, when he was out for an errand, his wife found his bear vesture and burned it up. After that, the man was never quite the same. 

Illustration by Joakim Skovgaard (1889 el. 1890). 'The Werewolf".

The National Museum of Art: The Fine Arts Collection

  • Egil Skallagrimssons saga. I Norrøn saga, bind 1. Aschehoug, 3. opplag 1990 
  • Fredrik Grøn (1933). Varulvtroen (av overtroens eventyrsaga). In Folkeminner no. 65, november 2016 
  • Ørnulf Hodne (2012). Vetter og skrømt i norsk folketro. Cappelen Damm.