Chasing away Christmas with old customs
I love that Norway savors the yuletide season, beginning with Advent calendars, stars, and wreaths. And for Norwegians, the holidays are not over right after Christmas but extend well into the New Year.
The etymology of the word jul comes from the old Norse word hjól, meaning wheel, jul being the lowest point on the wheel about to come back around. The concept of jul was a period of time rather than a specific event. In modern times, this period stretches from mid-November to mid-January, in total about eight weeks.
In Norway, jul has been divided into time slots to mark specific traditions. After Advent comes the following: juleaften–juledagen–andre juledag (Christmas Eve–Christmas Day–Second Christmas Day), romjul or mellomjul (“Between Chrismas”), nyttår (New Year’s), and trettendedagen (Epiphany), at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Today, we are lucky that more than remnants of jul are celebrated, even on this side of the Atlantic. We hear it in songs; we see it in the burning of the yule log, still broadcast on American TV; and sometimes we even include a goat in our Christmas decorations perhaps you have a straw one on your mantle or miniature one hanging from your Christmas tree.
And what would juleaften be without the nisse, who has such a generous nature and only asks for a mere bowl of julegrøt, his Christmas porridge, in return? I recently learned that the nisse’s origins are actually the spirits of the farm’s ancestors, who serve as protectors—a comforting idea.
Romjul, or mellomjul—what I like to call downtime—bridges the days between Christmas and New Year’s. In Norway, there was the old tradition of julebukking, when people would go door to door wearing masks and costumes, singing Christmas songs to be awarded with sweets.
Today, the days between Christmas and New Year’s can be a time for introspection, meditative walks, and cozying up with loved ones. We Americans could benefit from incorporating romjul into our hustle-and-bustle way of celebrating, adding a time to recharge, renew, reimagine, and recuperate for the New Year’s partying to follow.
Nyttår, or New Year’s, celebrated on Jan. 1, a date selected by Julius Caesar. The Vikings divided their calendar by the seasons, and the Scandinavians much later adapted their tradition to coincide with the last day of the year on the Gregorian calendar.
Trettendedagen or helligtrekongersdag (Thirteenth Day or the Holy Three Kings’ Day) marks the end of the jul season in most countries, as it falls on the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This number of celebration days is tied to the old Viking tradition of celebrating for 12 days at this time of the year, beginning with the winter solstice.
Veneration of the Three Kings took hold in Scandinavia more than a millennium ago. There is even a 12th century song composed in Telemark that combines the epic journey found in Viking tales with the Christian commemoration of the Magi. “Draumkvedet,” known in English as the “Vision of Heaven and Hell,” describes the dream of Olav Åsteson, who fell asleep on Christmas Eve and didn’t wake up until Epiphany, when people were going to church. During the 12 days of his sleep, Olav had dramatic visions of souls in purgatory.
But why stop reveling on Jan. 6, when you can squeeze out another week of merrymaking by incorporating Scandinavia’s St. Knut’s Day into your jul season?
Celebrated on Jan. 13 and also known as tyvendedagen, or the Twentieth Day, it was named after King Knut the Great (994–1035), who ruled Denmark, England, and Norway, as well as a section of Sweden for a time. King Knut went from being a brutal to a kind and just leader, and in turn, peace was enjoyed for 18 years.
The customs associated with this day seem to be totally disconnected to the king for whom it is named, except that he made celebrating for 20 days at Christmas into law and encouraged feasting by prohibiting fasting during this time.
In former times, the day offered a good deal of drama and excitement, as folks on sledges dash through the snow and over the frozen waterways, accompanied by the sound of bells and songs ringing through the night air as they participated in the “Christmas Chase.” It was all part of an attempt to outpace the troll woman, Kari-Tretten, and her minions who sped across the countryside on this night.
It is said that Saint Knut also chases Christmas away, and it is the day that the Christmas tree is looted. You can celebrate by dancing around the Christmas tree for one last spin, as you “dance out Christmas” before you plunder the remnants of any edibles still hanging on the tree’s branches and remove the faithful evergreen from your home and or chop it into firewood to be used that very night—all to chase the winter away. And don’t forget: this is that last day that you can say “God jul!
Are you tired of partying yet? I know I am ready for a long winter’s nap. I hope my dreams include visions of yuletide celebrations to come. I would encourage you to continue to practice and share your rich heritage of holiday traditions with your loved ones. And why not reclaim some of these old jul customs in your celebration to create an even richer and longer holiday?
This article originally appeared in the January 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.