Thanksgiving traditions in Norway
M. Michael Brady
Thanksgiving, originally the day of giving thanks for the harvest, is celebrated in various ways on differing days round the world, reflecting the diversity of cultural and religious tradition. In the U.S. and Canada, the history of Thanksgiving can be traced back to the Reformation. As in many other countries, it also hallmarks the harvest. Today the celebration of Thanksgiving Day conveniently is fixed.
The celebration of Thanksgiving in Norway differs. In name, it’s nearly the same: Høsttakkefest translates directly to “Harvest Thanksgiving Feast.” But its roots are older and reflect both religious and secular tradition.
The religious roots of Høsttakkefest predate the adoption of Christianity in Norway. In the ancient city of Chonae, on September 29, 380 AD, according to the western liturgical calendar, a church was consecrated to the Archangel Michael. With time, that date was celebrated in the Catholic Church as Michaelmas, spelled Mikkelsmess in the Nordic countries. In medieval Europe, it became associated with the harvest at the end of the farming year. So in Norway, the annual Høsttakkefest was held along with Mikkelsmess or on a Sunday before or after it. In 1770, Mikkelsmess was abolished as a public church holiday in Denmark and Norway. In 1918 Mikkelsmess was reinstated in the Norwegian liturgical calendar, and from 1999 on, its celebration is optional in the Church of Norway. Today Norwegian calendars annotate September 29 as Mikkelsmess.
The secular roots of Høsttakkefest are agrarian and tied to the practice of transhumance, the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between lower valleys in winter and higher pastures in summer. In rural Norway, Høsttakkefest originally was called Buferdsdagen, also spelled Bufardag, traditionally the autumn day on which a farm’s livestock and its tenders moved from a higher summer farm, called a seter, to the main farm in the valley below. Transhumance was not much practiced in English-speaking countries, so Buferdsdagen is one of the few words in Norwegian that has no equivalent in English.
Today, the Norwegian Salmebok (“Hymnal”) has four hymns for Mikkelsmess (numbers 257-260) and four hymns for Høsttakkefest (numbers 253-256). Høsttakkefest is celebrated in churches throughout Norway, usually as a familiegudstjeneste (“Family service”) in which children bring vegetables, fruits, and grains into the church to symbolize the harvest. A family service often includes entertainment, as by children’s choirs, and in churches with suitable facilities, snacks and refreshments after a service.
The date of Høsttakkefest is not set for the country, so the dates of its celebration vary from early September to late October and occasionally early November. In 2015, the most lavish celebration of Høsttakkefest was held on Tuesday, September 8, in the National Cathedral in Trondheim. In addition to the church service, it included performances by a band for disabled persons, two choirs, dancers from the Trondheim Cathedral School, and a juggler.
In Oslo, the Aktiv i Oslo online events and entertainment magazine is trying to introduce an American-style Thanksgiving Day, link: aktivioslo.no/hvaskjer/thanksgiving (Norwegian only).
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.