Traditions that endure: Christmas beer from an heirloom bowl
A cherished family artifact of a Viking Beer Bowl dating back to 1769 became a centerpiece over decades on our living room table and became a symbol of how acknowledging one’s culture in changing times is a reason for celebration.
Having grown up in a Norwegian-American parsonage in North Dakota, I thought I knew about Norwegian Christmas traditions. Yet I encountered a degree of “culture shock” when I spent my first Christmas in Norway in 1957.
As a young student, I attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, in the 1940s, where the spirit of Christmas did not include beer making, nor was dancing condoned. As a Fulbright student to the University of Oslo some years later, I learned that both beer making and dancing were part of my cultural ancestry.
The shock first hit me when I was assigned a dorm room in the “Studentbyen” in Oslo that grouped five private rooms in a cluster that shared a kitchen, a common shower and washroom, and a separate “water closet.” One of the private rooms was assigned to a charming young female student—a recognition of gender equality that seemed so natural.
At Christmas, the washroom floor was lined with about 50 bottles of home-brewed, corked jul beer that was fermenting, and occasionally a cork would explode and ricochet around the room, which made shaving jittery.
Later, with in-laws of my Norwegian-born wife in Voss, it was a tradition to gather in the basement of the family home with my brothers-in-law to brew Christmas beer. My assigned job was to syphon fermented beer via a plastic tube from a large vat into a filtering process that ended up in glass bottles. My relatives sampled a few tastes to ensure purity.
Every so often, I’d lose the flow of syphoning, so I’d put the plastic tube in my mouth and suck to restart the flow. After a few times of catching a mouthful, everything seemed so funny and our combined laughter celebrated a success in reproducing beer made from the so-called everlasting yeast that was regenerated over generations from Viking times—a tradition defying time.
My relatives told me that the birthplace of beer making was in Voss, dating back to Viking times. In those days, the Vikings with their long boats and shallow draft in water could sail during high tide from the ocean inland to Voss to hide from enemy ships. The yeast that they used, as a growing organism, was different from any other and could be preserved for use over hundreds of years.
Even today, Voss is a mecca for farmhome beer makers or connoisseurs of home brew.
Over the generations to follow, our family beer bowl took on a ceremonial role, more so than the beer. The interior painting within the bowl was several hundred years old, I’m told. The exterior was repainted with an inscription in Old Norse that reads, “If you drink too much of me, I’ll make a fool of you.”
The bowl today is used mostly at weddings, where the bride and groom share the handles and sip champagne as a mutual toast at the gathering of an extended family around the wedding table.
On special occasions like dinner toasts at major anniversaries, Viking beer is still served as a chaser to a swallow of Linie aquavit, which has been vintaged by the rocking motion of ocean-going ships crossing the equator—another tradition from times past.
Christmas traditions are likely the most memorable of times when families gather together to renew the full dimension of a culture that includes specialty foods, caroling songs, dancing around a Christmas tree, a visit from the julenisse with gifts for the children, for nostalgia around a festive table when amusing stories of heritage are told, and yes, a toast of ancestral spirits in a Viking tradition.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 16, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.