By Mary P. Pringle and Clara A. Urann.
—Frithof's "Saga," Trans. Bayard Taylor.
"To Norroway, to Norroway," the most northern limit of Scandinavia, one turns for the first observance of Christmas in Scandinavia, for the keeping of Yule-tide in the land of Odin, of the Vikings, Sagas, midnight sun, and the gorgeous Aurora Borealis. This one of the twin countries stretching far to the north with habitations within nineteen degrees of the North Pole, and the several countries which formed ancient Scandinavia, are one in spirit regarding Christmas although not in many other respects.
In the far north among the vast tribe of Lapps, in their cold, benighted country, as Christmas approaches each wandering tribe heads its reindeer toward the nearest settlement containing a church, that it may listen to the story of the first Christmas morn which is told year after year by the pastor, and yet is ever new and interesting to the people who come from great distances, drawn over the fields of crisp snow by their fleet-footed reindeer.
The Lapp is apparently a joyless individual. Men, women, and children seem bereft of all power of amusement beyond what tends to keep them alive, such as fishing, hunting, and traveling about to feed their herds of reindeer. They have no games, no gift for music, they never dance nor play cards, but year after year drag out an existence, living within low earth-covered huts or in tents. Even the best homes are low and poorly ventilated. For windows are not needed where darkness reigns for months together, where the sun is not seen at all during six or seven weeks of the year, and where people live out-of-doors during the long summer day of sunlight that follows.
In their low, stuffy homes which at Christmas are filled with guests from the wandering Lapps, there is no room for the pretty tree and decorative evergreens. The joy afforded these people at Yule-tide is in the reunion of friends, in attending church services, in the uniting of couples in marriage, and, alas, in the abundance of liquor freely distributed during this season. The children are made happy by being able to attend school, for at Christmas they are brought into the settlements with friends for this purpose. They have only a few weeks' schooling during the year, from Christmas to Easter, and while the schoolmasters are stationed at the little towns, the children work hard to gain the knowledge of books and religion which they crave.
In this terrible winter night of existence, amidst an appalling darkness of Nature and Mind, the one great occasion of the year is Christmas. Not the merry, bright, festive occasion of their more favored brothers and sisters, but what to them is the happiest in the year.
Christmas Eve passes unnoticed. The aurora may be even more beautiful than usual, its waving draperies more fantastic, more gorgeous-hued, but it is unnoticed by the Lapps who have seen it from childhood. Men, women, children, servants, guests, and animals, crowd into the small, low homes, without a thought of Santa Claus coming to visit them. Children have no stockings to hang up, and there are no chimneys for Santa to descend. In fact, he and his reindeer, with their loads of treasured gifts, probably left this region with the sun, bound for more congenial places.
The church bells break the terrible silence of the sunless towns on Christmas morning, and as the fur-encased natives wend their way to church, greeting one another as they meet, there is a faint approach to joyousness. Of course there must be real sorrow and joy wherever there is life and love, although among the Lapps it is hard to discern.
During Yule-tide the Lapps visit one another, attend to what governmental business there may be, give in marriage, christen the children, and bury the dead, whose bodies have lain beneath their covering of snow awaiting this annual visit of the Norwegian clergyman for their final interment.
Think of Christmas without a tree, without wreaths and flowers, without stockings full of gifts, with a dinner of reindeer meat and no plum pudding! And imagine what would be his sensation could a Lapp child be put into a home in England, America, Germany, or even in other parts of Scandinavia! What would he say could he receive such gifts as were given you last Christmas!
But Lapps are only a small part of the population of Norway. Norwegian children have many jolly times around the Christmas trees and enjoy hunting for their little gifts which are often tucked away in various places for them to find. Then there are all sorts of pretty games for them to play and quantities of appetizing food prepared for their pleasure. The young folks earn their feast, for all day long before Christmas they are busy tying bunches of oats and corn on the trees, the fences, the tops of houses and of barns, and on high poles which they erect in the yards, until
"From gable, barn and stable
Protrudes the birdies' table
Spread with a sheaf of corn."
The Norwegians begin their Christmas with divine services, after which they meet together for a repast which is an appetizer for the feast to follow. A pipe of tobacco is given to each man and boy present, then they smoke while the feast, the great feature of the day, is being made ready. Fish, poultry, meats, and every variety of food known to the Norwegian housewife is served in courses, between which toasts are given, healths drunk, and the songs of Norway rendered. Among the latter "Old Norway" is always included, for the people never forget the past history of their beloved country.
One of the pretty customs of these occasions is that each guest on arising turns to the host and hostess, who remain seated at either end of the table, and, bowing to each, expresses his thanks for the meal.
Sometimes after the serving of tea at seven o'clock, little boys in white mantles, with star-shaped lanterns and dolls to represent the Virgin and the Holy Babe, enter the room and sing sweet carols. Often strolling musicians arrive, such as go from place to place at Christmas. After a large supper the guests depart on sledges for their homes, which are often miles distant.
Do you suppose on Christmas Eve, as they look toward the fading light in the West, the children of Norway ever think of their Scandinavian cousins, the little Icelanders, in their peat houses, on that isolated island in the sea, where the shortest day is four hours long, and where at Christmas time the sun does not rise above the horizon for a week, and wonder how they are celebrating Yule-tide?
Christmas is a great day with them also, for they cling to the old songs and customs, and could the west wind convey the sound of glad voices across the wide expanse of water separating the island from the mainland, Norwegian children might hear the Icelandic children singing one of their sweet old songs.
"When I do good and think aright
At peace with man, resigned to God,
Thou look'st on me with eyes of light,
Tasting new joys in joy's abode."
In Sweden there is a general house-cleaning before Christmas; everything must be polished, scrubbed, beaten, and made clean, and all rubbish burned, for dirt, like sinful thoughts, cannot be tolerated during the holy festival.
As early as the first of December each housewife starts her preparations for the great day. Many have worked all the year making gifts for the occasion, but now the carpets must come up and be beaten, the paint must be cleaned, and the house set in order. The silver which has been handed down from generation to generation, together with that received on holidays and birthdays, has to be cleaned and polished, so must the brasses—the tall fire-dogs, the stately andirons, and the great kettles—all must be made to reflect every changing ray of light.
Then the baking for a well-ordered household is a matter of great moment, and requires ample time. It is usual to begin at least two weeks before Christmas. Bread is made of wheat and rye flour, raised over night, then rolled very thin and cut into discs twelve or fourteen inches in diameter, with a hole in the center. After having been baked, these are strung on a stick and left to dry under the beams of the baking-room. As they will keep a long while, large quantities are made at this season in each household.
Then follows the making of sweetened, soft, rye, wheat, and other breads, as well as the baking of the light yellow (saffron), the chocolate-brown, and thin gray-colored cakes, and those that are filled with custard.
The preparing of Christmas drinks always requires the close attention of good dames, for there must be an inexhaustible supply of Christmas beer, made of malt, water, molasses, and yeast, and wine with almonds and spices, and various other decoctions.
Then the cheese must be made ready, not only the usual sour kind, but the more delicious sweet cheese that is made of sweet milk boiled slowly for hours and prettily moulded.
The Swedish wife is relieved of the burden of making pies, as her people know nothing about that indigestible mixture so acceptable to American palates.
The festivities begin with the dressing of the tree the day before Christmas. In this the older members of the family, with friends and relatives, join with great gusto, preparing paper flowers with which to bedeck the tall evergreen tree which reaches from floor to ceiling.
They cut long ribbons of colored paper for streamers, and make yards of paper fringe to wind with the tinsel among the boughs, from which are hung bright colored boxes of sweetmeats, fruit, and fancy balls.
The children are, of course, excluded from the room and obliged to content themselves with repeating the tales of Santa Claus, as told by their elders. When a gift is offered in person, or, as is more generally the case, is thrown in the door suddenly by an unseen hand, there rings a merry Glad Frill (Good Yule) meaning "Merry Christmas," for that is the wish of the preceding day or days, rather than of Christmas itself.
On Christmas Eve at early nightfall, when the colored candles are ablaze over the entire tree, and the great red ball of light shines from its topmost branches, the children are admitted to the room amidst a babel of shouts and screams of delight, which are increased upon the arrival of a veritable Santa Claus bestrewn with wool-snow and laden with baskets of gifts. On the huge sled are one or more baskets according to the number of bundles to be distributed in the family. Each bundle bears the name of the owner on its wrapper, together with funny rhymes and mottoes, which are read aloud for the amusement of all. Santa Claus always gives an abundance of valuable counsel and advice to the young folks as he bestows upon them his pretty gifts.
After the distribution of gifts and the disappearance of Santa Claus, all join in dancing and singing around the tree simple, childish jingles such as the following:
"Now is Christmas here again,
Now is Christmas here again,
After Christmas then comes Easter,
Cheese and bread and Christmas beer,
Fish and rice and Christmas cheer!
One of the prettiest dances is that of "Cutting the Oats," in which girls and boys—there must be an extra boy—dance in a circle, singing:
"Cut the oats, cut the oats,
Who is going to bind them?
That my dearest will have to do,
But where will I find him?
"I saw him last eve in the moonlight,
In the moonlight clear and bright,
So you take one and I'll take one,
And he will be left without one."
The boys represent the cutters and the girls the oats, and great merriment prevails as the cutters' arms encircle the waists of the pretty oats, leaving the unfortunate cutter, whom they all dance around.
Many of their games are similar to "Blind Man's Buff," "Hunt the Key," and "Hot and Cold," or "Hunt to the Music," the latter being one which by its modulations from pianissimo to forte indicate the hunters' nearness to the object sought for. The game of "Blind Feeding the Blind" causes much amusement among the juveniles; two players sit opposite each other blindfolded and endeavor to feed one another with spoonfuls of milk, and their mishaps are very entertaining to the on-lookers.
Between the hours of ten and eleven comes the grand Christmas supper, when all adjourn to the dining-room to partake of the annual feast for which the housewives have long been preparing. The table is usually tastefully and often elaborately trimmed with flowers and green leaves. The corners of the long snow-white homespun cloth are caught up into rosettes surrounded with long calla or other leaves; possibly the entire edge of the table is bedecked with leaves and flowers. The butter is moulded into a huge yellow rose resting on bright green leaves, and the napkins assume marvelous forms under the deft fingers of the artistic housewives.
The Christmas mush holds the first place in importance among the choice viands of the occasion; it is rice boiled a long while in milk and seasoned with salt, cinnamon, and sugar, and is eaten with cream. Several blanched almonds are boiled in the mush and it is confidently believed that whoever finds the first almond will be the first to be married. While eating the mush, each one is expected to make rhymes about the rice and the good luck it is to bring them, and the most remarkable poetical effusions are in order on these occasions.
The Christmas fish is to the Swede what the Christmas roast-beef is to the Englishman, an indispensable adjunct of the festival. The fish used resembles a cod; it is buried for days in wood ashes or else it is soaked in soda water, then boiled and served with milk gravy. Bread, cheese, and a few vegetables follow, together with a pudding made of salt herrings, skinned, boned, and cut in thin slices, which are laid in a dish with slices of cold boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, covered with a dressing of cream, butter, and eggs-then baked and served hot.
The fish, rice, and a fat goose are said to be served at every table on Christmas from that of the king to that of the commonest of his subjects.
Christmas morning opens with an early service in church, to which the older members of the family go in sled parties of from forty to fifty sleds, each drawn by one, two, or even three horses, over whose backs jingle rows of silver-toned bells. The sled parties are an especial feature of Christmas time. They start out while the stars are still twinkling in the sky, and the lighted trees are illuminating the homes they pass.
The day itself is observed with less hilarity than other days during the season; the "Second Christmas," or day following, being far gayer. Then begin the family parties, with the looking forward to the great Twelfth-Night ball, after which the children and young folks end their evening parties by untrimming the tree of their entertainer amidst peals of laughter, songs, and shouts.
The tree, of course, has been supplied anew with candles, fruit, and candy. The first are blown out and the last two struggled for while the tree is drawn slowly toward the door out of which it is finally pitched by the merry crowd.
The Swedes have four legal holidays at Yule, beginning the day previous to Christmas, and they make merry while they last. Besides having the Jul-gran or Christmas tree, each family places in the yard a pole with a sheaf of grain on top for the birds' Christmas dinner, a pretty custom common to many countries.
Business is very generally suspended during Christmas, the day following, Twelfth Day, and the twentieth day.
"Do as your forefathers have done, and you can't do wrong," is said to be the motto of the Swedes. So the customs of their forefathers are strictly observed at Yule-tide.
Svea, the feminine name of Sweden, the "Queen of the North," contains what is popularly believed to be the burial-places of Wodin, Thor, and Freya. The mounds are about one mile from Upsala and are visited by travelers from all parts of the world. Antiquarian researchers, however, have recently had a word to say in doubt whether these mounds contain the remains of the renowned beings, those ancient travelers. The Swedes, however, still cling to the belief that the bones of Wodin, the Alexander of the North, rest beneath the sod at Upsala. In these mounds have been found the bones of a woman and of a dog, a bracelet of filigree work, and a curious pin shaped like a bird, but no sign of Wodin's presence. Yet peasants believe that Wodin passes by on dark nights, and his horse's shoe, with eight nail-holes, is exhibited in the museum at Utwagustorp.
New Year's Day is of comparatively little importance; the Christmas trees are usually relighted for the enjoyment of the poorer children and gifts are made to the needy. The Yule festivities are prolonged for two weeks in many places, during which the people visit from home to home and enjoy many social pleasures. The devout attend church services each day, abandon all work so far as possible, and on January thirteenth generally finish up the joyous season with a ball.
The Swedes do not trim their churches with evergreen at Yule-tide as that is an emblem of mourning with them, and is used instead of crape on the door and often strewn before the hearse and also upon the floor in the saddened homes, so of course at Christmas they would not think of using it for decorations. But where they can afford it or can procure them, they use flowers to decorate their homes.
In Denmark, Christmas is a time of unusual merriment and rejoicing. No one who can possibly avoid it works at all from the day before Christmas until after New Year, but spends the time in visiting, eating, and drinking. "May God bless your Christmas; may it last till Easter," is the usual salutation of the season.
With the people of Denmark the favorite dish for Christmas dinner is a goose; every one, even the cattle, the dog, and the birds, receive the best the larder affords on this occasion. There is a peculiar kind of cake that is made for each member of every family, and, for some reason not explained, the saltcellar remains on the table throughout Yule-tide.
Those who own fruit-trees feel it incumbent upon them to go at midnight on Christmas Eve and with a stick in hand strike each tree three times saying as they do so, "Rejoice, O Tree,—rejoice and be fruitful."
In Denmark it is believed by many that the cattle rise on their knees at midnight on Christmas Eve, but no one ever seems to have proved this saying to be true.
In this country also the children delight in listening to stories of trolls who have been driven to the island of Bornhern by the parsons although they once ran riot through Zealand, and the little folks sing pretty songs of Balder, the sun god, which are a special feature of the season.
It is customary to usher in the New Year with a noise of firearms of every description.
Far over in Norway's distant realm,
That land of ice and snow,
Where the winter nights are long and drear,
And the north winds fiercely blow,
From many a low-thatched cottage roof,
On Christmas eve, 'tis said,
A sheaf of grain is hung on high,
To feed the birds o'erhead.
In years gone by, on Christmas eve,
When the day was nearly o'er,
Two desolate, starving birds flew past
A humble peasant's door.
"Look! Look!" cried one, with joyful voice
And a piping tone of glee:
"In that sheaf there is plenteous food and cheer,
And the peasant had but three.
One he hath given to us for food,
And he hath but two for bread,
But he gave it with smiles and blessings,
'For the Christ-child's sake,' he said."
"Come, come," cried the shivering little mate,
"For the light is growing dim;
'Tis time, ere we rest in that cosy nest,
To sing our evening hymn."
And this was the anthem they sweetly sang,
Over and over again:
"The Christ-child came on earth to bless
The birds as well as men."
Then safe in the safe, snug, warm sheaf they
Till the long, cold night was gone,
And softly and clear the sweet church bells
Rang out on the Christmas dawn,
When down from their covert, with fluttering wings,
They flew to a resting-place,
As the humble peasant passed slowly by,
With a sorrowful, downcast face.
"Homeless and friendless, alas! am I,"
They heard him sadly say,
"For the sheriff," (he wept and wrung his hands)
"Will come on New Year's day."
The birdlings listened with mute surprise.
"'Tis hard," they gently said;
"He gave us a sheaf of grain for food,
When he had but three for bread.
We will pray to God, He will surely help
This good man in distress;"
And they lifted their voices on high, to crave
His mercy and tenderness.
Then again to the Christmas sheaf they flew,
In the sunlight, clear and cold:
"Joy! joy! each grain of wheat," they sang,
"Is a shining coin of gold."
"A thousand ducats of yellow gold,
A thousand, if there be one;
O master! the wonderful sight behold
In the radiant light of the sun."
The peasant lifted his tear-dimmed eyes
To the shining sheaf o'erhead;
"'Tis a gift from the loving hand of God,
And a miracle wrought," he said.
"For the Father of all, who reigneth o'er,
His children will ne'er forsake,
When they feed the birds from their scanty store,
For the blessed Christ-child's sake."
"The fields of kindness bear golden grain,"
Is a proverb true and tried;
Then scatter thine alms, with lavish hand,
To the waiting poor outside;
And remember the birds, and the song they sang,
When the year rolls round again:
"The Christ-child came on earth to bless
The birds as well as men."
—Mrs. A. M. Tomlinson.
This is taken from Yuletide in Many Lands.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved