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Thursday, 10 December 2020

Old Christmas Customs

Jul or Jol, which is said to really mean “noise” or “clamour,” was solemnly celebrated by our pagan ancestors on the 12th of [December], which was regarded as midwinter’s day, which is why the midtvinterblot or midwinter sacrifice was also held on that occasion.

When Christianity was introduced, the heathens also had to move their jul to the 25th of December. Despite the fact that nearly a thousand years has passed since then, several superstitions that have their roots in the worship of the heathen gods have survived until recently among the common people.

Thus the belief in the skreie or the julereie, in some places called the asgårdsreie, which in Ulvik at least is said to storm through the village on Christmas Eve. This wild host was originally the mighty ás-god Thor and his company, originally the friend and protector of mankind, but since the introduction of Christianity nothing more than a vengeful, horrible spirit that storms through the air with fire and smoke and destruction in its wake.

Åsgårdsreien, Peter Nicolai Arbo.

On Lussinotti [Lussi night], the longest night of the year, it was thought that “Lussi” came to the farm as an ugly foul woman. Others knew to tell of “Lussi’s wake,” a dangerous procession of flying creatures, half dragon, half human. This, however, was probably the same as the Asgårdsreie, just that the notion of these as two different objects has become obscure and confused.

Finally, we had the julesveiner [Yule swains] who also appeared on Lussi night and resided on the mantel above the old-fashioned smoke ovens; they remained mostly calm, however, until some time past Christmas, when they disappeared as quietly as they had come.

In many places there was also a creature called the Garssvore or the defender of the farm; he lurked around the farm the whole time and was big and ugly, but he wandered around by himself and left others alone. But for him to maintain peace, and defend the house and farm and folk and livestock from nuisance and violence and the hulder folk and other enchantments, he required a nicely made bed in the attic and a bowl of beer and a dish of sour-cream porridge put out in the farmyard or out in the fields every Christmas Eve. If he had this, he was satisfied.

From Lussi night until past Christmas, none of the folk in the house were to go out late or spend the night in an outhouse; they shaould all move into the cabin, even carrying in food and drink so they could avoid going out to the stabbur in the evening. Otherwise they might be taken by the evil spirits which were thought to have taken possession of all the outhouses during this time. If you were so unfortunate to be taken by the reie, you were thrown on a device that was said to look like an inverted harrow, and driven over sticks and stones until you were seriously injure or completely knocked to death.

In some places the reie stopped to have some food. The great cabin then had to be tidied, the occupants moved out, and the table abundantly covered with the best Christmas fare available in the house. If anyone dared to stay behind, he fared badly; he was either put on the inverted harrow and driven off the farm, or he was punished in his mind by becoming a numbskull or a fool for the rest of his days.

There was once a boy who no longer believed in the reie and such. He loaded his rifle and placed himself behind the stove on the evening the Julereie, was expected, to see if anyone really came. He was strongly warned against staking his life and health, but the boy wanted to stay in place anyway. As it passed midnight, a great rumbling and banging was heard, and a number of people entered the house and sat around the well-spread table. The were all dark, sooty, disguised figures. One of them sat down in the high seat and bade the others eat; he was bigger and uglier than the others and seemed to be some manner of leader for them. The boy behind the stove then raised his rifle and shot a bullet through the leader’s forehead. He fell to the floor with a roar, while the others hurriedly took flight through the door. Shortly afterwards, however, two of the men returned and pulled out their dead chief, after which they all disappeared. But from that day on the Christmas reie never came to that farm again. And here is what was most mysterious: one of the neighbors was found dead that very night, in his house, with a broken head. He was a bold, careless man.

Another time it happened that a stranger came to a farm on Christmas Eve and asked for a place to stay. He was told that not even they had a house that night, for they expected the julereie to arrive, and thus had to flee so they would not be trampled and disgraced.

Oh, nothing more, thought the man who had a tame white bear with him; if only he and the white bear would be allowed to sleep in the house, there would certainly be a curious dance with the julereie. So the man gave him leave to sleep there. He went in to the laid himself in the room or chamber next to the parlour, and left the door ajar, while the white bear lay down in the corner by the firepit. As it drew on towards midnight, a large company of folk – men, women and children – came in, sat down at the table and began to eat the fare that the people of the house had set out according to their old habit. However, one of the children had caught sight of the white bear, which it thought was a big white molly, took a piece of meat on a fork, and went to the corner, wanting to give it to the bear. But the bear did not want this meat, so the child stuck the fork in the animal’s nose. As a result, the white bear turned furious, and chased out the whole swarm.

On Christmas Eve the following year, the man standing in the farmyard heard someone call to him, asking if he still had the white molly. Yes, replied the man, he still had the cat, and she had had 7 kittens now, which were even worse than their mother. No more was asked, but the julereie never came to that farm again.

To protect themselves from the Lussiferd, the juleskreie or the julereie, hulder folk &c. they used to paint tar crosses above every outer door. Thus, they thought, that they would stride on past.

A pitch cross on the door lintel of a cabin in The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, Bygdøy.

On Christmas Eve, boys and girls could see their future spouses by leaving the table in the middle of the meal, taking a piece of Christmas fare in their hands and going to the barn, where they took off their shoes and then ran three times around the house in their bare socks. The third time they returned, their prospective spouse would be standing in their shoes. If, on the other hand, you were to die unmarried, an unknown person would stand in your shoes, holding a spade and a shovel in their hand.

– “Gamle Juleskikke.” Th. S. Haukenæs. Natur, Folkeliv og Folketro i Hardanger: belyst ved Natur- og Folkelivsskildringer, Eventyr, Sagn, Fortællinger osv. fra ældre og nyere tid. 3: Ulvik. Hardanger: Th. S. Haukenæs, 1885 (p. 175-179).

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