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On the Christmas celebrations of the past and "pulling the wool over your eyes"

Christmas in Småland 1785
The Nordic Museum (CC BY-NC-ND)

What was the typical Christmas celebration among the common people in the past? We know that there were neither Christmas trees nor Christmas presents in the farmhouses if we go back far enough in time, but there has never been a lack of Christmas traditions in Sweden.

"Småland Christmas" is an old painting by Pehr Hörberg from 1785, 232 years old, and the painting is, according to the Nordic Museum, the oldest image of Christmas celebrations in Sweden. In the foreground, some people are playing "pulling a kavle" in the straw that covered the floor.

So what is the game of "pulling a knife"? Well, it's a very old power game, a type of tug-of-war, dating back at least to the Viking Age - probably even older. In the book Viking martial arts (2015), Lars Magnar Enoksen mentions the game, which was also called "pulling the handle" or "pulling the handkerchief". He describes it as follows:

Two people who wanted to test each other's strength sat on the ground facing each other and placed the soles of their feet against the soles of their opponent's feet. They then stretched out their arms and grasped a strong tree branch (pulling club) or a sturdy piece of rope, not infrequently forming a bound circle (pulling handle). It was also possible to grasp the opponent's wrists (pulling the handcuff), but in this case even more agility and back strength was required from the participants, as they were in a more forward and less advantageous or neutral starting position than in the club and hand pulls.

If a club was pulled, the stick or tree branch would be just above the feet of the two fighters when the fight began. To make it as fair as possible, each had an outside and an inside tag (compare with wrestling with fixed tags, side and side). In the case of hand or rope pulling, both had a grip on each end of the rope, so there was no need to take each of the outside and inside holds as both had the same grip. In the case of hand chess, the bada fighters had the same grip on the opponent's wrists, but they could also curl their fingers and thus hook the opponent's hands, and of course they had the same grip in this game.

If a person of superior strength was pitted against a weaker man or woman, the strong man or woman was allowed to grasp only with one hand, while the weaker man or woman was allowed to grasp with both hands. The intention, of course, was to make the fight as even and fair as possible.

The loser was the first to let go of the club, the rope or the opponent's wrist. You could also win the tug-of-war if you managed to lift your opponent off the ground, provided the opponent did not release his grip.

Here we have a tradition that is just waiting to be reintroduced into Swedish Christmas celebrations. Encouraging the development of physical strength in future generations is never wrong. So scatter some straw on the floor, find yourself a sturdy tree branch, and teach the kids to "pull a club" this Christmas!

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