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Allmogens traditional chores in December

Chores in December

Share on FacebookShare on WhatsAppShare on TelegramShare on Twitter"For the farmer, the fourth season is one of recovery and rest. He has his harvest under cover, under the blanket of snow lies the autumn grain, which will be part of next year's harvest, safely and well stored in the thawed earth - [...]

"For the farmer, the fourth season is one of recovery and rest. He has his harvest under cover, under the blanket of snow lies the autumn grain, which will be part of next year's harvest, safely and well stored in the thawed earth - he is not whipped by the daily rush, but has time to breathe out." (Vilhelm Moberg, The Year of the Farmer, 1966)

This is how Vilhelm Moberg begins the chapter on the Swedish peasant's winter. Winter has always been a time for recuperation and rest, but as he later says, you shouldn't think that the farmer is idle all winter.

In the old days, before the age of the machine farmer, the grain was threshed from All Saints' Day to Christmas week. From eight o'clock, as early as 3-4 in the morning, until dusk, you could hear the beating of the logs.

But winter was also the time of the forest.

The farmer had his forest, and in the winter the next year's fuelwood was cut so that the farmer could keep the family warm the next winter. Wood for the maintenance and repair of farm buildings would also be cut, and when lakes and marshes froze over, hay would be brought home from meadows and marshlands.

But the farmer not only worked for himself and his family in the winter, but also needed to earn cash to pay, under duress, the crown tax. Therefore, it was common for the farmer to take on more work outside the farm, for example by driving timber and firewood into other people's forests or by winter fishing (more on winter fishing below). (Vilhelm Moberg, The Year of the Farmer, 1966)

So you can't say that the Nordic peasant has ever had a real holiday in winter in his many thousands of years of history. But for a long time, the weeks around Christmas have been a quiet and peaceful period on the farm.

Allmogen in December
Image from J. Coleri Oeconomia, thet är, huushåldz underwijsning (1694), from Vilhelm Moberg's The Year of the Farmer.

"In the old days"

...as you can read in Vilhelm Moberg's The Year of the Farmer, "some chores were simply prohibited in the farm during the Christmas holidays - not by law, but by our ancestors' religion and its magic. Thus, from Toma Christmas on December 21 until the Epiphany on January 6, one was not allowed to engage in so-called peregrinations - that is, all those activities in which something was moving around."

So this was the time of the Midwinter Festival, or Christmas Blot, one of the biggest festivals of the year in the pagan Nordic countries. Circumnavigation means, for example, working with wheels, which includes grinding at the mill, spinning yarn, splitting, knitting, etc. (Vilhelm Moberg, The Year of the Farmer, 1966)

Sketch from 1915 of Carl Larsson's painting Midwinterblot, which today hangs in the upper stairwell of the National Museum. Click on the image to see the finished painting.
Sketch from 1915 for Carl Larsson's painting Midwinterblot, which today hangs in the upper stairwell of the National Museum. Click on the image to see the finished painting.

Our ancestors didn't work with wheels during that period, and that's because in the old folklore the sun was like a wheel. At the winter equinox the sun stops and remains stationary until the thirteenth day, and now that "the great wheel of heaven itself" has stopped, they believed that even the little working wheels of man would stand still. (Vilhelm Moberg, The Year of the Farmer, 1966)

Many of the customs of the old Christmas were then banned by the authorities at the time of the Christianisation of the Nordic countries and the Christmas celebrations were dressed in Christian garb, but you will read more about the Swedish Christmas through the ages in a future article.

An insight into 18th century households

In The struggle for freedom of the Swedish Ommogens you can read more about the activities of the general public during the month of December in the 18th century, taken from the book by the provost Reinerus Broocman A Complete Swedish House-Hole Book from 1736. (Alfred Kämpe, The struggle for freedom of the Swedish Ommogens, 1919-1921)

Broocman wrote down these points based mainly on larger farm households, but probably also to a lesser extent on smaller households, and has certainly been relevant not only in the 18th century but for many centuries.

Chores in December

  1. Now fox scissors, pits and wolf bait are being prepared.
  2. All livestock must be watered at least once a day. The sheep must be fed with small hay, for straw makes them thin and miserable, and they cannot feed their lambs properly. "Before going to bed in the evening, and the first thing in the morning, one should diligently look after the pregnant and lambing females as well as all young offspring, and this must be done until all the cattle have calved and produced their foetuses". Keep the ferries warm.
  3. When the ice is thin and smooth, the horses must be well broomed. The mares shall be well protected from shocks.
  4. The geese's feed and food are gradually reduced so that they do not become too fat and lay eggs.
  5. There is a lot of fishing with winter seines.
  6. The threshing is continued, the harvesting is carried out, the stakes are harnessed and anchored, spinning is diligent, fish and bird nets are tied. Now a considerable supply of bread is baked. "Malt is ground to 6 to 7 brews". Seed windrows and barley stalls are stored and well tended for birds, especially sparrows and chickadees.

Winter fishing

Fishing with the winter seine is an ancient tradition that goes back many hundreds of years in Sweden, at least 700 years but perhaps well over 1000 years (Kvarsebo Hembygdsförening, Study circle Agriculture and fishing in Kvarsebo, Meeting 4, Notfisket)

Fishing with seine was the most important way to catch herring and mountain fish in the old days, and you could pull up more than a ton of herring at a time. Old documents mention a record catch at Virsholmen in Bråviken outside Norrköping of 470 weights, i.e. 4.7 tonnes of herring (Kvarsebo Hembygdsförening, Study Circle Agriculture and Fishing in Kvarsebo, Meeting 4, Notfisket).

Rules for seine fishing can already be found in the Östgötalagen, which was in force around the 14th century in Östergötland and the Småland countries of Kinda, Vedbo, Tjust and several smaller areas, as well as Öland. It is likely that fishing with a seine existed even before the law was written.

Winter notes are drawn up around 1958
Recording of winter rot in 1956. Photo: Nils Törner Oxelösund. Source: Bygdeband.se

Winter fishing in the Nordic countries was certainly practised long before the Roman statesman and historian Tacitus in 98 A.D. for the first time in surviving history mentioned the powerful North Germanic tribe of the Swabians, or the swedes as this Nordic indigenous people was also called, in his book Germania(Tacitus, Germania, 98)

Winter fishing is not a tradition like our traditions today, such as eating herring once a year or watching Donald Duck on Christmas Eve. Winter fishing as a tradition has been a necessity of life in the Nordic countries for as long as there have been people here. It was a way of supplementing food supplies and not starving to death.

But it was also a way for the Swedish state to profit at the expense of the commoners. Since the state took its firm grip on the commoners, winter fishing was an important tax revenue. Everything from dried "spit fish" and cod in barrels to salted herring was confiscated by the state as a tax (Kvarsebo Hembygdsförening, Study circle Agriculture and fishing in Kvarsebo, Meeting 4, Notfisket)

Kvarsebo Hembygdsförening writes, among other things, about an event in 1529 when there was a quarrel about the fishing boundary between the inhabitants of Östkind and Nävekvarn. They describe how Gustaf Vasa confirmed that the peasants in Östkind were allowed to use their district water according to old letters. At the same time he took the opportunity, "like the economist he was", to state that the king would have his share of the lot - "the skole giffue wår keriste nådigiste herre en lott i nothen för konungx watn deel." (Kvarsebo Hembygdsförening, Study Circle Agriculture and Fishing in Kvarsebo, Meeting 4, Notfisket)

Servants and tenants

For many servants and peasants in the 18th century, the day began when, according to the financier and industrialist Eric Salander (1699-1764), they would be awakened "precisely at 4 a.m." throughout the year (Eric Salander, Detailed Farm-Foreman-Instruction, 1727).

They had breakfast between 8 and 9, "dinner" between 12 and 13 and then they were allowed to leave work at 7pm when the farm bailiff, to keep an eye on them, cut their day's work on a carving stick. Between 7 and 8 p.m. there was an evening watch, and by 10 p.m. everyone was in bed. (Alfred Kämpe, The struggle for freedom of the Swedish Ommogens, 1919-1921)

As Eric writes, "Then they have a full six hours to rest, and this must be continued at all times and throughout the year, observing, however, that in the spirit time and otherwise when necessity so requires, the people must be driven to work earlier than 4 o'clock, being able then also summer time to be adjusted to the sun, so that when it rises all may also be in motion with her." (Eric Salander, Detailed Farm-Foreman-Instruction, 1727)

It was an insight into the work of the ombudsman in December. To end this first of the three months of winter, here are a few lines from the old Bonde-Practican (which you can of course also find on Allmogens almanac):

'Now I will live in sweetness, And slaughter for Christmas an ox fat, And now I will keep myself warm, Hoping to survive the cold winter.'

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