Shop our historical maps

A few words about Christmas and Christmas customs

1910-1920: Christmas goat with company taken at Bollnässtugan, Skansen. Photo: Nils Keyland / Nordic Museum

A few introductory words about Christmas and the Christmas traditions in Nils Keyland's book Christmas bread, Christmas goats and carolers (1919), which contains testimonies of Christmas past in our many landscapes.

Even a cursory comparison reveals that the ceremonial of the Christmas celebration has, in the course of a man's age, been reduced to something quite insignificant compared with what it once was. By the middle of the 19th century the last phase of its decline began in earnest. Since then the decline has continued steadily.

Several reasons have contributed to this. We are living at the present time in a period of seething development in all fields, spiritual as well as secular, simply in a period of rupture between the new and the old, the like of which has scarcely been seen in world history, at least in ethnological terms. Inherited ideals are disappearing and new ones taking their place, old forms and practices from the dawn of history are being crushed and falling away, the authority of the old gods is being stultified, the enlightenment of the people is increasing, while their knowledge of the workings of natural forces, faith and interest are seeking other paths or being ignited for new goals. New things, unnecessary to specify here, since we see and perceive them daily around us, attract all attention and capture the imagination. But in the process, the tradition which alone, through the diversity of the centuries, sustained and nourished the independent creativity of the people within certain cult boundaries, necessarily dies out in the end.

However, the spirit of the age involved in all this, owing to the different richness and vivacity of popular tradition, the different susceptibility of lightning, the local isolation, etc., made unequal progress, so that the customs of some districts persisted longer than those of others.

One consequence of the above is that, with rare exceptions, Christmas in the countryside is currently celebrated in a very uniform and simple way. Of the formerly so extensive Christmas activities, baking and cleaning remain, which are nevertheless carried out with much less effort and expense than in the past. Simple grain baskets are set up quite commonly to feed the little birds. The Christmas tree in its modern form, with its factory-made baubles, is little more reminiscent of the old Christmas tree than its name.

In some places, a renaissance of Christmas traditions is underway. After having lain dormant for a time, they have begun to revive themselves according to ancient practices, and encouragingly enough, the return is sometimes accompanied by a striving for historical fidelity.

Even among city dwellers, interest in the revival of Christmas celebrations according to folk customs has spread in recent years. As these people are often not connected to their own tradition, it is common for them to seek information about how it happened. Particularly interesting are certain details, such as the shape of the Christmas bread, the construction of the Christmas tree and the Christmas star, and the Christmas carols.

Christmas, as is well known, has ancient origins. Historical records tell us that our pagan ancestors celebrated several feasts each year during the winter. At one of them, the largest, which took place at midwinter, sacrifices were said to have been made for a good coming year and the rebirth of the sun and light was hailed. At the feast dedicated to the god Frey, promises were also made for great deeds in the coming year. There is also mention of a thanksgiving feast for the successful completion of the harvest at the beginning of winter and another, with sacrifices for victory, at the beginning of summer.

The actual number, chronology and content of the ancient winter festivals are, however, the subject of divided opinion, owing to the obscurity of the sources. In time, they became intertwined, sliding into each other, and were finally replaced by a single, shorter festival, which in itself incorporated features of all of them, pre-Christian and Catholic alike. Our old almanac reminds us of some days of note which are still celebrated in late times, such as All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), the Feast of St. Martin (Nov. 11), the German St. Nicholas' Day (Dec. 6), from which one or other of our Christmas customs may be derived, St. Lucia (Dec. 13), Tomorrow (Dec. 21), sometimes called Christmas Day, Epiphany, corresponding to the present Thirteenth Day, originally the feast of the Birth of Christ (as such older than Christmas), the Mass of the Chancellor. The question of how the amalgamation took place and what influence the same had on it and that detail is still under discussion.

The resemblance between certain customs of Christmas, which still exist in human memory, and those of the pagan winter festival, has long been noted and often pointed out by historical scholars. For example, the nightly sacrificial fires burning in the pagan sanctuary have been compared with the bonfires made of sticks, which used to be thrown at the churches on Christmas morning. "julahös", pig's head, ham, porridge, beer, etc., the Christmas table has found a counterpart to the pagan sacrificial altar. The decoration of the cottage at Christmas with its many details completely foreign to Christian belief and custom has been likened to the decoration of the pagan sacrificial table, as has the drinking of beer, which is customary at the Christmas table, with the obligatory beverage at the Old Norse sacrificial table.

With the introduction of Christianity, the old Christmas festival was reformed; some of its most offensive features to a Christian mind were abolished, but in general and in many details it retained its pagan character under Christian disguise. So conservative are now the traditional customs and practices that they cannot be eradicated by external force. Realizing this, the clergy chose the psychologically correct policy, which, while formally forbidding the old pagan practices, actually permitted them, leaving in substance to each one the implied freedom, after fulfilling his ecclesiastical obligations, to sacrifice to his old divinities, in which, after all, he still believed. Not even the Church itself broke, or dared to break, entirely with what had been to the multitude just precious and sacred. Pagan rites still flourished even in its bosom, albeit in Christian form. It is true that, as time went by, the surveillance became stricter, the preaching against the pagan delusions louder and louder, but nothing helped.

The material offered here will suffice to show that the relationship remained much the same until the days of our parents or at least grandparents.

Numerous attempts have been made to ascertain which primitive views of nature best form, as it were, the basic element, the leading idea, of Christmas celebration, as it still appears in faith and ritual in the midst of the Christian era. Consistent results have not yet been achieved in this respect, for which the task is now by its nature too complex and complicated. The clarification of the question naturally requires a thorough consideration of a multitude of small details, which, in order to be finally fitted properly into their proper context with the whole, must be elucidated individually from a historical and ethnological point of view. Pre-Nordic elements are included in this, in addition to those which have been washed here from far and wide by the waves of culture and have been superimposed on each other in layers of prehistoric and historic, pagan, Catholic and Protestant ages.

Among the popular beliefs connected with the great midwinter festival, those connected with the belief in underworld and souls or spirits stand out strongly. Although such apparitions could take place at any time, Christmas, occurring at an astronomically peculiar time, the winter solstice, was in any case the most critical time in this respect. Superstition and the rites connected with it are, as is well known, connected with all conditions and enterprises during the year. But they are attracted to, and concentrate with predilection on, certain festivals and days of note, which act upon them much as the magnet acts upon the felt shavings. The greater the day of celebration, the greater seems to be its magnetic power in this respect.

It was thus a belief that the dead held their service in church on Christmas night, and many stories of the so-called Year of the Dead have gruesome details to tell of this fantastic ceremony. On Christmas night the dead also visited their former homes. At the same time they sought certainty of life and death through all sorts of oracles.

A custom, probably of pagan origin, was to spread straw on the floor of the cottage, sometimes even in the churches (originally, as has been shown, for practical reasons). This custom is sometimes explained as a way of providing a resting place for the dead visiting their former homes. On the other hand, if, as sometimes happened, the beds were emptied, and the dead themselves lay in the straw on the floor, it was in order that they might have the better place to lie down. The contents of the Christmas table, food and drink, were to be shared with the spirits of the dead, who, even they, had bodily needs and should now once a year have their gizzards greased. Therefore, no dishes were to be removed from the table on Christmas Eve. Quietness, caution, avoidance of all noisy work was strictly enjoined, for, it is said, they feared to undertake anything that would frighten and offend the unseen guests. For these had great power to determine the future welfare and misery of the domestic hearth. One had to be tactful and considerate, seek to placate and fraternize with them, and win their favour by hospitality and bribery. One probably did not love their presence, but rather loathed it, but one had to accept the inevitable, since Christmas night was, as it were, their own.

In this circular heating of spirits and beings, which now filled the void, everything must of necessity be defiled and defiled. As one prepares to receive an influenza epidemic or other plague with thorough disinfection, so now the critical stage should begin with a general cleaning of everything in the house and of one's own body, and be continued with the observance of all possible caution and with the use of all available means of protection. Steel was placed at the doors, or tar crosses drawn, tar balls were put on the animals to eat, poles of various shapes were erected in the yard, fires were made, and lights were shone about, all to neutralize the harmful effects of the unsolicited approach of the invisible powers.

These precautions, palpable expressions of suspicion towards strangers, seem to be somewhat at odds with the hospitality that has been claimed. A distinction was apparently made between better and worse elements among them, between, for instance, on the one hand, the good house-whites, those sometimes quick-tempered but easily deceived and basically chivalrous and well-meaning beings, and on the other hand, the always pernicious witches and trolls, the mischief-makers in the true sense of the word. The distinction between the two categories seems to have become increasingly blurred over time, probably through the influence of Christianity. Some interrelationship, sometimes of a very murky nature, has arisen between them, so that they can no longer be fairly distinguished from each other.

If one's sympathies are a priori placed on the position that Christmas was originally a celebration of death or of the spirit, it seems easy enough, in such a position, to find in the midst of this plethora of associations and examples a, so to speak, firm and dry place on which to stand. With the death cult as a working hypothesis, most of the doings and omissions of Christmas can be explained.

Of course, as in everything, one can be too one-sided.

The question is whether Christmas was originally a celebration of death or of the soul. For the consciousness stands the All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), now disappeared from our days of celebration, the day of all souls, still celebrated in Catholic countries, as the special feast of death. In other countries it is celebrated at different times.

The difference between a death party and a haunted, the latter more especially with regard to the subterranean ones, such as witches, goblins, and the like, which have been present at Christmas in a far more original manner, deserves due consideration in the determination of a question like this.

Another school of Christmas research has attached great importance to and emphasized more strongly the numerous notions of fertility which are connected with the popular celebration of Christmas. We return here to the practice of scattering rye straw on the floor of the cottage on Christmas Eve, mentioned earlier. Once the straw had done its job, it could be placed in the field to make the grain grow better. Sometimes it was sprinkled with Christmas beer to increase its generative power. In primitive terms, the straw symbolised the growing crop. What happened to the straw on the floor also happened to the grain in the field. As one lies in the straw (crooked or straight), so consequently the grain becomes the next summer. Straws were thrown against the roof and, if they caught, were allowed to dwell, so that bread would not be lacking in the house. In Finland, straw was thrown under the ridge on Christmas morning, and the more straws that stuck, the more rye you would get next summer. Sometimes a few straws were hung in a bundle on the ceiling.

Similar notions of fertility were also attached to certain figures made of straw, such as goats, sheaves, puddles, and onions. It was believed that the life-giving generative force contained in them would communicate itself to and fertilize the coming year's vegetation.

It was customary to put up a bush, a rush, a pole, a cross or the like at the yard. In one assignment it is said that the higher the Christmas cross, the higher the rye would grow the following summer. It has been shown, with the aid of extensive comparative material, that the Christmas tree (or the Midsummer pole, the May pole, the festive bush, etc., whatever form and name they may have) is only a special form of the "harvest tree" (the tree of life), which is widespread throughout the world, "in which the power resides which gives happiness and blessing, not only to field and meadow, but also to the human race and all its works" (P:n Nilsson).

To the same group should also the below mentioned (from Härjedalen) "christmas-evening snooze", a log, which would burn in the hearth all night, can be attributed.

The Christmas food was also considered holy and fertile in general, and in particular the bread known to us by the name of sausage cake or harvest cake.

This lay on the table during Christmas only as showbread, it was not to be eaten; after a certain time it was taken to the booth to be preserved and blessed. The next spring, on the first day of harvest, it was picked up and taken to the field, where it was consumed (sometimes with drink, saved from Christmas) or carried in the sack.

"It should," says a warm friend and supporter of the current trend in folklore, "be obvious that these Christmas breads were intended first and foremost to be a tonic and to exert a life-strengthening and age-giving influence. Just as the seeds and grains were already thought to contain a condensed, wonderfully powerful life substance, a power, the same was believed of the dishes, porridge and bread prepared from them... Thus, if bread in general contains a wonderful power, this is particularly true of certain festive breads and of us, but also in many other places, especially Christmas bread, which was therefore distributed to people and animals, carefully preserved as a healing and protective agent, and used to give life to the fields and fertility to the fruit trees" (Hammar stedt). Christmas bread, as we know, was baked in many different forms. As crosses, like a wheel without a ring, since ancient times the symbol of the sun, the source of warmth and life, or in the form of swastikas with shell-shaped rolled arms, or as ordinary wheels with several spokes, or as round cakes with straw leaves decorating the edges. This fact has been interpreted, with reference to the customs of other peoples, as a remnant of ancient sun and heat magic: "To influence the sun, to initiate sunshine, one could of course not obtain any part of the said celestial body. One must therefore be satisfied with an image, a parable. Now, if the ploughcakes were to have an effect on the sun and bring down solar heat in the field, they would have to be turned into images of the sun, and this is what has apparently happened with our Swedish seed or ploughcakes" (Hammarstedt).

Some forms of the aforementioned crossbread merge almost without limit in their external appearance with the animal breads. This is particularly true of those which (from their name) were intended to imitate oxen or animals related to them (Christmas oxen, Christmas calves).

Many kinds of animals, goats, pigs, deer, horses, roosters, etc., were formed from dough, an obligatory part of the many delicacies on the Christmas table. Nowadays we think of them as much more than children's toys and decorations. In fact, behind it all lies a religious cult that goes back many thousands of years, rooted in the idea of the fertility powers or plant demons as animal figures. Their presence here is motivated by the urge to bring about an impact, so that next year's harvest may also be good.

The light of the Christmas bonfire was also said to have a magical blessing effect. By shining it on household effects, such as metal, copper pots, silver spoons, coins and the like, it was believed that these would be multiplied.

The popular notions, sometimes unclear and often communicated by the wise men in ways that contradict each other, give, as we have seen from the above, different possibilities of interpretation.

But they all seem to have the same basic idea, namely, that Christmas was the great moment of economic decision, the mediums of this decision being called spirits of the dead, underground beings or fertility demons. On this the scholars are probably more in agreement in substance than in form.

Christmas celebrations, from all points of view, form a strange contrast to the way of life of the people in everyday life, then so striving, so rich only in deprivations. To one who is somewhat familiar with the life of the people and knows the peasant's detachment from luxury needs and prudent calculations, the laborious arrangements and relatively deep interventions in the domestic economy which the celebration inevitably entailed must seem a contradiction in terms. For many with limited means, it naturally meant considerable sacrifice, a real effort, and, in order to take place at all, had to be preceded by careful saving and avoidance until the time when nothing could be lacking. It is true that the most important work of the year had been completed for some time, and that time was more at one's disposal as one wished. Certainly the stores of the house were in the best possible condition, grain was in the bins, if ever, the animals ready for slaughter lay cut up in their saltiness, ready to be enjoyed, the cows were beginning to yield again in one case or another. The temptation to catch one's breath, live well and avoid work for once during the solstice, while it was otherwise dark and gloomy outside, seemed to be close at hand and well justified.

But as a complete explanation of such a radical change in the mode of life as that which took place at Christmas, of such a sudden leap from the humblest barrenness to the most florid opulence, of a way of life best characterised by the words "gluttony" and "binge-drinking" without regard to need and appetite, to luxury and pleasure, for which in the peasant under normal conditions insignificant traces of inclination can be discerned, the said temptation is certainly not nearly sufficient.

As an explanation, as with any individual rite, the compulsion of tradition (alongside which other considerations have less significance) must be greatly underestimated. The same meaning and purpose must be thought to underlie the whole Christmas celebration as its various details, of which we have spoken before and will hereafter deal with in more detail.

They made laborious arrangements and deep interventions in their domestic economy, as has been said, but not with less than a view to getting something equivalent or as good again. Nothing for nothing, that is the most primitive economic law. Nor was there any doubt that it would be so. Abundance and its transfer to existence was the means of creating new abundance, new advancement, new abundance of honour from field and barn, it was the magic formula that would cleanse the benevolence of the powers, bring the hidden riches of nature to release themselves. Eat, and you shall eat! Drink, and you too may drink! Be hospitable, it shall by interaction fall back, bring thee pleasure again. The secret of the great feast was that everything that happened then would happen again, nothing was insignificant then. So the time was worth an effort, an advance, the bigger the better. We call this sacrifice. But the sacrifice is the prayer of the children of nature.

The popular conception of nature, which has been spoken of here above, must, when made clear, appear to a modern man to be quite rare. But how many people alive today, even those who have celebrated Christmas in a reasonably authentic old-fashioned way, have given any thought at all to the rarity of this view. One must now go back quite a long way in the decades if one is to find any significant traces of a consciously practised natural history cult. Tradition has been followed in a casual way, the old customs have been observed long after their meaning has sunk below the threshold of oblivion, simply because it was supposed to be so.

For us, Christmas is, albeit without any chronological basis, the celebration of Christ's birthday. As such, it was established in the middle of the third century (more precisely, in 354), although, as we know, the Bible does not mention the day on which Christ was born. Several pre-Christian Christmas customs have in time acquired a Christian interpretation. It is often said by the wise man that the aforementioned straw, spread on the floor on Christmas Eve, was a reminder that the Christ child in the manger was lying on hay and straw. "Änglaöl", the drink left on the table for the angels on Christmas night, is a paraphrase of "Santa Claus beer". A specifically Christian name form is also the "Trinity candle", three-branched candle, symbolizing the three divine persons. Christian elements are also remembered from the staffan song and especially from the domestic devotion and pious singing, which, among all other, less Christian things, so beautifully characterised the Christmas celebrations at the domestic hearth.

The counterparts of our midwinter festival, and in many respects apparently the very models of it, were the Roman Saturnalia and the Kalends, the former celebrated on Dec. 17, the latter on Jan. 1. There (at one or other of them) is talk of preparations, whereby the wardrobe was washed or clothes borrowed, lively business was done, a doll's market was held, and houses were decorated with branches and greenery. There was equality between freemen and slaves. They enjoyed holidays and rest from serious work. Furthermore, they illuminated and carried torches along the road, held individual feasts, ate and drank, played dice for nuts and money, sang, danced and joked, performed begging and jokes at each other's doors, disturbed each other's nocturnal peace, etc. Revelations were made about the coming year's events. In some details, these feasts in turn go back to older, Greek and Oriental, origins.

In one respect in particular, the German St. Nicholas Festival, celebrated on 6 December, is reminiscent of our Swedish Christmas. On this occasion St. Nicholas walks around as a bishop with presents, accompanied by a scraggly man with horns, blackened face, sometimes dressed in fur or wrapped in straw, etc. It has been shown that this "Klapperbock" or "Knecht Ruprecht", as he is called, is a widespread figure with ancestry going back to an animal masquerade of almost medieval Celtic-Germanic origin.

To the aforementioned rattle-goat, as one can see at once, already in regard to its external condition, is connected the Swedish goat, that during Christmas omnipresent, rowdy, begging prankster, who sometimes amused, sometimes teased, frightened children and was stomped, where he did not get everything as he wanted.

He seems to have forgotten his own original nature and character in many of the roles he has taken on. Not even the most necessary attributes of an animal are sometimes left to him, but his affections betray them. The reader is requested to glance ahead of the book. Judas, ghosts, gnomes, whatever they may be called, all these figures emerging from the Christmas darkness are, however, whatever name and character they may have assumed, often apparently flesh of the same flesh and blood of the same blood as the more noble and serious grandfather.

Occasionally (though rarely) the goat appeared as a real, live billy goat, which was led into the cottages. As a disguised figure he is said to have appeared with a wooden hammer, the symbol of the hammer of thorns, which accessories thus still in late times recalled the goat sanctified by the lord of thunder, weather, fertility. Cf. what was said above about Christmas goats made of straw and goat bread baked from dough. From all appearances, the Yule log, apart from one or two borrowed carnival-like features, has ancient Swedish heritage and tradition.

A fertility animal was also the galten, as we know, dedicated to Frey. The latter was symbolised by the obligatory hay and was often produced in bread form. A costumed pig or boar figure is depicted in this book.

The Christmas tree in its present form is relatively new to our country. There is a single example dating back to 1750, but it was only in the latter part of the 19th century that it began to become more widespread, although still among the upper classes. Gradually it penetrated into the countryside, but only towards the end of the 19th century can it be said to have gained its present position. As late as the 1880s it was still competing with the window candles, which were cherished by older people. The Christmas tree has come to us from Germany, where as early as 1605 it is described as essentially the same as the modern tree. Its predecessor, which was widely spread throughout the world, has been mentioned.

Here only scattered features of the Christmas celebrations have been touched upon most fleetingly. For more detailed information about everything and everything else connected with it (e.g. Lucia, the Lady of the Candle-Bringer, the Lady of Life, an originally pagan deity celebrated in many countries under various names and ceremonies, who also seems to have had something to do with vegetation and fertility, about star-singers, the singing of the Stag and the Epiphany with models from ancient times, about the meaning of the various days of Christmas and their connection with older festive customs, about the origin of the word Christmas, etc.) reference is made to the specialist literature cited.

A compromised and highly cosmopolitan product, then, is certainly the great festival of joy, for the celebration of which we annually prepare ourselves with great hopes and bright childhood memories. This does not detract from its value, but essentially explains its enduring appeal even to the masses of modern children. Its many diverse and alien elements only give it a richer content, making it accessible and understandable to a greater number.

What would life be to many if he did not have this beautifully illuminated milestone to pass with each passing year!

Subscribe to YouTube:

If you appreciate Allmogens independent work to portray our fine Swedish history and Nordic culture, you are welcome to buy something nice in the shop or support us with a voluntary donation. Thank you in advance!

Support Allmogens via Swish: 123 258 97 29
Support Allmogens by becoming a member
Support Allmogens in your will

Popular old texts