By Elska á Fjárfelli, of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn
Going down the rabbit hole can result in some interesting finds. During my digging into historic brewing techniques, I came across the following story. I thought it offered a nice peek behind the curtains into the life of the modern Viking — what is Christmas without a ghost story — which is why I am sharing it now with you.
Historians believe that the way of life of rural Scandinavians did not significantly change for hundreds of years, if not more, and that many of the traditions and techniques as found in the 19th and early 20th century could even go back as far as Viking times. The following account is called “Christmas preparations and Christmas” and is written by Norwegian Guro Hoftun Narum. The chapter is part of the book Livet i en fjellbygd omkring århundreskiftet (Life in a mountain village around the turn of the century), which was published in 1965.
In the good time before Christmas, the pigs were slaughtered. As a rule, it was the wife of the garden who cooked the cracklings and made pork stew and meat baskets (sausages). In part of the Christmas baking, they used pork dumplings.
One time before Christmas they bought a bunch of lutefisk, which had to lie [soak] in strong ash [potash lye] until it had swelled. New water had to be refreshed until the water was completely shiny and the fish was light and glossy as well.
Then the containers of Christmas beer were prepared. First, they sprout barley grain with some water. The grain grew, sprouted, then became lofty. They had it in a big wooden tray inside the living room, because it was warm. While the grain was growing, they sometimes touched [checked] it, and when it was fit, they dried it in the sauna. From the sauna they put it in the mill and got it roughly ground.
The women brewed beer from the malt. […] The beer fermented a little in the barrel as well, and there was some yeast on the bottom of the barrel. When the beer was drunk, they emptied the yeast into a dish and let it dry out, and when this yeast had dried out, they kept it until they had to make bread dough. Before it came from the cookers [could be purchased], baked fermented bread was preferred only for Christmas.
It’s Christmas Eve I remember best of the days of Christmas. Early Christmas Eve morning, we dragged the children into [listening to] a lot of Christmas [stories] around our kettles. We had the fireplace full and even something beside the fireplace. Most days, father set up one or more Christmas nights.
I can’t remember we had Christmas trees, and we didn’t get gifts outside of new clothes.
The evening meal was the same every Christmas Eve as long as I was a kid, namely lutefisk, a little fried pork and “dipping”, which was thick white sauce of good milk. Mother probably had some cream in it. Furthermore, there were peeled potatoes and beer in coffee mugs. Every day, the potatoes had to be peeled.
At Christmas, the adults talked about Christmas ghosts that came out of Hahaug during Christmas Night and came back on the thirteenth day. Hahaug is a large mound in the garden of Viko. There were many legends about undead (underground) people living in this mound. It was the legend of Christmas Eve, and I will bring you a couple more.
When the undead people in Hahaug were visited by other undergrounders, they held feasts. The music-man sat on top of the mound and played, and the others danced a kind of ring dance around the mound. Some of the people kept burning torches in the room.
Another legend is about a man who rode away to Hahaug on Christmas Eve. He saw a light shine inside the mound. The man greeted and called out Merry Christmas, and then he asked for a Christmas story. “It’s old custom and use here,” he said. Many women and men came out of the mound, and one of them handed the man a silver-plated drinking horn. He accepted the horn, but sprinkled its contents behind him so some of it hit the horse, and the horse was scorched on both hair and skin where the contents hit it. He should not have taken the drinking horn.