Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Christmas Eve in Medieval Norway

I am still making my way through Sigrid Undset's trilogy Kristen Lavransdatter. (It is not a slow-moving book. But there is quite a lot of it and I don't do what normal people do, i.e., read one thing at a time.) Here are some seasonal short excerpts from the second volume, The Wife, which tell of a medieval Christmas in then-Catholic Norway:


"Kristin let herself into the cold, deserted house and found the key to the church. Then she paused for a moment. It was very slippery, pitch dark, windy, and rainy. It was reckless of her to go out at night, and especially on Christmas Eve, when all the evil spirits were in the air. But she refused to give up—she had to go to the church.

"In the name of God, the Almighty, I here proceed," she whispered aloud. Lighting her way with the lantern, Kristin set her feet down where stones and tufts of grass stuck up from the icy ground. In the darkness the path to the church seemed exceedingly long. But at last she stood on the stone threshold in front of the door.


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"In the nave a bench stood against the wall. Kristin went over and sat down, placing the lantern on the floor. Her cloak was wet, and her feet were wet and cold. She tried to pull one leg up underneath her, but the position was uncomfortable. So she wrapped the cloak tightly around her and struggled to focus her thoughts on the fact that now it was once again the holy midnight hour when Christ was born to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.

Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis.

"Kristin remembered Sira Eirik's deep, pure voice. And Audun, the old deacon, who never attained a higher position. And their church back home where she had stood at her mother's side and listened to the Christmas mass. Every single year she had heard it. She tried to recall more of the holy words, but she could only think about their church and all the familiar faces. In front, on the men's side, stood her father, staring with remote eyes into the dazzling glow of candles from the choir.

"It was so incomprehensible that their church was no more. It had burned to the ground. She burst into tears at the thought. And here she was, sitting alone in the dark on this night when all Christian people were gathered in happiness and joy in God's house. But perhaps that was as it should be, that tonight she was shut out from the celebration of the birth of God's son to a pure and innocent maiden.
Her parents were no doubt at Sundbu this Christmas. But there would be no mass in the chapel tonight; she knew that on Christmas Eve those who lived at Sundbu always attended the service at the main church in Ladalm.

"This was the first time, for as far back as Kristin could remember, that she was not at the Christmas mass. She must have been quite young the first time her parents took her along. She could recall that she was bundled up in a fur-lined sack, and her father had carried her in his arms. It was a terribly cold night, and they were riding through a forest—the pine torches shone on fir trees heavy with snow. Her father's face was dark red, and the fur border on his hood was chalk-white with frost. Now and then he would bend forward and nip the end of her nose and ask her whether she could feel it. Then, laughing, he would shout over his shoulder to her mother that Kristin's nose hadn't frozen off yet. That must have been while they were still living at Skog; she couldn't have been more than three winters old. Her parents were quite young back then. Now she remembered her mother's voice on that night—-clear and happy and full of laughter—when she called out to her husband and asked about the child. Yes, her mother's voice had been young and fresh.

"Bethlehem. In Norwegian it means the place of bread. For that was where the bread which will nourish us for eternal life was given to the people. It was at the mass on Christmas- Day that Sira Eirik stepped forward to the pulpit and explained the gospels in the language of his own country. In between the masses everyone would sit in the banquet hall north of the church. They had brought ale with them and passed it around. The men slipped out to the stables to see to the horses. But on vigil nights, in the summertime before a holy day, the congregation would gather on the church green, and then the young people would dance among the servants.

And the blessed Virgin Mary wrapped her son in swaddling clothes. She placed him in the straw of the manger from which the oxen and asses ate. . . .

"Kristin pressed her hands against her sides.

"Little son, my own sweet child, my own son. God will have mercy on us for the sake of His own blessed Mother. Blessed Mary, you who are the clear star of the sea, the crimson dawn of eternal life who gave birth to the sun of the whole world—help us! Little child, what is it tonight? You're so restless. Can you feel beneath my heart that I am so bitterly cold?

"It was on the Children's Day last year, the fourth day of Christmas, when Sira Eirik preached about the innocent children whom the cruel soldiers had slaughtered in their mothers' arms. But God had chosen these young boys to enter into the hall of heaven before all other blood witnesses. And it would be a sign that such belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. And Jesus picked up a little boy and put him among them. Unless you create yourselves in their image, you cannot enter into the hall of heaven, dear brothers and sisters. So let this be a solace to every man and woman who mourns a young child's death. . . .

"Then Kristin had seen her father's eyes meet her mother's across the church, and she withdrew her gaze, because she knew that this was not meant for her.

"That was last year. The first Christmas after Ulvhild's death. Oh, but not my child! Jesus, Maria. Let me keep my son!

"Her father had not wanted to ride in the races on Saint Stefan's Day last year, but the men begged him until he finally agreed. The course extended from the church hill at home, down to the confluence of the two rivers near Loptsgaard; that's where they joined up with the men from Ottadal. She remembered her father racing past on his golden stallion. He stood up in his stirrups and bent low over the horse's neck, shouting and urging the animal on, with the whole group thundering behind.

"But last year he had come home early, and he was completely sober. Normally on that day the men would return home late, tremendously drunk, because they had to ride into every farm courtyard and drink from the bowls brought out to them, to honor Christ and Saint Stefan, who first saw the star in the east as he drove King Herod's foals to the River Jordan for water. Even the horses were given ale on that day, for they were supposed to be wild and reckless. On Saint Stefan's Day the farmers were allowed to race their horses until vespers—it was impossible to make the men think or talk of anything but horses."



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"Oh yes. It was often quite merry at home during the Christmas season. And then there were the Christmas masqueraders. Kristin's father would sling her up onto his back, his tunic icy and his hair wet. To clear their heads before they went to vespers, the men threw ice water over each other down by the well. They laughed when the women voiced their disapproval of this. Kristin's father would take her small, cold hands and press them against his forehead, which was still red and burning hot. This was out in the courtyard, in the evening. A new white crescent moon hung over the mountain ridge in the watery-green air. Once when he stepped into the main house with her, Kristin hit her head on the doorframe so she had a big bump on her forehead. Later she sat on his lap at the table. He lay the blade of his dagger against her bruise, fed her tidbits of food, and let her drink mead from his goblet. Then she wasn't afraid of the masqueraders who stormed into the room.

"Oh Father, oh Father. My dear, kind father!"
Sobbing loudly, Kristin now hid her face in her hands. Oh, if only her father knew how she felt on this Christmas Eve!

"When she walked back across the courtyard, she saw that sparks were rising up from the cookhouse roof. The maids had set about preparing food for the churchgoers."



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"I went over to the church for a little while," said Kristin. "Do you dare to go out on Christmas Eve?" asked the boy. "Don't you know that the spirits of the dead could come and seize you?"

"I don't think it's only the evil spirits that are out tonight," she said. "Christmas Eve must be for all spirits. I once knew a monk who is now dead and standing before God, I think, because he was pure goodness. He told me ... Have you ever heard about the animals in the stable and how they talked to each other on Christmas Eve? They could speak Latin back then. And the rooster crowed: 'Christus natus est!' No, now I can't remember the whole thing. The other animals asked 'Where?' and the goat bleated, 'Betlem, Betlem,' and the sheep said, 'Eamus, eamus.' "

"Orm smiled scornfully.

"Do you think I'm such a child that you can comfort me with tales? You should offer to take me on your lap and put me to your breast."

"I told the story mostly to comfort myself, Orm," said Kristin quietly. "I would have liked to go to mass too."

"Now she couldn't stand to look at the littered table any longer. She went over, swept all the scraps into a trencher and set it on the floor for the dog. Then she found the whisk made of sedge under the bench and scrubbed off the tabletop.
"Would you come with me over to the western storehouse, Orm? To get bread and salted meat. Then we'll set the table for the holy day," said Kristin.

"Why don't you let your maidservants do that?" asked the boy.

"This is the way I was taught by my father and mother," replied the young mistress. "That at Christmastime no one should ever ask anyone else for anything, but we all should strive to do our utmost. Whoever serves the others most during the holidays is the most blessed."

"But you're asking me," said Orm.

"That's a different matter—you're the son here on the estate."

"Orm carried the lantern and they walked across the courtyard together. Inside the storehouse Kristin filled two trenchers with Christmas food. She also took a bundle of large tallow candles.



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"Kristin and Orm carried the filled trenchers back to the hall, and she set the table. But she had to go back over to the storehouse for food once again.
Orm took the trencher and said, a little awkwardly, "I'll go over there for you, Kristin. It's so slippery in the courtyard."

"She stood outside the door and waited until he returned.

"Then they sat down near the hearth, Kristin in the armchair and the boy on a three-legged stool nearby. After a moment Orm Erlendsson said softly, "Tell me another story while we sit here, my stepmother."

"A story?" asked Kristin, her voice equally quiet.

"Yes, a tale or some such—that would be suitable on Christmas Eve," said the boy shyly.

"Kristin leaned back in her chair and wrapped her thin hands around the animal heads on the armrests.

"That monk I mentioned—he had also been to England. And he said there is a region where wild rosebushes grow that bloom with white blossoms on Christmas night. Saint Joseph of Arimathea put ashore in that area when he was fleeing from the heathens, and there he stuck his staff into the ground and it took root and flowered. He was the first to bring the Christian faith to Bretland. The name of the region is Glastonbury—now I remember. Brother Edvin had seen the bushes himself. King Arthur, whom you've no doubt heard stories of, was buried there in Glastonbury with his queen. He was one of the seven most noble defenders of Christendom.

"They say in England that Christ's Cross was made of alder-wood. But we burned ash during Christmas at home, for it was the ash tree that Saint Joseph, the stepfather of Christ, used when he needed to light a fire for the Virgin Mary and the newborn Son of God. That's something else that Father heard from Brother Edvin."

"But very few ash trees grow up north here," said Orm. "They used them all up for spear poles in the olden days, you know. I don't think there are any ash trees here on Husaby's land other than the one standing east of the manor gate, and Father can't chop that one down, because the spirit of the first owner lives underneath. But you know, Kristin, they have the Holy Cross in Romaborg; so they must be able to find out whether it was made of alderwood."

"Well," said Kristin, "I don't know whether it's true. For you know it's said that the cross was made from a shoot of the tree of life, which Seth was allowed to take from the Garden of Eden and bring home to Adam before he died." "Yes," said Orm. "But then tell me ..."

"Some time later Kristin said to the boy, "Now you should lie down for a while, kinsman, and sleep. It will be a long time yet before the churchgoers return." Orm stood up."