Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Norway’s Christmas Ghost Tradition

Long before the idea of Santa Claus was imported to Norway by department stores that wanted to increase their year-end sales, Christmas in Norwegian folk tradition was a time associated with ghosts. Norwegians believed the ghosts of their ancestors returned to their earthly homes in midwinter. Until the late 19th century straw was left in many homes for these invisible “guests” to sleep on during the holiday season, bread was left out as well for them to eat.

In a popular fairy tale a family was regularly chased out of their home by a horde of invading Christmas ghosts. The ghosts were finally gotten rid of when a white bear outwitted them, the ghosts then left never to return. This folk tradition was so strong within the Norwegian culture at Christmas that even the Reformation could not dispose of it—even though the Lutherans tried.

This Christmas tradition was so solidly embedded within the Norwegian belief system that many Norwegians viewed Christmas with a sense of dread. The belief that ghosts and other normally hidden beings returned at Christmas scared so many that it drove many Norwegians to seek comfort in each other’s company on Christmas Eve. They would band together and share a bed of straw on a farmhouse floor.

Even though the Reformation failed to change this Christmas belief, the passage of years did. Norwegian apprehension finally subsided but the telling of ghost stories remained a favorite at Christmas, not only in Norway but in many other parts of the Christian world as well—including colonial and frontier America. The Norwegian folk tradition, of welcoming returning ghosts into the home, lasted from the early Vikings until the industrial age in the early 1900s.

The tradition of providing a comfortable straw bed for these ancestral spirits arose with the belief that if these ghosts were not kept happy they might take action against the homeowner. The straw that was used for these beds took on such magical qualities that it was not thrown out after Christmas. Instead it often was spread in the fields to improve the upcoming harvest or given to sick cattle as medicine. It was also woven into ornamental crosses.

In Norway today what remains of this folk tradition is decorating with straw ornaments at Christmastime. In particular, a mobile or crown is made out of several rings of straw, many diamond or angel shaped ornaments are hung from this. These are made from Yule straw, which is a throwback to the straw that each family laid out for their ghostly visitors.

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