From bonfires to wife carrying, here's how people of the past had fun throughout the year.
Midsummer being celebrated at Borjesgarden in Hallesaker, Sweden, with dancing around the maypole. (Photo: SussiHj/Shutterstock)
Whether your life is crazy-busy, or you're just plain overworked, you probably don't feel like you have much spare time. Our ancestors had more time — and fewer distractions in their off hours, too. With the exception of the Industrial Revolution's working hours, historians have found that our ancestors worked eight-hour days and had many more days off. Do you ever wonder what people did with all that free time in the past?
According to historian Juliet Schor, they spent more time in spiritual practice and more time celebrating. In her book, "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure," she writes:
The medieval calendar was filled with holidays. Official — that is, church — holidays included not only long "vacations" at Christmas, Easter, and midsummer but also numerous saints' and rest days. These were spent both in sober churchgoing and in feasting, drinking and merrymaking. In addition to official celebrations, there were often weeks' worth of ales — to mark important life events (bride ales or wake ales) as well as less momentous occasions (scot ale, lamb ale, and hock ale). All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbors. The ancien règime in France is reported to have guaranteed 52 Sundays, 90 rest days, and 38 holidays. In Spain, travelers noted that holidays totaled five months per year.
Plenty of these holidays exist today, though they vary somewhat from country to country. Here, we'll focus on some from the Nordic countries, since their cultural perspectives are having a moment and seem to be affecting how people in other places look at the world. Maybe we can bring some of these Nordic celebrations to our own communities for fun ways to celebrate life, even if we can't get more vacation days.
Bun Day (aka Bolludagur)
Bun Day in Iceland marks the beginning of the Lenten season, though it's popular even with people who aren't religious. Celebrated on the Monday before Lent — the day is called Shrove Monday elsewhere — it's all about enjoying cream-filled pastries. According to the Reykjavik Grapevine, the 100-year-old tradition includes the kids, too.
"On the morning of Bun Day, children are encouraged to wake their parents early in the morning by smacking them with homemade decorated paddles and yelling 'Bolla, bolla, bolla!' For every whack they get in before their parents rise, they’re supposed to be rewarded with an extra cream bun."
Yes, a whole day dedicated to baked sweets, and that's before Tuesday's "Bursting Day," which is like Mardi Gras elsewhere.
Walpurgis Eve or Valborgmässoafton (oft-shortened to Valborg) is celebrated on the last day of April in Sweden, Finland and other countries, including parts of Germany. Its meaning varies from place to place but usually includes a fire as a way to get rid of the old, welcome the new and celebrate spring. Some suggest it has to do with the time when farm animals would first be let out to graze, and the fire is meant to keep predators away. Today, warm drinks, especially coffee, and fireworks and/or fire dancing might also be part of the celebration, as well as music and singing.
Eukonkanto, or wife-carrying races, started in Finland, but the competition has since spread to other Scandinavian countries, and even the U.S.! This definitely-not-too-serious event is popular wherever it pops up. The summertime race involves more than just who is the fastest runner while carrying another person. There are also obstacles to overcome and fences to climb over. This tradition is said to be connected to Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen, a robber who would plunder nearby towns with his gang of thieves, looking for food and women. At the World's Wife-Carrying Championships in Sonkajärvi, Finland, the winner's reward is his wife's weight in beer.
Midsummer's Eve, the longest day of the year, is a big deal in Nordic countries. Some say it's even more important than Christmas, which makes sense if you think about how much of the year portions of those countries spend in darkness or how many low-light days they have during the colder seasons. The maypole, or midsummer pole is the focus of the event, and it's decorated with flowers. It's called a maypole because the tradition came from Germany in the Middle Ages, where it was erected on May 1. In Scandinavian countries, there doesn't tend to be enough greenery until later in the season, so the pole is part of Midsummer celebrations which fall on or at the summer solstice. While in other places, a bonfire is part of midsummer festivities, in Nordic countries that's more a part of Walpurgis celebrations and so the pole is the focus.
Dancing around the pole, flower crowns, and spending time outside with family and friends are all part of the festivities. "Though the tradition of decorating the maypole with leaves seems to be a Germanic addition, the origins of the maypole itself date back to early medieval festivals in France, when the Carolingian kings would muster their troops on May 1. Among other contests archers would compete in shooting at a bird (real or fake) placed at the top of a tall pole. These so-called parrot-shooting contests became very popular throughout Europe. Reflecting this history, some maypoles are still decorated with a rooster or other bird at the top," according to Real Scandinavia.
Winternights and Kekri
Winternights in Norway and Kekri in Finland are pagan harvest festivals that are celebrated similarly and fall around the same time as American Halloween, at the end of October or beginning of November. They involve recognition of one's ancestors and the dead, similar to All Souls' Day, but Winternights and Kekri both have a more celebratory aspect to them. They are meant to be a celebration of life and death, whereas All Souls' Day tends towards the more reflective. The point is to mark the close of one year and the beginning of the next, as well as the start of winter.
"Originally, it didn’t have a fixed date; each household, including the workers, would celebrate it individually after bringing the cattle in for the winter and completing the year’s harvest," according to the Wanderella blog. Kekri celebrations include a big meal that would include plates for the dead ancestors, and the meal was supposed to include elements of what was hoped for in the coming year.* * *
Are you a fan of all things Nordic? If so, join us at Nordic by Nature, a Facebook group dedicated to exploring the best of Nordic culture, nature and more.
Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.
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