Samuel Laing (1780-1868) was a travel writer from Orkney, Scotland, not to be confused with his son by the same name, who was a noted politician and science writer. In 1836, Laing Senior’s first travel journal was published, Journal of a Residence in Norway During the Years 1834, 1835 & 1836, in which he gave an interesting little account of Christmas in Norway, with some background history.
The fair was quickly followed by Christmas, or Yule, as it is called here, as well as by the Scottish peasantry, which was kept in great style for fourteen days. Each family is in busy preparation for three weeks before, baking, brewing, and distilling, and the fourteen days of Yule are passed in feasting and merriment, giving and receiving entertainments. In this neighbourhood there are about thirty families, who, from station, office, or education, form the upper class of society. In this hospitable and amiable circle, I have received during the winter such attentions as a stranger, without letters of introduction, would only receive in Norway. I was fairly knocked up in Yule by a succession of parties, which seldom ended before five or six next morning…
All the people seem to be feasting and making merry during these fourteen days of Yule. The country at night seems illuminated by the numerous lights twinkling from the houses of the peasant proprietors. The Christmas cheer with them is exactly the same as with others: ale, brandy, cakes, venison, game, veal, and pork. The servants have their full share in these festivities. In this farmhouse, I observed their table set out as nicely, and with exactly the same provisions, as that of the family during the whole fourteen days; and in the evenings they sing national songs, and dance. The herdboy is, ex officio, the musician on every farm. When he is attending the cattle in summer at the seater, or distant hill pastures, he must make a noise occasionally to keep off the wolf; and that of the clarionet is as good as any. It seems the favourite instrument, and is generally played well enough for the servant girls to dance waltzes and gallopades to it. I was surprised to see them dance so well; but in their roomy houses they have, from infancy, constant practice during the winter evenings.
This festival was considered, at the introduction of Christianity into Norway, as heathenish, and not connected with Christianity. The Yule feasts were not only prohibited, but those who gave them were punished with death or mutilation, by King Olaf the saint; and the cruelties committed by that tyrant in suppressing them led to the revolt against him. It is supposed not to correspond to the actual period of our Saviour’s birth, but to have been adopted to commemorate that event, because it was already established universally in Europe as a religious festival, and came at a time of the year when, it did not interfere with agricultural labour in any country.
From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books. Please come back tomorrow for the next article!
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