From the earliest days people have devised ways to keep track of the passing days. For those hardy people of Scandinavia, this was particularly important. Given the short growing season, it was imperative to know the best time for the sowing of seed, or the time when cattle might safely be let out to graze. In measures that varied from valley to valley, they notched off the days from that week in winter when the sun barely crept above the horizon, or from the day the ice broke up on the lake. The days were carved on a stick or board and eventually an elementary almanac of weather and crops evolved.
With the coming of Christianity to the northlands, it was now more important than ever to keep track of the days. Not only Sunday was to be a holy day, now there were other holy days, feasts of saints. The church had written almanacs of these days and it was the priest's duty to notify his parishioners of these holy days, for on many of these days work was not permitted. But, with such an isolated population the priest could hardly reach everyone. Thus was born the calendar stick or Primstav.
It is unknown when the first calendar sticks were made, but scholars believe that such items have been in use since around the year 1000. The oldest primstav still in existence was made in 1457. The primstav probably remained in use in isolated parts of the country until well into the 19th century. The calendar stick described here was carved by Dreng Biornson in 1707 in Setesdal. The original is in the Folkemuseum in Oslo.
Different primstavs may have different days for some of the churches' feast days. In 1700 Norway adopted the Gregorian calendar, replacing the Julian. Dates were brought forward 11 days. There was much debate as to whether the feast days should be observed on the old or the new. Both alternatives were used and there came to be variations in different parts of the country.
This stick follows the older Julian calendar. In leap years St. Matthias' Mass (February 24) was counted twice. There are two errors in the original stick and these have not been changed in the copy: note that two notches on the summer side, for October 12 and 13, are missing; as are the notches for 6 days on the winter side, April 8 through 13.
The symbols tell an interesting story. Pagan symbols remained, not only because they were so much a part of the ancient culture but also the church had retained some of the pagan celebrations and had given them religious significance. Other symbols reflected stories told of the apostles, saints, and martyrs. Still others were tied to the daily work of the bonde - farming, fishing and struggling to exist. The meaning of some of the symbols on this stick are unclear and your own interpretation of them may be clearer than those given here.
Perhaps more than anything else the primstav gives us insight into how important tradition and customs were to these people who lived so closely with one another yet isolated from the rest of the world. If St. Simon's day (October 28) was the day the cattle were moved indoors, it is likely that all of the cattle in the parish found themselves indoors on this day. And woe to the careless individual who ventures out onto the ice after St. Peters day (February 22) - if the ice breaks it was no one's fault but his own.
THE SUMMER SIDE
FIRST DAY OF SUMMER----------April 14
In ancient Norway it was customary to divide the year into equal halves, and summer began on this day. The symbol is a tree, signifying the renewal of life. If it snowed this day, it would snow nine times before summer came. Soil was thrown onto the fields to make the snow melt faster.This day honored two martyrs, the brothers St. Tiburtius and St. Valerianus, who died in 229. In many parts of Norway servants renewed their obligations to their employers on this day. Shepherds abstained from meat on this day, believing that if they ate meat it would harm their herd.
ST MAGNUS' DAY -------------------April 16
This day honors St. Magnus, Earl of Orkney, who was murdered by his cousin, Earl Haakon Paalson, in 1115. His symbol was an arrow or an ax. This was the day to begin cultivating the fields.
ST. MARKS DAY----------------------April 25
This day is dedicated to St. Mark, who was martyred in Alexandria. Mark's symbol is generally a lion, the symbol here is unclear. This is another example of how the Church took pagan customs and gave them a different meaning. In pagan times on this day people would make sacrifices to the Norse gods for their victory over Tjasse, the evil spirit of winter. This was changed to the Great Procession, when the priest and the congregation marched through the fields, saying prayers to ward off evil spirits and calling for the blessing of God on the fields and the summer crop.
CUCKOO MASS ------------------------May 1
Again, pagan practices were the basis of the folklore surrounding this day. In ancient times, if the cuckoo's call was heard for the first time that spring from the north, one would become ill or die that year. If the call was heard first from the south, the year would be favorable; if from the west, one would succeed, and if from the east, one would be lucky in love. Legend advised that a woman who wished to marry soon should run around a tree three [?] times. No ordinary tree would do, there had to be a gauk, a cuckoo, in the tree. For this to work properly the woman had to be nude. [No doubt this custom caused many cases of pneumonia among young, aspiring maidens, as May was not necessarily free of winter ice and cold in higher parts of he country! The custom made normally sensible girls act "cuckoo," or crazy? --Ed.]
MASS OF THE HOLY CROSS-------May 3
The Church celebrated the finding of the cross on which Christ was crucified, believed to have been discovered by the empress Helen in 362, thus the symbol, a cross. This day also signaled the beginning of much summer work on the farms: the cattle were to be let out to pasture, fences were to have been mended by this time, and it was time to shear sheep.
ST. HALLVARD'S WAKE------------May 15
Hallvard, has been described as a young Norse nobleman and again as a farmer's son from Lier. He gave his life to protect a woman who was being pursued by attackers. He was thrown in Drammensfjord with a millstone around his neck. The symbol is probably a millstone. Sowing of crops was to begin now. Conditions varied according to location, but in some places it was said that if the corn was not planted by this time it would not ripen before frost.
BEAR WAKE----------------------------May 22
St. Bernard, a leading clergyman of the 12th century, founder of 68 monasteries, emphasized simplicity in lifestyle, self support through manual labor, and an atmosphere of silence that was conductive to reading and prayer. In celebrating his day, Norwegians translated his name to "Bjarnvard" and then to "Bjorn" which means "bear". This tied nicely with the season, for this was the time when the bear awoke from his long slumber and withdrew from his den. Feasting began the night before, hence the "wake". The symbol may be a bear's paw.
ST. VITUS' DAY-----------------------June 15
Unreliable legend has Vitus, the only son of a senator in Sicily, become a Christian when he was twelve. When his conversions and miracles became widely known to the administrator of Sicily, Valerian, he had Vitus brought before him, to shake his faith. He was unsuccessful. This day was also known as "cleaning day," since on this day the chimneys were cleaned. The meaning of the symbol is unknown.
ST. BOTOLPH'S DAY ----------------June 17
Since 1276, the chief court of law in Norway, the "lagting", met on this day. It is interesting to note that rotation of crops was practiced in those early days of agriculture. This day was set aside to harrow fields that were to be left fallow. The symbol is a bishops pastoral staff.
SUMMER SOLSTICE-----------------June 21
Due to the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, there were 2 midsummers days. This had been a pagan day to make sacrifices to the sun.
ST. JOHN'S WAKE--------------------June 24
This is the true "Midsummers Day" and has always been an important festival in Scandinavia. And though the symbol is a church and the day is dedicated to John (Hans) the Baptist, most of the legend surrounding it is from pre-Christian times.
On the eve of this day witches were believed to have met with the devil, and planned their mischief for the following year. All trolls and demons were out on this night. In Norse mythology, fire descended from heaven and so it was believed in some way to protect cattle from illness. Bonfires were lighted, a custom still observed in some areas, and in the middle was placed a pole, called "the old man" or "the old hag". This may have signified the new season replacing the old.
On this night, also, it was believed that the dead would rise. If one was to go to the graveyard at midnight with the Lutheran Hymnal [Was it considered dead enough to help raise spirits of the Dead?--Ed.] held closely to your chest and sod on your head (to symbolize your closeness to those under the sod) you could visit with them for a short time.
In some regions it was believed that if an unmarried woman picked nine kinds of flowers on midsummers eve, slept with them under her pillow, and the next daywearing no clothes---looked at her reflection in a pail of water, she could see the man she would marry.
On the farms it was now time to move the cattle to the summer pasture, or "seter", in the mountains. This was also a time to gather herbs that were to be used through the year.
ST. PETER'S WAKE -----------------June 29
This day is dedicated to both St. Peter and St. Paul, who were martyred for their faith in the year 67. Legend says that St. Peter was the keeper of the door to heaven, so a key is the symbol for this day. St. Paul is venerated as an incomparable missionary and author of the earliest New Testament writings.
ST. SWITHIN'S WAKE----------------July 2
St. Swithin was an English bishop of the 9th century who was widely revered in southwest Norway. This symbol is that of a bishop, for it honors the patron saint of the city of Stavanger. On this day weeding of the fields was to begin. The weather on this day, it was said, would prevail through the rest of the month.
ST. SUNNIVA'S DAY-------------------July 8
St. Sunniva was an Irish Princess who, to escape the unwanted attention of a heathen chief, fled across the sea, with a number of devoted followers. In a vessel without rudder, sail, or oars they reached the island of Selje on Norway's coast. These refugees were suspected of stealing cattle, but, when an armed party was sent to investigate they found that Sunniva and her party had been entombed in a cave by a landslide. Sometime later passers-by noticed a strange light streaming from the cave where the strangers had been buried. The cave was excavated and Sunnivas body was found intact and uncorrupted and those of her companions emitted a supernatural light. King Olav Trygveson had a church built on this site and her body enshrined there. A hundred years later the body was moved to Bergen, and Sunniva became the patron saint of that city. Haymaking began on this day. The symbol is a scythe.
ST. CANUTE'S DAY -------------------July 10
Canute of Denmark, king and martyr, died on this date in 1086. His symbol is usually a scythe, to be followed by "Catherine with a rake" on July 12. However, on this stick the symbols have been advanced by two days, the scythe appearing on the 8th and the rake on the 10th. A mistake or local interpretation - we do not know.
MIDSUMMER DAY--------------------July 14
While not exactly another midsummer celebration, this was the halfway point of the summer. Now the oats should start forming heads. The belief being that is the oats don't form before this day, the crop will not be good. The symbol is likely a stalk of oats.
ST.SARAH'S DAY----------------------July 18
St. Sarah's day is really July 19th but on this stick the half cross symbol has been placed on the 18th.
ST. MARGARET'S DAY--------------July 20
St. Margaret of Antioch was martyred in the year 307. Her symbol was a cross with a halo and this is probably a revision of that. The day came to be nicknamed "Margaret Waterscoop" because rain could now be expected.
ST. MAGDALENE'S DAY -----------July 22
St. Mary Magdalene is the woman who stood beside the cross of Jesus, assisted at the burial and found the empty tomb. She had followed Jesus after being cured of a serious illness. Another name for this day was "good weather prayer day" because it was now time for putting up the hay and good weather was urgently needed.
JAMES' WET HAT DAY--------------July 25
Somehow the Apostle James came to be depicted with a pilgrim's hat with a scallop on it, later a hat with drops of water falling from it. Again, it is tied to weather predictions: rain on this day was a sign of a wet autumn. The symbol used here is unidentified.
ST. ANNE'S DAY------------------------July 26
This is a feast day for St. Anne, mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. She is the patron saint of mothers and women in labor.
ST. OLAF'S WAKE---------------------July 29
"Olsok" is a day when the saintly Viking King Olav is honored with bonfires and historical plays at Stiklestad the old capital city of Trondheim, where he fell in battle in the year 1030. Though not too popular during his lifetime, miracles were reported at his shrine, and a chapel was built, which became the cathedral of Nidaros. This became a great pilgrimage center for all Scandinavia. He is one of the great heroes of Norway for his efforts to unify and Christianize Norway, of which he is patron. He was canonized in 1164. His symbol is an ax.
The weather on this day was said to a precursor of the weather through the rest of the autumn. In some areas of Norway the haymaking was to begin today, and in other areas it was to end. Saint Olavs Day also had become known as syftesok, sifting day, a time to weed the fields.
LESSER ST. OLAF'S WAKE-------August 3
The small ax marks another day for St. Olaf, memorializing the transfer of his body to St. Clement's Church in Trondheim in the year 1031. There he was enshrined and declared a saint.
ST. DONATUS DAY-----------------August 7
Legend has it that St. Donatus, a martyred bishop, was at mass one day when heathens broke a chalice. Donatus took the pieces and prayed over them and the chalice became whole again except for one piece, which the devil had taken. The symbol I will leave to your imagination.
ST. LAWRENCE'S WAKE--------August 10
St. Lawrence is said to have been roasted to death on a gridiron by his enemies in the year 258. The Saint was tied on top of an iron grill over a slow fire that roasted his flesh little by little, but Lawrence was burning with so much love of God that he almost did not feel the flames. In fact, God gave him so much strength and joy that he even joked. "Turn me over," he said to the judge. "I'm done on this side!" And just before he died, he said, "It's cooked enough now." Perhaps this symbol is a gridiron. Tradition said that all hay must be stored by today or there would be no milk in the winter.
ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY -------------------- August 15
The feast, honoring Mary's reception into heaven, had a special meaning on the land. People prayed to Mary asking for protection of the harvest against early night frosts. The symbol is a framed cross.
ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S WAKE-August 24
Legend has it that the king of Armenia was converted by the Apostle Bartholomew. But the king's brother had the apostle flayed first and then beheaded. The knife is a fitting symbol for the day not only because of the historical significance but because this was the day the rams of the flock were slaughtered.
NATIVITY OF THE VIRGIN MARY---September 8
This marked the birthday of the mother of Christ. With the rams slaughtered, the rest of the sheep were to be shorn on this day.
EXALTATION OF THE CROSS-----September 14
This feast day commemorates both the finding of the cross in 326 and the dedication of the churches Constantine built on the sites of Calvary and the sepulcher. Later, the day included commemoration of the return of the cross to Jerusalem in 630. By this day all corn should be stored in a dry place.
ST. MATTHEW'S DAY-------September 21
St. Matthew, the tax collector (first called Levi) who left the toll house when Jesus said "Follow me," According to legend, he was beheaded, so his symbol is an ax. The ax had another meaning, too. It reminded all that foliage should now be chopped and stored away to supplement the animals' fodder through the winter. It was believed that if corn had not ripened by this day it would not ripen enough for human consumption.
ST. MICHAELMAS ------------September 19
The day honored the Archangel Michael who, it was said, weighed the souls of the dead in heaven. His symbol is usually a pair scales, but here it is a crossbow. Now everyone must make sure they had enough food laid away for the long winter ahead. In southern Norway there is a saying: "For as many days as there is hoarfrost on the ground before today there will be hoarfrost on the ground after Cuckoo Mass (May 1)"
ST. BRIGITTA'S DAY-------------October 7
St. Bridgetta was the daughter of the royal Prince of Sweden, named Birger, and of Ingeburdis, a descendent of the Gothic kings. From these pious parents she inherited a great love for the Passion of Our Lord. Her father consecrated all Fridays to special acts of penance, and from her childhood St. Bridget loved to meditate upon the Passion of Christ. In obedience to her father, at the age of sixteen she married Ulfo, Prince of Nericia in Sweden, by whom she had eight children, the last of whom, Catherine, is now honored among the saints. Later, the holy couple bound themselves by a vow of chastity and made a pilgrimage to Compostela in Galicia. On their return to Sweden, Ulfo, with his wife's consent, entered a Cistercian monastery, where he died soon after. After his death St. Bridgetta renounced her rank of Princess and changed her habit. In 1344, she built the great monastery of Wastein, which became the motherhouse of a new Order, that of the Brigittines. She next undertook a pilgrimage to Rome and to Palestine. Having satisfied her devotion at the holy places sanctified by the life and Passion of Our Redeemer, she returned to Rome, where she lived a year longer. During this time, she was sorely afflicted by sickness, but endured it with heroic patience and resignation. She died in 1373.
This day was also called Cabbage Day because on this day everyone should make sure their cabbages were all harvested. On this day, also, the bear was said to get his den ready, lining it with dried heather for his hibernation.