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 WINTER SIDE
WINTER NIGHT-------------------October 14
This day is dedicated to St. Callistus, a one time slave who became one of the early popes and who is thought to have died in the year 222. This day had more significance in pagan times, when it marked the beginning of winter. The weather on this day indicated what the rest of the winter would be like. For much of Norway it was also the day for the hiring of new servants.
ST. URSULA'S DAY --------------October 21
As early as the 4th century Cologne had a church dedicated to a group of virgin martyrs. But there seemed to be no further information about them. Gradually a legend developed that an English noblewoman had led 11 virgins on a pilgrimage to Rome and on the return journey all were murdered by the Huns. In the 9th century the name "Ursula" appeared in this legend. Due to misinterpretation of numbers, some accounts had St. Ursula leading a band of 11,000 virgins on sailing ships up the Rhine. On this day no work was to be done on turning instruments such as spinning wheels or mills.
ST. SIMON'S DAY ----------------October 28
This is also called the Two Apostles mass, honoring Simon the Zealot and Judas Thaddeus. The symbol may combine a spear and a sword. It was now time to get out the sleighs, and cattle were to be moved indoors for the winter. In many old farms the cattle shed was part of the living quarters, being built onto one end of the dwelling. The heat given off by the cattle helped warm the house through the winter.
FEAST OF ALL SAINTS--------November 1
As far back as the year 155 a manuscript mentioned the "birthday" of a saint, meaning his death. As more and more were executed for their faith it became impossible to celebrate them individually, and in the 4th century the is a first mention of a feast honoring the martyrs of the entire world. However, pagan beliefs existed long after the introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia, and All Hollows Eve was a terrifying time when witches flew about and all sorts of evil spirits were thought to roam the countryside. This was often a time of heavy rains mixed with snow, and if the All Hallows Flood did not arrive on this day, it would come in the spring. The symbol is a church.
ST. PLACID'S DAY --------------November 5
Only the name of the saint is known about this day.
ST MARTIN'S DAY ------------November 11
This symbol is a goose, and goose was customarily eaten on this day. Martin, who was a simple man of simple ways, son of pagan parents and former soldier. It is told that Martin had founded a monastery, but, he was so shy that when church officials came to make him Bishop of Tours, he tried to evade them by hiding in the goose pen. The geese honked and gave him away, thus, Martin became a Bishop. Martin died when he was over 80 years old on November 8. Historians disagree on the year and place it anywhere from 395 to 402. On this day any farm animals that were not to be kept through the winter were to be slaughtered. This is presumably because it had been established that meat would stay frozen from this time.
ST. CLEMENT'S DAY ---------November 23
St. Clement was the third successor to St. Peter. He is remembered for a long letter written in the year 95 reprimanding the church at Corinth for its jealousies and quarrels. He was martyred by being thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck. On this day all ships were to lie at anchor.
ST. CATHERINES DAY------November 25
St. Catherine is believed to have been born in Alexandria of a noble family. Converted to Christianity through a vision, she denounced Maxentius [a cruel Roman emperor--Ed.] for persecuting Christians. Fifty of her converts were then burned to death by Maxentius. He offered Catherine a royal marriage if she would deny the Faith. Her refusal landed her in prison. While in prison, Catherine converted Maxentius' wife and two hundred of his soldiers. Catherine was condemned to death. She was put on a spiked wheel, and, this wheel miraculously broke apart, she was then beheaded. St. Catherine's was one of the voices heard by St. Joan of Arc. Although the symbol is unclear, perhaps a wool carder [see Pearl Stadem-Ginther's Wool Carder page on the Plain View Farm Home Page Links--Ed.], people took St. CATHERINES symbol to be a spinning wheel and she was often known as Catherine with the spinning wheel. This was the day on which women should begin their spinning for the winter.
ST. ANDREW'S DAY ----------November 30
Andrew the apostle, acted as a mediator between Jesus and the Greeks who wanted to see him, and it was Andrew who called attention to the child with the loaves and the fishes. Tradition has it that Andrew evangelized Russia north of the black sea. He became the patron saint of fishermen and his symbol is a fish hook.
ST. BARBARA'S DAY-----------December 4
St. Barbara, Christian daughter of a heathen father, was said to have been both beautiful and rich. Her father locked her in a tower and in 306, refusing to give up her faith, she was beheaded. As punishment her father was struck down by lightning. There was an old saying, "On Barbara's Day the sun goes away; on Lucia's Night the sun comes back." St. Lucias day (December 13) was thought to be the longest night of the year.
ST. NICHOLAS' DAY------------December 6
Nicholas was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the 4th century and was especially loved and revered in Russia, Greece, Sicily and Lorraine. In the East, sailors wished each other a safe journey with the words, "May St. Nicholas hold the tiller" . The gift giving lore started with the legend that Nicholas produced three bags of gold as dowries for three destitute sisters who would otherwise have been forced to life on the street. The symbol is an N with a cross.
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
This feast was introduced into the Roman calendar in 1476 and the day was sometimes referred to as "Mary waiting at the door." This was the day when pregnant women should pray for a safe and timely birth. The symbol is a flag with a cross.
SANTA LUCIA'S DAY---------December 13
This day fell on the winter solstice (by the Julian calendar), when folk could begin looking for lengthening days. This day was special in Scandinavia, though not observed as widely in Norway as in Sweden. Lucia, a young Christian woman of Syracuse in Sicily, gave her dowry to the poor. Her enraged fiancee had her declared a witch. She was to be burned at the stake but the fire would not light, and so she was killed by the sword in the year 304.
There were many superstitions about this night when the sun "came back". Water in the rivers might turn into wine. But, who was to know, for no one would venture out as the trolls and fairies came out on this night. This was the day when all heavy chores to be done before Christmas had to be finished. The weather between this day and Christmas would be indicative of the weather for the coming year.
Today St. Lucia's Day is a festival of light and music. It is customary for the oldest girl in a home to portray St. Lucia. Early in the morning she dons a long white gown with a red sash. She wears a green wreath of candles on her head and serves hot coffee and Lussi cakes to her family.
ST. CHRISTOPHERS DAY --December 18
Christopher was listed as a martyr who died under Decius [a cruel Roman emperor-Ed.]. Nothing else is known about him. There are several legends about him including the one in which he was crossing a river when a child asked to carried across. When Christopher put the child on his shoulders he found the child to be unbelievably heavy. The child, according to the legend, was Christ - carrying the weight of the whole world. This was what made Christopher patron saint of travelers and is invoked against storms, plagues, etc..
Nothing is known of the symbol for this day.
ST. THOMAS DAY--------------December 21
St. Thomas was the disciple who doubted the resurrection and believed only when he could put his hands on Christ's wounds. He is said to have spread the gospel in Persia and southern India. He was martyred in the year 67. In Norway an older tradition made this day somewhat less holy. This was the time to brew the Christmas ale. Friends and neighbors would go from house to house tasting one anothers brew. Thomas the brewer is a more common name for this day.
WINTER SOLSTICE----------December 22
According to the Gregorian calendar, this was the shortest day of the year. It also heralded the beginning of the lengthening days. The symbol for this day is the sun.
CHRISTMAS DAY--------------December 25
This is the most important feast day of the entire year. No visiting was allowed on this day; everyone was to stay quietly at home, reflecting on the significance of Christ's birth. The animals were given extra attention on this day. The cattle, horses and other farm animals were given additional food. Even the birds were remembered. The largest and best sheaves of grain were placed on poles in the yard or on the roofs of buildings. If the birds came in great numbers, the year ahead would be a good one. Also, the Nissen [the little, elf-like Christmas imp--Ed.] was never to be forgotten. If the farmer failed to leave out a bowl of rommegrot [a milk porridge or thin pudding--Ed.] he may just find his cows tails tied together. The weather on this day also indicated the weather for the following year: Christmas Day clear, brings a good year. Old pagan traditions die hard and the symbol is a drinking horn. In pagan times this had been the season of drinking and feasting to celebrate the return of the sun to the world.
NEW YEAR'S DAY-----------------January 1
The symbol of this day is a church.
THIRTEENTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS
By the Julian calendar, Christmas fell on this day and it was a long time before everyone stopped celebrating Christmas on this day. In Norway it became customary to commemorate the Three Wise Men on this day. In some areas, children would visit neighbors, singing songs and acting out plays. For this they were given treats or money. This day marked the end of the Christmas celebration.
ST. THORFINN January 8
In the year 1285, there died in the Cistercian monastery at TerDoest, near Bruges, a Norwegian bishop named Thorfinn. He had never attracted particular attention and was soon forgotten. But over fifty years later, in the course of some building operations, his tomb in the Church was opened and it was reported that the remains gave out a strong and pleasing smell. The Abbot made inquiries and found that one of his monks, and aged man named Walter de Muda, remembered Bishop Thorfinn staying in the monastery and the impression he had made of gentle goodness combined with strength. Father Walter had in fact, written a poem about him after his death and hung it up over his tomb. It was then found that the parchment was still there, none the worse for the passage of time. This was taken as a direction from on high that the Bishop's memory was to be perpetuated, and Father Walter was instructed to write down his recollections of him. For all that, there is little enough known about St. Thorfinn. He was a Trondhjem man and perhaps was a Canon of the Cathedral of Nidaros, since there was such a one named Thorfinn among those who witnessed the agreement of Tonsborg in 1277. This was an agreement between King Magnus VI and the Archbishop of Nidaros confirming certain privileges of the clergy, the freedom of Episcopal elections and similar matters. Some years later, King Eric repudiated this agreement, and a fierce dispute between Church and state ensued. Eventually the King outlawed the Archbishop, John, and his two chief supporters, Bishop Andrew of Oslo and Bishop Thorfinn of Hamar. Bishop Thorfinn, after many hardships, including shipwreck, made his way to the Abbey of TerDoest in Flanders, which had a number of contacts with the Norwegian Church. It is possible that he had been there before, and there is some reason to suppose he was himself a Cistercian of the Abbey of Tautra, near Nidaros. After a visit to Rome he went to TerDoest, in bad health. Indeed, though probably still a youngish man, he saw death approaching and so made his will; he had little to leave, but what there was, he divided between his mother, his brothers and sisters, and certain monasteries, churches and charities in his dioceses. He died shortly after on January 8, 1285. After his recall to the memory of man as mentioned in the opening paragraph of this notice, miracles were reported at his tomb and St. Thorfinn was venerated by the Cistercians and around Bruges. In our own day, his memory has been revived among the few Catholics of Norway, and his feast is observed in his Episcopal city of Hamar. The tradition of Thorfinn's holiness ultimately rests on the poem of Walter de Muda, where he appeared as a kind, patient, generous man, whose mild exterior covered a firm will against whatever he esteemed to be evil and ungodly.
ST. BRICTIVA'S DAY------------January 11
Little is known about either St. Brictiva or the symbol. On this day any leftovers from the Christmas feasting were mixed into one dish and eaten up. Whatever was left of the Christmas ale was drunk. The feasting was over.
TWENTIETH DAY OF CHRISTMAS ---January 13
Now the church bells were rung to let all know that the Christmas festivities were over and it was time to get back to the winter chores that needed doing. This was the day to begin chopping timber, the symbol is an ax.
ST. PAUL'S DAY-------------------January 25
This day marked the conversion of the Apostle Paul. In popular belief, Paul was a great fighter and his symbol is usually a sword, but here he is represented by a bow. This was the halfway mark of the winter. Everyone watched the weather; if it was clear the rest of the year would have good weather.
This marked the purification of Mary, the mother of Jesus, after his birth. This was a day for blessing the wax candles that had been made during the winter. The symbol may be a candlestick. This was also the day when farmers checked the fodder in the barn. Half of the winter's supply had to be left or it would not last the winter.
BLOWING MASS ----------------February 3
St. Blasius was a bishop who was put to death for his faith in 316. Many Catholics might remember Saint Blaise's feast day because of the Blessing of the Throats that took place on this day. Two candles are blessed, held slightly open, and pressed against the throat as the blessing is said. Saint Blaise's protection of those with throat troubles apparently comes from a legend that a boy was brought to him who had a fishbone stuck in his throat. The boy was about to die when Saint Blaise healed him. There was a lot of superstition about the wind on this day. If the winds were strong, they would be strong the rest of the year. It was also believed that the wind blew life back into the hibernating animals, such as snakes and toads, so if the wind was strong there would be many snakes the following summer.
ST. AGATHA'S DAY--------------February 6
According to legend, St. Agatha of Sicily was martyred around the year 250 by being brushed to death. Sicilians would beseech her protection against eruptions of Mt. Etna. Because of this she is considered a protector against the outbreak of fire. She is also considered the patroness of bellmakers, possibly because of the fact that bells were used as fire alarms. Because one of the tortures she supposedly suffered was to have her breasts cut off, she was often depicted carrying her breasts on a plate. It is thought that blessing of the bread that takes place on her feast may have come from the mistaken notion that she was carrying loaves of bread. Young Norwegian girls were warned never to brush their hair on this day. The symbol of a mouse may come from another Agatha, whose ears and nose were eaten by mice. When she prayed and promised God she would observe this day as a holy day, the mice left her alone.
ST. PETER'S DAY---------------February 22
St. Peter's Chair was holy day to Christians as early as the 4th century. The symbol, a key, is a reminder [to Catholics--Ed.] of the gift to Peter of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. There is a legend that Peter threw hot stones into the water to keep it from freezing. This became part of the weather lore of this day; it was the last day on which the ice was safe to walk on. If anyone ventured onto the ice after this day and fell into water he could expect no help.
ST. MATTHIAS' DAY ----------February 24
This day is dedicated to the apostle who was chosen to take the place of Judas Iscariot. (May 14 is sometimes given as his day.) In leap years this day was counted twice and girls were free to propose marriage on the second day. There was sort of reverse prophecy about weather on this day: if it was cold the weather should soon turn warm; if it was warm, it would soon turn cold again.
ST. GREGORY'S DAY -------------March 12
St. Gregory was considered one of the four great Fathers of The Church. His symbol was a dove, but since crows were more familiar to the Norsemen, it was usually regarded as a crow. If the crows returned on this day, it was believed that spring would come early.
THE FEAST OF THE ANNUNCIATION--March 25
On this day the Archangel Gabriel made his appearance to Mary and announced that she would give birth to Christ. It is hard to say what this symbol portrays - perhaps a banner from which the archangel supposedly read? People watched the creeks on this day. If they were running, they would freeze again and remain frozen for as many days as they had been running before this day.