From the early days people have devised ways to keep track of the passing time.
For people of Scandinavia, this was particularly important. Given the short seasons for growing their food, it was imperative to know the best time for sowing, or the time when cattle might safely leave the barn to graze.
In measures that might vary from valley to valley, they notched off the days from that week in winter when the sun was barely seen, or from the day when ice broke on the lake. The days were marked and carved on a stick or board and eventually an elementary almanac of weather and crops took form.
When Christianity came to the North, it was now more important than ever to have a system to keep track of the days.
Not only Sundays were to be holy days, now there were others, feasts of saints. The church had written almanacs of these days and it was the priest's duty to notify his parishioners of them, for on many of these days work was not permitted.
But, with long distances and an isolated population the priest could not possibly reach everyone. Thus was born the use of the calendar stick or the PRIMSTAV.
Primstaven was Norway’s first yearly calendar, also called “messestav”, “runestav” or “rimstav”. It was made of wood and was divided into 365 days, marked with indentations. It was also divided into a winter- and summer side.
The winter began on October 14th and the summertime started on April 14th. Holidays were marked with special stylized symbols and was therefore a practical tool enabling people to keep track of all the holidays and what they meant and symbolized.
The Primstav was in use up until the 1700s when the Gregorian calendar was introduced. The Primstav was what could be considered an “eternal” calendar showing only the holidays that occurred on set dates, not adjustable holidays like Easter and Pentecost.
It is unknown when the first primstavs (calendar sticks) were made, but scholars believe that such items have been in use since around the year 1000.
The oldest known 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.
One calendar stick described here was carved by Dreng Biornson in 1707 in Setesdal. The original is in the Folkemuseum in Oslo.
Here we shall only describe the days that concern yule (Christmas) and yule preparations.
Ancient Holidays - Surrounding Yule
11. November: Mortensmesse (primstav mark: goose)
Mortensmesse symbolized the start of the slaughter season. Eating “mortens-goose” did not have much to do with Christmas. There are Primstavs that use a picture of a pig instead of a goose.
The day is to commemorate the holy Martin of Tours. He hid himself in a flock of geese to avoid being chosen as a bishop. But it was not so smart to hide among the geese. They gave him away and the holy Martin was so full of wrath that he declared that all geese should be slaughtered. There are many other explanations about the significance of the date. In Norway the day has no religious significance, and to ordinary folk the Mortensmesse was celebrated as the last holiday before yule.
21. November: Marioffer (primstav mark: head with a crown or halo)
This is the day commemorating the virgin Mary as she was presented in the temple by her parents.
23. November: Klemetsmesse (primstav mark: anchor, church or crown)
From this day one should be assume a frugal diet to be as prepared for Christmas as possible.
Clemens 1. was pope from 92. year to 101. According to legend he was sent on slave-duty to Krim where he destroyed temples and raised churches instead. As punishment he was drowned in the Black Sea. Clemens became the sailors’ saint. The 23rd of November was important with reference to weather: If it was clear on this day the winter would be harsh. If it rained instead, it was believed it would continue to rain for fifty days.
25. November: Karimesse (primstav mark: a cross, a sword or a wheel)
The day was traditionally called “Kari med rokken” because of the primstav mark of a wheel interpreted as a spinning wheel. Kari was spinning wicks for the Christmas candles, it was said. If this day had good weather one would have many good Christmas candles. At Sunnmoere the day was called “Mass Mjolbinge”, and he who did not have his grain under roof this day was destined to starve at Christmas.
30. November: Andreasmesse (primstav mark: a cross or a fishing hook)
Primstav mark fishing hook was a sign that the yule fishing season should begin. The day was a reminder of the fisherman and apostle Andreas.
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.
6. December: Nilsmesse/Niklausday (primstav mark: bishop staff or cross)
St. Nicholas can be said to be the origin of our “julenisse”. In the middle ages it was customary to give gifts on the 6th of December as a part of the Christmas celebrations. The children would hang socks by the bed, then St. Nicholas would come and put gifts in them during the night. This popular saint resembles “julenissen” in clothing and look. He had long white beard and was dressed in a bishop cape.
Legend has it that 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.
8. December: Maria’s day (primstav mark: a crowned head)
Now it was time to bake bread for Christmas. These breads were just to be seen, not to be eaten, made of water and flour, but richly decorated.
9. December: Anna roytrau (primstav mark: a woman’s head)
The custom was in many places that one should start brewing the yule-ale this day. Also the dried fish should be laid in water to be ready for Christmas.
13. December: Lussimesse (primstav mark: a light, fire or cup)
All heavy work would be finished by this day, for now the yule season has begun. The day was originally celebrated to remember Sancta Lucia. In Norway “Lussinatt” was connected with much superstition and evil powers. It was also believed that it was the longest night of the year.
21. December: Tomasmesse (primstav mark: a barrel, cross or ribbon)
On this day the yule-beer should be brewed, and the firewood should now be in the house. Tomasmesse was also considered winter solstice and in the Norse time the yule-peace was declared on this day. The day was later set to remember the doubting Tomas of the Bible. In Norway Tomas seems to have a much less religious taint, he is known as Tomas the brewer.
22. December: Vintersolverv (primstav mark: the sun)
“On the winter solstice day no one must perform any work where anything was ‘turned around’ ”. The rule was that one should not bake on this day. The yule-beer should be finished so nothing of the “solverv” would get into it.
23. December: Tollesmesse (primstav mark: a half-cross)
In certain parts one would bake special “yule cakes” this evening, and the day was consequently called “Kaku kvelden”. This was also the day when one would bathe and wear clean clothes, and wash table, benches and walls.
“Julaften” is usually not marked on the primstav because the yule celebration happened yule-night and Christmas Day.
25. December: Jul/Kristmesse (primstav mark: crossed sun or a wheel)
This is the most important holiday of the entire year.
This day everyone should stay at home, the only work permitted was to tend to the livestock. If the weather was good this day it signified a good year.
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 was never to be forgotten. If the farmer failed to leave a bowl of rommegrot for him the farmer 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.
1. January: Nyttaarsdag (primstav mark: sun-wheel, church or hour-glass)
This day was connected with warnings of various kinds: ”New Years Day clear, makes for a good year”. In Northern Norway it was said that wind towards land would give good fishing, and the opposite if the wind blew away from land. If there were many stars in the sky, it signified a good cloud-berry year. It was believed that what one was occupied with on this day, one would be busy with the rest of the year, and if anything went wrong, everything would go wrong!
6. January: Trettendedag Jul (primstav mark: three crosses, three men)
In many places this day was celebrated as the real yule and was therefore called "Old Yule". Then one would serve yule specialties and decorated the table with three-armed candle holders, because the day was also was commemorating the three wise men from the East.
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.
The day was also called “avfaredag”. Now the yule was over and the guests traveled home.
13. January: Tyvendedag jul (primstav mark: an axe or a drinking horn)
The Twentieth Day was the definitive end of the celebration of yule. “Twentieth day Yule the Yule departs”, it was said. In the same way that the 13th day was considered “Old Yule” the 20th day was “Old New Years”.
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.
To mark that the Yule was over many used to “sweep the Yule out” of the house. In Northern Norway it was the day when the Lofoten-fishermen departed. Thus it had been since the 1500s.