Yule Beer

Yule Beer – the Brewing

Customs and traditions surrounding the brewing of Yule Beer.

“The people of Trysil seldom drink beer with their meals. This drink is found chiefly at weddings, for the Christmas holiday and other rare occasions,” wrote the Trysil-priest Axel Chr. Smith in 1784.

For Christmas each man brewed as much beer as he could afford “even those of the most modest means”, we are informed by Rejerus Gjellebol from Setesdal at about the same time.

Beer was from the earliest times everyone’s drink in the Yule festivities, but the everyday thirst was slaked by water or “myseblande”.

To brew the beer for Christmas was the most celebrated of preparations for the holiday. For some it was even a holy endeavor that demanded respect. In Ulvik it was the custom that the children removed their shoes when the beer had fermented for a while, and everyone had to keep quiet while it was prepared. (1928).

The brewing would normally start about one week before the holiday “before Jul”, when the moon was on the increase and the sea at high tide – this would ensure better and more lasting beer. Beer that was brewed at the solstice day, the 21. December (“Tomas bryggar”), was believed to be damaged. It would be overly fermented when the sun turned, be sour or simply refuse to be tapped from the barrel. It was old superstition that nature was easily disturbed when the sun was at solstice. It was best that the beer was finished brewing then and at that time it could be tasted.

The method of the brewing was generally the same all over the country. For malt-beer they took the heaviest and best matured grain they had and put it in water for three or four days. Then it was put out to grow in a suitably warm place in the barn, in the attic or on a bench in the “badstue”. There it should remain until the shoots were of a suitable length. If it was too warm the beer would have a burnt taste. While it was growing one would turn it once in a while, and when it was dry, it could be ground. Then the brewing could start.

The ground grain was called “malt”, and it was cooked with the “humle” in a large pot, preferably made of copper. At the same time would be cooked “einerlag” in a separate pot. After the cooking the content of both pots would be emptied into a large vessel where it remained for about a half hour, before it was moved to the fermenting vessel and everything needed was added for the process. After a couple of days it was put in barrels and put in the cellar. This was called to “shake up”.

Many farms had their own “humle-gardens” providing “humle” for the brewing. It had a bitter taste, but it gave the beer the correct taste. The beer should be so strong that when the third man drank the first one should “kvede” (V. Agder). If a man was so unfortunate that the beer gave no “high” it was believed that the good Lord was mad at him (Seim).

Oystese in Hardanger was one of several communities that had their own “brew-master” who traveled from farm to farm and brewed for people. It was an art to produce good beer, and the knowledge was inherited from father to son. However, for the most part it could be done with a certain division of labor, the men took care of the “malt”, while the women took over the brewing – and “then preferably old women – they were the ones that made the best and strongest beer” (Skatval). At some places it was the master of the house that took over the whole job and kept others at a distance.

According to folk belief it was important to influence the brewing and the results with magical treatment. To protect the brew from visible and invisible harmful powers the brewer had to work in quiet and as far as possible not seen, and watch over the brew at night. A knife and other steel were positioned with the brew, and the first drops that came from the barrels were thrown out the door (Aurland) or thrown at the walls. In Sogne the put the burnt piece of wood into the brew and said “In the Lord’s name”. This happened in the 1880 years. But when the brewing was in the finishing phase and the fermenting process started it was good to make a lot of noise. Then the beer would be strong! The more noise the stronger it would get.

It was quite a celebration when it was time to taste the new beer. Everyone in the house should taste and give their opinion of the quality. It was always suspenseful for the brewer to get the opinion of his work. Then it was the turn of the neighbors. For this ceremony was an old custom that should not be broken. There was much compliments and bragging about “great beer”. And they helped themselves royally. They who had been invited should have a “dram” and something to eat. “Skal paa ei god Jul” they said when the neighbors came to visit (Nordfjord). The day was often “lille julaften” or the morning after, the morning of “julaften”. Some traveled around and sampled the beer throughout the holidays, from “Julaften” to “hellig-tre-konger” (Valle 1780).

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There are rumours about the appalling consequences of not doing so but, like walking under a ladder, no one knows exactly what they are nor should be willing to find out!

Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" marked the end of the Christmas festivities in Elizabethan England. "These most brisk and giddy-paced times" he wrote, which aptly described the festival.

Also referred to as the Feast of Epiphany, the Christian aspect of this celebration commemorates the visit of the Wisemen to the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, Judea. Their gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. Even today in the Chapel Royal of St James' Palace in London, these offerings are made by the British Royalty on the 6th January each year. The gold is changed into money and given to pensioners, the frankincense is used in worship and the myrrh is presented to a hospital.

The gold represents man, born to be King. Frankincense represents the holy man, and myrrh, a bitter herb, represents the crucifixion.

The monarch is represented by two men from the Lord Chamberlain's office, a tradition which began as far back as the reign of George III because the King was considered too mad to handle the ceremony.

In the Green Room of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, another ceremony takes place. In the late eighteenth century as actor/chef, Robert Baddeley, died in his dressing room. He bequeathed 100 pounds to be kept in trust and he willed the interest to be used to"provide cake and wine for the performers" each Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night cakes were essential and much artistry went into their creation. They were iced and displayed for crowds to gasp in awe at the creativity shown.

Mrs Beeton's cookbook bears no reference to a Christmas cake, only a Twelfth Night cake. She mixed charms into the mixture which symbolised the coming year - she also mixed a pea and a bean. An anchor meant a journey; a thimble, an old maid; but, whoever found the pea and the bean (which symbolised the King and the Queen), led the dancing.

The only remnants of this tradition are the charms or coins which we find in our Christmas pudding.

Before the calendar was revised in the early eighteenth century, England celebrated Christmas on the 6th January. The eve of that day, the 5th January, is still known as Old Christmas Eve.

Puerto Ricans celebrate "Three King's Day" on the 6th of January when "The Three Kings" deliver gifts to the children.

Christmas for the Irish lasts from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. Irish refer to this holiday as "Little Christmas".

A firm tradition was the "wassailing" of fruit trees. A "wassail" bowl would be prepared and broken roasted apples were placed in it. The men gathered beneath a fruit tree, drank a cup of the brew and threw the rest onto the roots of the tree. They fired shotguns into the branches and shouted, urging the tree to be bountiful. In Surrey, rather than fire guns, they whipped the trunk of the tree. Instead of shouting they sang.

In Somerset their song went,

"Apple tree, apple tree, I wassail thee

To blow and to bear ...."

Twelfth Night is no longer the celebration it used to be.

Maybe, after all the decorations are taken down and the Christmas cards packed away, we should round off the Christmas season of festivities and love by preparing a Twelfth night cake or a wassail bowl as a tribute to Christmases past.

Twelfth Night Christmas Traditions

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