Today is the winter solstice. In many ways, this calls for a huge celebration – we have turned the corner, peeps, and slowly, slowly, the light will return to warm the frozen ground. In countries such as mine, so far north as to extend beyond the Artic Circle, winter is the season of extended nights – in some places, like Kiruna, the polar night is 28 days long. These days, we can use artificial light to compensate for the lack of sun. But it is not that long ago since midwinter equalled a close to impenetrable darkness – no electric light, nothing but the odd tallow candle. It was also a time fraught with other dangers: too long or too cold a winter, and people would starve or freeze to death (or both). No wonder those long-gone ancestors of ours did their very best to placate the gods and ensure the return of the sun, celebrating the winter solstice with festivities and sacrifices – a midvinterblot.
The Vikings were big on celebrations – especially during this the dreariest part of the year – so their midvinterblot became one very wet, very long party, as various animals were sacrificed to the gods. Always male animals. (Obviously. What sort of wimpy god would want a female sacrifice?) And every ninth year there was an even bigger party, in which nine of each animal was sacrificed. Sometimes men were among the sacrificial lambs – or so the Christian apostles would have us believe.
If the year had been very bad, if the winter was harsh and the stores depleted, the leader himself would offer himself as a sacrifice—or so the legend says. I’m thinking that if the leaders of our pagan forebears had anything in common with the leaders we see today, they’d likely do whatever it took to wiggle out of that particular obligation. Still, the notion of a leader, a king, willing to lay down his life for his people is quite captivating, and as you can see in Carl Larsson’s magnificent mural, it makes for quite the visual statement. (If you are ever in Stockholm, I recommend you visit Nationalmuseum, where Carl Larsson’s mural adorns a huge wall)
Anyway: in the 11th century or so, my pagan forebears became Christian, and the ancient festivities of the midvinterblot were appropriated as part of the Christmas celebration – minus the sacrifices, of course. (In Christian tradition, the leader sacrifices himself for his people at Easter ) Some generations on, and all those gods of old, all that folklore was bundled together as being heathen rubbish – something good Christian people did not associate with. Except for the tomte, of course.
Here is a tomte, drawn by yours truly. A precursor of the Christmas elves, this tomte is an old, old being. And grey. No red cap, no jolly “ho ho ho”. Every farm had their own tomte, a sentinel spirit that kept an eye on the beasts and the humans, keeping them safe from the evil that lived in the woods and the dark winter nights. The tomte kept the fairies away, stopped the trolls from doing their changeling thing, ensured the cow gave good milk and the hens laid eggs – assuming of course, that the humans kept their part of the bargain.
An irate tomte was a dangerous tomte. Children would sicken and die. St Anthony’s fire would ravage the crops. The cows would go crazy and kick the farmer’s wife to death. The farmer would disappear into a sinkhole. You get the picture, right?
Our tomte is called Olsson. He is not a particularly nice or sociable creature. Only rarely have I seen him, a shadow hastening by along the wall of the barn. But I know he is there – watching over us. At times I hear his clogs clip-clopping over the ancient floorboards in our barn. When the moon is high, chances are I’ll see him, a small little thing standing in the middle of the yard, bowing to the lady moon. Or I won’t – Olsson prefers to keep below the radar. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he mutters, giving me a beady look that makes it abundantly clear I would be a fool indeed to forget his presence – or my duty to him, the guardian spirit of our home.
So, every Christmas Eve I do what housewives in Sweden have done since ages back. I make rice porridge – rice boiled in milk and sugar, with a cinnamon stick or two. Why rice? because once this was a delicacy, the most expensive type of porridge available. Once it is done, I set out a large bowl for the tomte. That is all he expects – a plate of rice porridge once a year. Well, and some respect, of course. In return, he’ll be around to keep an eye on the future generations as well – not a bad trade, all in all.
In my series, The Graham Saga, half-Swedish time traveller Alex Lind keeps the tradition of rice porridge alive – just in case there is a tomte about keeping an eye on her family. In the below excerpt, Alex has had a harrowing morning. One of her sons has been forcibly carried off to grow up with a neighbouring Native American tribe, and just that morning she saw him, on the other side of the river. What was she to do but try and swim across to reach her son? Let’s just say that her desperate attempt to reach her son almost killed her . . .
She dressed, pulled on an extra pair of stockings to warm her ice-cold feet, and went in search of her family. It was Christmas Eve, and she had tons of things to do before tomorrow. The saffron buns she had baked yesterday, the ham was also done, but the pies and the fowl, the trout she was curing, and the bread…!
Someone was taking care of that at least, she sniffed as she came down the stairs. From the parlour came a steady hum of male voices, while from the kitchen came sounds that indicated all the Graham women were there. Her stomach growled, and Alex decided sustenance was her first priority.
“Better?” Mrs Parson bustled towards her, dragging her to sit as close as possible to the kitchen hearth.
“I haven’t exactly been ill.”
“Nay, you just nearly drowned,” Mrs Parson said. “A normal wee thing, no?”
“I didn’t nearly drown,” Alex said. “I’m a very good swimmer.”
“David said how you were well under, and then the Indians pulled you out.”
“I would have made it across on my own,” Alex said with far more conviction than she felt.
Mrs Parson snorted, obviously not believing her. She served Alex a bowl of hot chicken soup, complete with leeks and carrots, and sat down opposite her. “Did you see him, then?”
Alex nodded, her eyes swimming with tears. “At least he knew who I was.”
“Of course he did,” Mrs Parson said, smiling at her. “And now he knows you for a daftie as well, no?”
“A daftie?” Alex’s voice squeaked with indignation.
“Aye. Throw yourself in the river like that!”
“You could have died,” Betty remonstrated, setting Timothy down in Alex’s lap.
“I just had to. He was so close.” She bent her face to Timothy’s bright corkscrews.
“At least he knows for certain just how much you love him and miss him,” Naomi said in a soft voice, “and that must be a great comfort to him.”
“You think?” Alex gave her a grateful look.
“If my mother had done something like that…” Naomi came over from where she was making pie, and holding her flour-covered hands aloft pecked Alex on the cheek. “I would have been so proud of her.”
Alex stayed in the kitchen, comfortable in the warmth and the industrious activity. She helped Ruth with the four chickens, setting them to simmer in a heavy broth, complete with wine, prunes, winter apples and finely diced salted pork. Alex made approving noises at Sarah’s squash soup, and had her fingers rapped when she tried to steal a piece of honey cake from under Mrs Parson’s nose. By the hearth, Agnes was minding the rice porridge, a staple of Graham Christmas Eves.
“Swedish tradition,” Alex said as she always did, ignoring the amused look that flew between her daughters. “You boil the rice slowly in milk and cinnamon, and then you make sure you set a dish outside the door for the little folk.”
“The little folk?” Mrs Parson laughed. “I’ve told you, no? The little folk live in the Old World, not here.”
“How would you know? Spoken to any recently?”
“No, on account of them being there, not here,” Mrs Parson replied with irrefutable logic.
“Hmph,” Alex said, “you never know, do you?”
Nope, one never knows, not really. So, just to be on the safe side, how about you set out a dish of rice porridge (or some other treat) for the little folk? They too deserve some midwinter cheer, right?
Well, dear peeps, I have dallied too long over this post and now I must rush to do the final baking, add the last touch to the decorations, wrap a present or two. Christmas is just around the corner, and I take this opportunity to wish you all a lovely holiday. And, lovely readers, do not forget the little folk. As Alex says, one never knows, so just to be on the safe side, why not set out a dish of rice porridge (or some other treat) for the little folk. After all, you do not want an irate tomte giving you baleful looks throughout 2024!