Yule cakes, guisers and ogresses

Happy New Year, everyone! Since Christmas and New Year is just by, what better to write about here in Mimir’s Well than old Christmas and New Year customs? It’s really my colleague Dr. Andrew Jennings from the Centre for Nordic Studies’ Scalloway campus who is our expert on that kind of thing, so he is joining me here today on a little tour of Christmas and New Year in days gone by.

Here in Kirkwall today, Christmas kind of starts with the tree lighting. But along with the tree lighting we also have the St Lucy’s procession when children dress up in white, holding candles, lead by a girl representing the 4th century saint St Lucy wearing a candle crown. This custom is very popular in Scandinavia too, perhaps especially in Sweden, but also in Norway. It is always celebrated on St Lucy’s Day on the 13th of December. Part of the tradition is the baking of sweet, yellow saffron buns called Lussekatter (“katter” meaning “cats”). The buns are made by rolling the dough into a long sausage shape and then curling the ends up at either side, so that you end up with a curly s-shape. Sometimes they are also made double, with two s-shapes across each other, making them look rather like a curly swastika. They are decorated with raisins. It is very important that they should be yellow; no other colour will do. When my friend and colleague Alex Sanmark and I, along with our children, baked some of these buns last month, we speculated about why they have to be yellow, and why that odd shape? Could it possibly be that they somehow descend from old celebrations of the winter solstice, we thought. That would also work with St Lucy’s name meaning “light” and the use of candles – and the swastika being used as a sun symbol before the Nazis grabbed it and changed its associations. However, when I put that idea out on the Centre for Nordic Studies Facebook site, Gunnel Melchers replied to me with a history of the “lussekatter” that came as somewhat of a shock! She wrote: “Lussekatter actually originated from Germany (17thC). Now we think of them as part of the Lucia tradition, but originally they were connected with the devil (Lucifer) who often appeared in cat's clothing. The yellow colour from saffron was used to frighten the devil.” If she is right, the buns are actually for warding off Lucifer!

But speaking about buns – Christmas is of course a great time for cooking, baking and eating, and until recently also brewing. My father still makes home brew for Christmas, and from when I was peedie I mind the smell of yeast in the bathroom. Yes, he uses the bathroom as that is the warmest room in his house. But in the old days, even before Christianity came to Scandinavia, brewing and food preparation was an important part of the Yule festival (Old Norse: jól). In the farmhouses the tables were laden with the very best, and family and neighbours came along to each other’s houses for a taste.

Orkney also has its own Yule baking and brewing traditions. While working on my book about the writer Chrissie Costie (forthcoming in April), who knew a lot about old customs and traditions, I came across a reference to something called “snorran cakes”. In her poem The Auld Hoose Spaeks, Chrissie Costie writes that Orkney people in the old days “held Aald Yeul wae snorran keks an’ draps o’ eel.” Aald Yeul – or old Yule – is the 6th of January, the reason being that this is the day it was before the calendar was shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which in Britain happened in 1751. The great folklorist F. Marian McNeil, from Holm, wrote in 1957 that “the change met with strong opposition from the people who clamoured for their lost days. Well into the latter half of the nineteenth century, Scottish country folk still kept their festivals by the Old Style reckoning, and in some of the remoter parts of Shetland, the Hebrides, and elsewhere, the custom as not yet entirely died out.” So that is “aald Yeul”, but what on Earth are “snorran cakes”? If anyone could help me here, I would be very grateful! I have asked all the people I can think of, but nobody knows. But surely there must be someone out there who can tell me. However, I did read about another traditional Orkney Yule cake which is sometimes called a sun-cake. This cake was baked over the fire, it was round as a bannock with a hole through the middle and with notches around the edges. It is believed to represent a sun symbol. George Mackay Brown describes it in his short story A Candle for Milk and Grass (in Andrina and Other Stories, 1983). He writes:

“Annie was busy between the table and the open hearth. She was baking little yellow flat cakes on a griddle. She was white with meal to the elbows. (...) The little yellow cakes, fretted round the edge, gave out a sweet fragrant smell. This was the only day of the year that such cakes were made.”

It is very tempting for me to say that Chrissie Costie’s “snorran cake” is a sun-cake, its name perhaps referring to the sun’s “turning” at midwinter (Norwegian: sol-snu – “sun-turn”, solstice; Old Norse: snúa – to turn; Jakob Jakobsen’s Norn dictionary: snurr – to turn, whirl, twist). But this is speculation, and unless I can find out more about it, I should probably not include it in my book. So any help would be very much appreciated – even if you can just vaguely remember eating a “snorran cake” as a child.

Another very old custom surrounding Christmas or Yule is that of dressing up in costumes and engaging in community drama. As a child in Norway in the 1980s, I remember dressing up to “gå julebukk” (go Yule-goating). Well, alright then, I admit it: I still do. Julebukk involves dressing up with a mask and going to people’s doors to chase Christmas out around New Year. You sing and you carry a sack to collect cakes and sweeties – ah, the joy as a child of ending up with a huge sack full of goodies! This is an extremely old custom, going back to pre-Christian beliefs. People in Norway used to believe that Christmas was the time when the Wild Hunt, called the Oskoreia, chased across the land. In the country, people used to dress up as animals, visiting the neighbouring farms, sometimes with a rather frightening looking effigy of a billygoat’s head on a stick. These guisers must be given offerings of food and drink.

Interestingly, similar traditions are also found in Iceland, the Faroes, Shetland and Orkney. In Iceland they have a frightening ogress called the Grýla. She has fifteen tails and is dressed in animal skin and comes down from the hills at Christmas time to collect naughty children in her sack. In Fair Isle she is called the Grullyan. The earliest written records of the Grýla tradition are found in thirteenth century sagas, according to Professor Terry Gunnell. In oral tradition, verses about Grýla were known and recited across the North Atlantic, sometimes by people dressed up as her. In the Faroes, this drama – called “ganga Grýla” – takes place on the first Tuesday in Lent, while in Shetland until the late 19th century folk would go guising as “Grøliks” at Halloween and Old New Year’s Day. And of course, in Shetland today guisers travel around and are offered food and drink at Up Helly Aa – which is interesting when one takes into account that an alternative name for Auld Yule is Uphalyday (Dictionary of the Scots Language). Marian McNeil also records the name Up-helly-aa for the day marking the end of the midwinter festival, when fairies and trows return again to the Underworld after having been active over Yule.

Grýla has an equally scary “sister” called the Gyro, or in Old Norse: Gýgr. This is an ogress who shares many of Grýla’s features: “a dark repellent monster with many horns and several tails” according to Ernest Marwick. As late as 1914, people in Orkney dressed up as the Gyro. In Papay there was a festival called the Gyro Night which was held early in February, when young boys ventured into the night carrying torches to entice the gyros. These were played by older boys wearing costumes and masks, who would then chase after the younger ones, trying to hit them with tang or a piece of rope.

Now, after a gap of 97 years, the Gyro Night is being revived as an art festival, organised by Land Art Papa Westray (14th – 21st February). And by an extreme stroke of luck, just as I was getting very interested in these old traditions, I was invited to the festival to introduce our old ogress! And I’m going to Up-Helly-Aa as well – although my colleagues in Shetland advised me not to dress up as Grýla. Funny how everything just comes together sometimes!