The country with no culture

The Wild Hunt that supposedly haunted pagans stayed with us for a long time. A painting by Nikolai Arbo (1831-1892)
The Wild Hunt that supposedly haunted pagans stayed with us for a long time.
A painting by Nikolai Arbo (1831-1892).
Wikimedia Commons

Many Norwegians like to pretend that Halloween is at best something the Americans came up with to make money on candy and costumes, and at worst pure evil. There are undoubtedly strong commercial interests wanting us to embrace new and creepy trends, but if the parents pay attention this is still just harmless fun.

The truth is that this is closer to home than we realize. Halloween comes from the Celtic Samhain, which is surprisingly similar to Norwegian Christmas traditions. As a child I went from house to house, much like American children do for Halloween. When this tradition started hundreds of years ago it was common to dress like a goat, but today any costume will do. We’d put on costumes and sing Christmas songs instead of saying trick or treat, but the yule goat tradition was basically the same.

There are several traditions related to the goats. One is an invisible goat, a spirit that circled your house as Christmas was drawing closer. This could go back to the two goats pulling the norse god Thor’s chariot. It could also go back to a fascinating part of our folklore called the wild hunt. This is a gathering of restless souls that come riding through the night, especially during the thirteen days of Christmas. People that were not ready for Christmas, and still had some preparations left could be kidnapped and end up as a part of this crew. That makes some believe that the yule goat could be a part of the the wild hunt. Just to make it worse the Norwegian version of Santa Claus is a goblin that is not very nice either. Do we still believe Samhain is worse?

Midsummer night fire in Freiburg, Germany. We also had the same social event in winter.
Midsummer night in Freiburg, Germany. We also had the same social event in winter.
Photo: Ralf Johan via Wikimedia commons

This continued with Christianity. We lived for four years in a mountain community in Telemark county where someone discovered a medieval ballad in the mid 19th century. This ballad tells a story about a man who slept for thirteen days while his soul went to the hereafter. To make it short it is about the struggle between good and evil powers during Christmas, and it is not a coincident that this happened during the darkest time of the year. According to the old beliefs the boundaries between our world and the transcendental world were more fluid during this time than the rest of the year. This is remarkably similar to the old celtic tradition Samhain.

I wouldn’t go as far as some people do saying that Christianity stole Christmas and Easter, but it is true that these were pagan festivals, which means that they existed before Christianity came to Norway. Easter was a spring festival and naturally linked to fertility as this was the time when nature came back to life and offered abundance again. We are much better off today. I wouldn’t say that we have eradicated poverty, but it’s not nearly on the level it was a thousand years ago of course. We don’t have the rhythm to life that assisted the vikings and we are sort of living outside our own world. We have an impersonal relationship to the Earth that gives us life, and an independence to nature. A harvest festival around Halloween or a spring festival at Easter is superfluous to many people today. We have different seasons, but due to greenhouses and import we can get anything anytime. Nature doesn’t go to sleep anymore. It is never less than generous, at the same time as it can be brutally cold and dark here locally.

We make progress every time we take a step forward of course, but we lose something too. When Norwegians say that we must preserve Norwegian culture , what exactly do they mean? We celebrate midsummer, but the vikings also met for a bonfire at winter solstice. We are more exclusive today, less social, in the churches as well (in a country that is supposedly very socialist). Christians are divided into many denominations and most of us don’t reach outside the particular organization we are a member of. I have written a lot about the Arab Christians in Syria and Iraq on my Norwegian blog. This is probably among the closest we get to the original Christianity, but this culture is so foreign to us that many Norwegians probably wouldn’t feel at home in their assemblies. Cultural differences are almost as dramatic as religious. This is not a post about immigration, but this is one of the reasons I am skeptical to massive immigration of Muslims. I believe these two differences in combination will prove to be too much when we are talking about more immigrants than we can integrate. This is a very human weakness and we see it among scientists too for example. Many researchers don’t want to acknowledge a competitor’s work. There is a lot of opposition and jealousy between scientists that support different theories.

There are quite a few Norwegians that hate Halloween. Not that I am letting that stop us from having a good time, but I wonder what their alternative is. I bet many of them are among the growing number of people who celebrate so much during the four weeks of advent, a period which in the Christian context is set aside for silence and reflection, that they are sick of Christmas before they make it to December 24th. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for them to open their doors tonight or try to understand how life was like on the outskirts of Europe a thousand years ago. That’s something we could achieve with a little more appreciation of our own history.

It’s a little bizarre what is happening today. Many feel indignant when they see Christians symbols in the public sphere, symbols of the faith that has shaped Norway the last thousand years. They don’t want Norwegian culture either because that is pagan and enlightened people can’t be associated with superstition. What do we have left? Do we have anything left to defend? Many expect immigrants to adopt and preserve Norwegian culture. Why should they when we don’t care ourselves? We do not actually have to give up our own culture to respect others. I don’t want paganism back as a religion, but I think we’ve lost something useful. There are some Norse traditions that aren’t pure evil. We don’t need to go as far back as human sacrifices of course, but I believe we have a thing or two to learn about the interaction the vikings had with nature.

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