December 9th – Anna pissihose and brewing jól ale

Today is December 9th and, according to the primstav, today is Anna matris Mariae, or Anna ‘pissihose’, as it was called in the vernacular.

A primstav is an old type of calendar used in Norway and Denmark during the Medieval period and until the 19th century. These calendars were usually made of wood and had a flat, rectangular shape – like a plank or a stave, hence the name primstav. Some were also rounded. The primstav calendars were never-ending as they didn’t have months, dates or the movable feast days on them. They had two sides, one for the summer half and one for the winter half of the year. To mark the important days, they had different symbols like mittens, wet stones, drinking horns, candles, crowns etc. These dates were mainly based on Catholic anniversaries for the saints, but also on old traditional celebrations.

Leonardo da Vinci,
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” (1503)

It shows Anna, Mary and baby Jesus with a lamb.

Anna matris Mariea is Latin and means ‘Anna, the mother of Maria’ (or Mary, as she is called in English). The day and the name is in memory of her. On the primstav this day was often marked with a cross, a half-cross, a jug, a branch or a woman’s head.

Over to the more traditional part of this day, and the reason why this days sometimes is called ‘pissihose’ some places in Norway. According to Norwegian folk tradition, today is an excellent day for laundry and beer brewing. Our ancestors also expected rain on this day, even though it is December, and this is why the day got the somewhat disrespectful name ‘pissihose’. ‘Pissihose’ can be translate with something like ‘piss in the stockings’, because who wants to have wet stockings in cold December?

In a lot of places in Norway people would normally start preparing for the Christmas beer brewing on this day. Juleøl or jól ale was really important. In fact, it was required by law to brew beer for Christmas. Already in the oldest editions of the Gulating and Frosting laws, it was mandatory to brew beer for Christmas. And if they did not brew Christmas beer three years in a row, they would have forfeited the farm and land to the king and bishop. Here is an excerpt from the Gulating law:

7. Enda en ølbrygging har vi lovet å gjøre, bonde og husfrue like mye hver, og signe ølet den hellige natt [julenatt] til Kristus og hellige Maria som takk for år og fred. Hvis det ikke er slik gjort, skal det bøtes tre merker for det til biskopen. Hvis noen sitter slik 3 vintre og ikke holder ølbrygging, og han blir funnet skyldig i det, og ikke betaler de bøter som vi har pålagt for kristendommen vår, da har han forbrutt hver penning av eiendommen sin. Da eier kongen halvparten, og biskopen halvparten. Han har mulighet til å gå til skrifte og bøte for Kristus og slik få bli i Norge. Men hvis han ikke vil det, da skal han fare fra vår konges land.

Gulatingsloven, Kristendomsbolken, kap. 6-7, ss. 22-23 – ca. 1100,
Norges gamle love. Utgitt av R. Keyser og P.A. Munch i 1846, CC BY-NC

It basically says that both the husband and the wife was expected to brew equal amount of beer. The beer should be blessed on Christmas eve to honor Christ and Mary and thank them for a good year. If they didn’t brew enough beer, if it was too weak or if you didn’t follow the laws in other ways, the punishment could be harsh. If you didn’t brew the beer, you would have to give three marks (around 750 grams) of the beer to the bishop. If you went three years without brewing the correct amount of beer (according to the size of your land) and not paying the three marks (which would then be nine marks), the king would own half of your property and the bishop would own the other half! You could of course confess your sins and get your property back, but if you didn’t care to confess, you could be exiled from the country.

The law of Gulating applied to the counties in Western Norway and the law of Frostating applied to the counties in what today is called Trøndelag in the Viking Age and early Middle Ages. Gulatinget and Frostatinget were two of four ting in Norway during the late Old Norse and the early Medieval period. In 1274 all the landscape laws – as they are called – were replaced by Magnus Lagabøtes law which would be valid for the whole country.

The oldest parts of the Gulating law probably date from the 10th century. The law originally consisted of laws that were not written down, but was rather based on oral transmission. The laymen were responsible for memorizing the laws and reciting them at the ting. In the 11th century, these landscape laws began to be written down. The oldest preserved manuscripts of the Gulating law are from the 12th century. The same goes for the Frostating law. The text was first memorized by the lawmen, then later collected and written down in the 1000’s and 1200’s. The oldest written fragments we have from the Frostating law are from 1220-1250 and 1260.

This picture is not show any of the Norwegian laws that are mentioned in the text. This picture was taken by me at Uppsala.

In the past, people did not celebrate Christmas or jól, they drank jól. The first Norse source that mentions anything about the content of the Old Norse Christmas party, is Haraldskvedet from around the year 900. Here we can read about “drinking Christmas”. They would drink toasts to honor the Old Norse gods, and dead friends and relatives. Drinking horns with jól ale were dedicated to the Norse gods – first they drank Odin’s toast of victory and power to the king, then came Njord’s and Frøy’s toast of good year and peace – til árs ok friðar. Many drank a toast to Brage afterwards. This is was a hero’s toast – a toast for the most generous, and at this toast it is said that is was customary to make promises of great deeds.

Later the toast and the blessings would be for Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The ritual beer drinking was an important part of the Norse jól celebration. So important that the custom lived on well into Christian times. The jól beer survived the Christianity because people refused to give it up. Wisely enough, the governing bodies chose to give the old tradition a new symbolic meaning, rather than abolish it.

Other fun facts about this day is that this day was usually the day they started cleaning their garments for Christmas. It was also the day that the stock-fish was put in water for prepare it for Christmas. Many are still eating lutefisk today, but luckily we don’t have to put it in water two weeks before Christmas. Today is also a good day to cut down timber. It was said that the timber which was cut down on this day was the best timber.

Hev du fyrst både mjøl og sul,
Lag no malt og øl til jul

Information from:
Store norske leksikon
Store norske leksikon – Gulatinglova
Store norske leksikon – Frostatingsloven
Norges historie

One thought on “December 9th – Anna pissihose and brewing jól ale

  1. Pingback: December 21st – Tomasmesse and the jól celebration – Tonje Rogersdatter – A viking life

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