December 21st – Tomasmesse and the jól celebration

It has been some days now since Anna pissihose the 9th of December, and the day people would normally start brewing their jól ale back in the days. Today, the 21nd of December, is called Tomasmesse, ‘Tomas brewer’ or ‘Tomas full barrel’. The jól ale should be done and put on barrels by today, because today jól starts, according to the old traditions.

Drinking horn (T1184) from Overhalla, Trøndelag. Dated to the Viking age. Horn and bronze.

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

On the old traditional calendar, the primstav, which was used during the Medieval period and until the beginning of the 19th century, Tomasmesse was usually marked with a barrel, a cross, a sun, a half sun or a hand. The sun symbols are probably related to the fact that December 21st, or sometimes December 22nd, is the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year was also called solsnu (it can be translated to something like ‘turning sun’) because in the past they thought the sun was actually turning the other way, making the days lighter again. The symbol of a hand was used because the apostle Thomas was doubting that Christ had risen from the dead after being hung on the cross. He only believed it when he saw and touched his hands with the wounds from the nails.

Drinking horn (T136), unknown origin. Dated to the Medieval period. Brass and horn.

Photo by Åge Hojem, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

According to the Christian traditions, this day is a memorial day for the apostle Thomas, but since this day was so close to the jól celebration and the traditions that they had here in Scandinavia, Tomasmesse became an important day here as well. It was hard to get rid of the ancient traditions that had deep roots here in Scandinavia and also probably huge parts of Northern Europe, so when the Christianity came, they would incorporate some of the old traditions in the new Christian traditions instead of getting rid of them.

Drinking horn (C21841) from Vestum, Larvik. Dated to the Early Iron age. Horn and bronze.

Photo by Kristen Helgeland, Kulturhistorisk museum, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

In Bjarkøyretten, from the 12th century, it was ruled that julefreden – the Christmas peace – started on the day of Tomasmesse, and that it would last for the next three weeks. This fitted well with the traditions of the old culture, and it probably made it easier to accept the new rules for those who would still keep the old traditions. Bjarkøyretten is in old Norwegian law the provisions that applied to the trading places, such as for example marketplaces and fishing villages. The laws of Bjarkøyretten only applied in cities and trading places. Outside the urban areas, the landscape laws applied (Gulatingloven, Frostatingloven, etc).

Drinking horn made of glass (S5650), from Varhaug, Rogaland. Dated to the Migration period.

Photo by Terje Tveit, Arkeologisk museum / Jernaldergården Universitetet i Stavanger, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The jól ale is, as you may have understood by now, older than the Christmas celebration itself, and in Norway there are long traditions with brewing jól ale. In fact, brewing jól ale was so important that, when the Christianity was introduced, they included the brewing of jól ale in the laws. Gulatingloven stated that the beer should be blessed on Christmas eve with thanks to Christ and Saint Mary for a good year and peace. Each farm had to brew beer for Christmas, and there had to be strong beer. The amount of malt to be used had to correspond with the total weight of the husband and wife on the farm. If they were heavy built, Christmas could probably last until Easter. You can read a bit more about the laws around jól ale brewing here.

Drinking horn made of glass (B350) from Sola, Rogaland. Unknown dating.

Photo by Ann-Mari Olsen, Universitetsmuseet i Bergen, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

In Old Norse times, we didn’t celebrate Christmas, or jól as they would call it, in Norway and in Scandinavia – we drank jól. Drinking jól is first mentioned in the text Haraldskvedet from around the year 900. Traditionally, the jól ale should be completed today, on Tomasmesse, after the brewing often started on Anna pissihose. The 12 days, the days between December 9th and December 21st, have therefore often been called “bryggjardøgra” or “bryggjardøgri” because of the brewing period.

The end mount (T27585) of a drinking horn, from Skaun, Trøndelag. Dated to late Viking age. Copper alloy.

Photo by Caroline Fredriksen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Drinking jól often included the Old Norse gods. Drinking horns with jól ale were dedicated to the Norse gods. First they drank Odin’s toast for victory and power to the chieftain or king, then they drank a toast for Njord and Frøy for a good year and peace.

Although it was stated in the laws that you should brew ale before Christmas, the drinking sacrifices would be put an end by the church and king. The church took over the traditions with drinking by accepting that people came together to drink in the name of a Christian saint instead of Odin, Njord and Frøy. The ritual beer drinking was thus so important that the custom lived on in Christian times. The term jól (jul as we call it in Norwegian today) was retained, and not Christmas (Kristmesse), as it is called in other countries.

The end mount (T21080:8) of a drinking horn, from Levanger, Trøndelag. Dated to the Viking age. Copper alloy/ bronze.

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

As mentioned, jól was celebrated from this day, and therefore all preparations had to be completed for Christmas. The jól ale was probably the most important part, but there were other things too to think of. Baking before Christmas was suppose to be done by today. The last thing they normally would make, was lefse. Because of this, the weather on this day would often be called lefsetøvær or lefsetøyra, meaning “lefse mild weather”.

In some places it was said that as the weather is on this day, that is how the weather will be all winter, so note the weather where you are today. The lumberjack, shoemaker and tailor should also have finished their work before today. No more mending, chopping wood or making shoes was allowed from this day.

Store norske leksikon – Bjarkøyretten
Store norske leksikon – Tomasmesse
Collections Online, NTNU

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