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Strange gifts and good wishes in the darkest days of the northern year
This far north, hardly anyone celebrates Christmas.
The festival that is marked on 24th December in Sweden and across the Nordic countries is called Jul (or Joulu in Finnish), the same name which survives around the edges of English celebrations as Yuletide. A midwinter festival bearing this name has been celebrated in northern Europe since before the arrival of Christianity.
What’s in a name, you might wonder? And it’s true that the seasonal trappings are not so different, the content of the festival largely Christianised, even if the Swedish carols do tend to be more about stars and light than shepherds and virgins. Needless to say, all of this has been overwritten by a century or more of consumerism, here as everywhere. Still, there are layers to this story which may reward attention.
Sweden is often singled out as the world’s most godless country. As the artist Robert Brečević put it to me in The Crossing of Two Lines, it has become ‘the kind of radically secular society that the ideologically atheist states of the former Eastern Bloc proclaimed without achieving.’ How did this come about? Part of the story must lie in the 20th-century attempt by Social Democrats to to ‘de-Christianise the church through its connection with the state’, aiming to transform it into a vehicle for ‘an atheistic general religiosity’.1
Get back behind that and you find the tight fusion of state and church which emerged from the Swedish Reformation, resembling a prototype for the surveillance society: starting in the late 17th century, local priests maintained detailed records on every household in the country, including communion attendance and annual examinations on the catechism, but also providing the basis for the collection of taxes and the enlistment of men for military service. If you wanted to kill off whatever spiritual life might inhabit the bones of a religious tradition, then making use of it to construct and police the iron cage of modernity seems a sure way to do so. (And yet, the life of the spirit is hard to kill, so do not be surprised if it resurfaces when and where you least expect.)
Coming back to the name of the season, though, I wonder if there is another, older layer to this story. In my mid-twenties, I spent half a year teaching and travelling in Central Asia. You only learn so much, travelling in a place where you don’t speak the language, but I came away with the impression that Islam had settled as a light surface weave over the older cultural traditions of that part of the world. Later, as I started to get to know the Nordic countries, here and there I would get a sense of an older set of relationships lying close to the surface. Something wild and direct that was only ever nominally baptised.
I’ve experienced this as an intuition, rather than anything I could offer as evidence, but now and then I hear a story or read a book that reinforces the intuition. There’s the chapter on ‘Seeing the Vätt’ in Andrew Brown’s wonderful book, Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared, or the story that Martín Prechtel tells in The Unlikely Peace at Cuchamaquic of how the Volga Finns ‘went on clandestinely feeding the Holy in pantries and groves’ under the noses of the Lutheran and Orthodox missionaries, until Soviet collectivisation and deportations finally crushed their Indigenous culture.
These are among the stories I find myself carrying, here in the darkest days of the northern year. Strange gifts, I realise, but then I was always cast as the third wise man in the school Nativity play: Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Spreads an air of gathering gloom.
I don’t know how it works elsewhere, but in our family, the seasonal traditions travel down the maternal line. Anna’s mother is Finnish, and so last night we were peeling boiled potatoes, still scalding hot, then mincing them and blending in a little flour. The mixture sits overnight, then you add milk and salt and a few nobs of butter, bake for three or four hours, and you have perunalaatikko – potato box! – the staple of a Finnish Yule. It’s the food of a peasant feast; after my first December here I joked that Finnish Christmas dinner was ‘potato with potato with potato’! (Not true, there’s also turnip box and carrot box.) But some pagan alchemy takes place during the night that releases a magical sweetness and the result is truly delicious.
There are other Finnish traditions that I wouldn’t be without. Luumukräämi, for one: the plum cream that is served as a dessert, a pleasure to eat, but also a rather sensible aid to the digestion. But before we get to any of that, there’s the custom that marks the threshold, the moment when you know it’s Yule: the proclamation of the Joulurauha. Just as, in my childhood, we would interrupt proceedings at 3 o’clock on Christmas Day to tune in to the Queen’s Speech, so we gather around the TV at noon on Christmas Eve for an outside broadcast from the Old Great Square in Turku where a representative of the city authorities reads out the traditional text of the Yuletide Peace: the hearers are enjoined to observe a peaceful Christmas and reminded that any crimes committed during this holy time will be subject to harsher punishment.
When it was first proclaimed, in Sweden in the 13th century, this meant the ordinary fine for murder or manslaughter was raised for the following twenty days – from 26.7 marks to 29.7 marks, with the difference being paid to the bishop. Today, more than two centuries after the country ceased to be under Swedish rule, it is only in Finland that the custom of proclaiming the peace survives. But it belongs to a wider medieval tradition – in this case, a distinctly Christian one.
The Peace and Truce of God movement began as a wave of grassroots resistance to feuding and warlordism in France in the tenth century. Its demands and its appeal to spiritual authority were taken up by the bishops and the movement took on more institutional forms, but it has a claim to have been the first popular peace movement in European history.2 The institution of the Yuletide Peace in Swedish territories reflects the northward spread of these attempts at placing bounds on violence, when it came to holy times and places. Though the channelling of violence in Christendom during those centuries also took the form of the Crusades.
Cultural memory runs deep. Six centuries after 1066, at the time of the English Civil War, the appeal to resist the Norman Yoke remained potent. Reading about the 10th-century origins of the Peace and Truce of God, I can’t help thinking of the Christmas truce that broke out up and down the trenches of the Western Front in 1914. Perhaps cultural memory is not quite the right frame here; perhaps it’s something more like ‘the field’, in the sense in which Carol Sanford speaks of fields as ‘organized patterns of energy that influence and respond to the quality of activity occurring within a system’?3
This line of thought is running off the edge of the map, I know, but it’s the pattern that’s been running within me, these past few days. What kind of a truce is to be wished for, this Yuletide, aside from the obvious wish for an end to war in Ukraine and all the less publicised frontlines where fire has been exchanged in 2022? What kinds of unlikely peace might be worth working for in 2023?
It’s hardly a secret that I grew up around churches. It’s also the case that, for most years of my adult life, I’ve felt little cause or calling to talk about God or gods or any of what such language might draw our attention towards.
Looking towards 2023, I have a sense that it’s going to be a different kind of year. Like it or not, there’s a gravitational pull towards this ground, and I can see that I am going to have to write about it. Not because I have a developed set of thoughts and beliefs that I have been keeping carefully out of view, but because it is time to wrestle with my puzzlement more openly.
What brought this to the front of my mind in recent days – what set me thinking about the Yuletide Peace and the Christmas truce – is a project that Anna and I have taken on over the next half year. We are curating a process that will culminate in a gathering in June on Patmos, ‘the island of the Apocalypse’, and our collaborators in this undertaking include a couple of my favourite Christians – the storytellerand Elizabeth Oldfield, host of The Sacred podcast – as well as one of my favourite non-Christians, the druid and 'theorist of the sacred and the political' . I’ll tell you more about this adventure as we go along. The focus of the gathering is not on religion, but all the same, the significance of going to this place with this combination of people came home to me in recent days, with the recognition that what some of us approach as a holy site will be for others more like returning to the scene of the crime. As Rhyd put it to me, 'It’s where the bloody war was first declared against idolatrous, degenerate, fornicating pagans like myself.'
Peace on Earth! the angels sang in the carols I grew up singing. What would that even mean, I wonder now? ‘Peace is not merely the absence of war,’ as Einstein may have said. Peace is more than being nice to each other, or pretending we are all really saying the same thing in different words. ‘I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,’ said the man whose birth the angels sang for. One of his more troubling lines.
Maybe the work of peace can look like staying with the trouble. Getting into the right kind of trouble. Being willing to cause the right kind of trouble. Those are among the thoughts that I am carrying with me on the journey to Patmos.
Meanwhile, the last batch of potato box is out of the oven. My son has packed an unfeasible number of cuddly toys for the three-day visit to his grandparents. I don’t have a glass of anything festive to hand right now, but you can picture me raising a toast to you all.
Good will to all and to all a God Jul!
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These striking quotes come from Arthur Engberg, the Social Democratic minister for ecclesiastical affairs in the 1930s. See Per Ewert, ‘Reformation turning secular: How Social democracy and a strong Lutheran state church made Sweden the most secular nation in the world’.
See Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe (2009).
Carol Sandford, The Regenerative Life (2020).