Christmas seems like ages ago now doesn’t it? If you celebrated all twelve days of it, then it ended at Epiphany last week. People in some parts of Sweden and Finland are still going though. And who can blame them? Their dark winter nights are much longer than ours, so they deserve an extra week.
Today is Saint Knut’s Day, the twentieth and last day of Yule. The day is named for Canute Lavard, a prince of Denmark who was murdered in 1131. Oddly, the festival is not part of Danish culture at all, so there’s clearly something else going on here. Over the last month or so I’ve become rather interested in unusual Christmas visitors, and in Finland, on January 13th, you can expect a visit from the Nuuttipukki. It sounds as though it might have something to do with a person called Knut, but it is often translated as New Year Goat. The ‘pukki’ part of the word may be derived from the word ‘buck’, which can mean a male goat, or the old Norse ‘puki’ a devil. The Nuuttipukit (plural), although they might now be children taking part in a tradition that is somewhat like trick-or-treating, were once a group of masked men from a neighbouring village dressed in fur coats worn inside out. They wore masks of animal skin or bark and probably had horns as well. Rather than sweets, what they would expect from you was anything you had left over from the festive season, particularly alcohol. They were there to take your Christmas away. So what you have in the Nuuttipukit is a gang of marauding and unidentifiable men, in scary masks, who force their way into your house, and drink all your beer. Awful.
Clearly this has nothing whatsoever to do with a Christian festival and is probably related to something much older. The mid winter celebrations are a time for gathering your family together and this could also include family members no longer with us. At one time, dead relatives would be expected to join the feast too, in spirit at least. It’s good to see family, but no one wants a guest who outstays their welcome. You wouldn’t want a spirit hanging round all year, that would be a nuisance and they would be likely to turn bad. The Nuuttipukki comes into your house and makes a big fuss to scare the spirits away. He wears a mask so that he won’t be recognised by any spirits who might decide to go and bother him instead.
In Sweden Saint Knut’s Day is associated with a tradition called ‘Julgransplundring’, Christmas tree plundering, which has been around since at least the seventeenth century. It is the day that you take down your tree and eat all the nuts, sweets and fruit that you used to decorate it and open all the crackers. The wikipedia entry for Saint Knut’s Day suggests that the Swedes ate the candy and the candles from their tree. Either it is a poorly constructed sentence or times were hard in seventeenth century Sweden. It is also a day for smashing your beautifully constructed gingerbread house and eating it. In the last century, once you had plundered your tree, the thing to do was tip it out of the window. This is now very much frowned upon. The trees have designated dumping areas and are either recycled for heating or saved for a big bonfire on Walpurgis Night at the end of April. Failure to dispose of your tree properly can lead to a fine or even up to a year in prison.
Perhaps this is the last of the Christmas celebrations, perhaps I’ll find another one lurking somewhere, I just don’t know yet. But it’s good to have a festival in which we can all celebrate having made it through the darkest part of the year. Nights that are longer and darker for some people than others, wherever they live. Hopefully we can, in the northern hemisphere at least, start looking forward to Spring soon.