Christmas stalks, market day and beer: In the old days Tomas Day, December 21, was an important way station on the way to the Christmas holiday itself.
Tomas Day, named after the apostle that had the hardest time to believe in the resurrection. He is the sceptic in religious cultural tradition, sometimes referred to as Tomas the sceptic or Tomas the doubter (Tomas tvivlaren in Swedish).
Historically this day was significant for people in all of the Nordic countries in different ways. This was the day you should cancel contracts with day croppers and tenants according to law. It was a day when all preparations for Christmas should be finished and a traditional market day. Indeed, in many places people really considered that day the real beginning of the holidays. Up until 1776 the day was also a general holiday.
December 21, Tomas Day was also the time to put up the Christmas stalks. In large sections of the country gateposts and porticos were decorated with evergreen trees which have the twigs taken off so only the top tufts remain. This custom is described in both Olof Rudbeck's Atlantica and in Carl Linnaeus' Dalaresan, the Dalecarlia Journey. The custom has also been common in the Swedish settlements in Finland.
In some villages it happened that people, with the aldermen at the head, went from estate to estate and put up the stalks. It meant, however, that these were strong, stable types of men who were engaged for the purpose for at every place they were offered food, beer and schnapps. And that meant to go through the entire village they needed stamina. On the rune calendar the sign of the day was often two crossed Christmas stalks. The origin of this custom is certainly to be found in the general wish to decorate with greenery in some form for the holidays. This is a continuous theme throughout the Swedish year; for Easter, Walpurgis, Midsummer and the fall’s Crayfish, Eel or fermented herring parties (all, except for crayfish, regional.
Testing the Beer Tomas Day was also the day the beer was ready. It had been tested the first time on Anna's Day, so it was drunk happily to Tomas. This could also be marked on the calendars, in the form of a jug or a barrel. On Gotland one spoke of Tomas “fylletunne.” (Tomas, the drunk).
For the most part all the hard work was now finished and in many places there was talk of the holiday peace and quiet. In Småland among other places, there are many accounts of millers who tried to grind meal on Thomas eve. As a rule, an elf turned up, who sat on the wheel stock or stuck something in the pinion. That was strong advice that one should not grind further until after Christmas.
It was not quiet and peaceful, however, since Tomas was also a regular day for markets. This was the time when everyone would buy what had not prepared by oneself for the holiday.
It is dark but for the lightning presence of the snow, parts of Sweden hasn't seen the sun for weeks. Preparations are in full swing, Christmas draws closer. Photo from the church village and Christmas market place in Luleå Old Town. Photography: Pär Domeij