Christmas, that hap, happiest time of the year, has a somewhat malign reputation in folklore. Over at Mrs Daffodil Digresses, I wrote of the sinister talents of “The Christmas Eve Child.” Persons born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day may be doomed to sorrow, have the Evil Eye, or become vampires. Such birthdays are a real curse, especially since the Christmas birthday child rarely gets two sets of presents.
Christmas is also a time when evil might gain ascendency, creating vampires and allowing spirits to walk abroad. “The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went,” Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol. In Norway too, Christmas was fraught with danger. Here are two stories of the perils that can face those who meet the Oskorei and the Haug-folk at Christmas.
The Oskorei Fear the Cross.
There is in the inlands of Norway a distinct cycle of legends about “the terrible host,” Oskoreien or Jolereien. The latter name indicates that the host is particularly dangerous around Christmas time. In the coastal district of Norway the host appears like a group of restless souls of the dead (see Introduction, pp. xxxii). Legends about such spirits of the air exist in various parts of the world. Theories have been proposed connecting “the terrible host” with the followers of Indo-European gods, such as Rudra in India and Odin in Scandinavia. The legend given here was collected by the Reverend M.. Landstad in Telemark in the 1840’s and printed in Norsk Folkeminnelag, XIII (1926), 10-11.
A man from Natadal had been over in Hjartdal, the neighboring parish, and it so happened that it was late in the afternoon when he started for home. By the time he had come to a valley farther up the sun had set, and when he had come up on the mountain at Valler, on his way toward a valley farther in, it was the quietest sort of the summer night, and not a single bird was chirping any longer. As he walked there, he heard a terrible commotion. He turned around to see what it was and knew it was the oskorei (evil spirits) who were rushing along. Bridles jingled and weapons clinked, and he heard them quarrelling among themselves. The oskorei wanted food, and the leader—Guro Rysserova—said they would have teo wait until they came to Natadal. There they would eat their fill, for there they would find “Friday-baked bread and Sunday-raked hay!”
When the Natadal man heard this, he did not feel any too comfortable for they were talking about his own stabbur (store-house) and barn. But the oskorei were so close behind him that there was no chance of running away. He ran off the road a little way and, flinging himself down in the grass on his back, he stretched his arms straight out on each side so that he was lying there in the form of a cross.
When the host of oskorei came up, they stopped, and Guro shrieked, “Uff! Look at that cross!”
Then they dared not ride past him, but went a long way around. When the man understood this, he jumped up and took to his heels as fast as he could. He had a slight head start and hurried home. He managed to make the sign of a cross above the wicket in the road down to the farm and on all the doors. In this way he fooled the oskorei , which dared not ride in to the farm.
In the old days people believed that on Friday, which was a day of fast, no work must be done in which a swinging or rolling movement was involved. Thus they could not bake oatcakes. And it was a sin to work on Sunday. Then the evil powers had the right to take the fruits of this labor. But they were always powerless against the sign of the cross.
On Dalen farm in Kvitseid, the oskorei came several times. Once they unsaddled their spirit horses there and threw the saddles on the roof. Then misfortune followed: there were seven murders on the farm, and there was never peace to be had at night. There was always a disturbance and a commotion, and the front door would never stay shut no matter how they locked it. Once, at Christmas time, the people from Dalen were invited to a feast at Hvestad. There was no one home and the doors were locked, but the food stood on the table as was the custom at Christmas. When the people came home a few days later, they could see that the oskorei had been there. They had drunk up the Christmas ale and eaten heartily of the Christmas fare. But worst of all, a dead man was hanging from the pothook over the hearth. By his clothes they could tell he was from Numedal, a valley to the east, and he had silver buttons on his vest. The oskorei had probably taken him along over in Numedal and had ridden so hard that it had killed him.
Folktales of Norway, Reidar Christiansen, pp. 75-6
I don’t know about you, but for me that last bit about the dead man was a genuine shocker. Did they bring him down the chimney and he got caught on the pot-hook or is there the implication they were about to roast him for dinner?
The detail about the saddles thrown on the roof causing the house to become infested with what sounds like a poltergeist perhaps echoes the idea of bewitched bridles used to turn humans to horses for witches to ride. I’ve read elsewhere that saddles and tack were stored on the roofs of the Norse turf buildings to keep them from being gnawed by predators, but I do not know if this is true.
Was the food set out at Christmas a gesture of hospitality for travelers or was it the same custom mentioned in Barbara Rieti’s Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland, where food is left for the dead or the fairies to eat on Christmas Eve? And is this where the custom of leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus arose?
The second story is a fairy abduction story with, unusually, something of a happy ending.
The Girl Who Was Taken
This tale was collected by O.K. Odegaard in Valdres (eastern Norway) before 1913. It is printed in O.K. Odegaard, Gamal Tru og Gamal Skjikk ifraa Valdres, p. 103
Tradition has given the girl in this story of the name of Guro, which is generally associated with the leader of “the terrible host.” The members of the host are in this tale called haug-folk (the people of the mounds) since legend tellers tend to call different supernatural beings by the same generalized names.
Guro Ljoseng went out to the stabbur for bread one Imber evening [one of the three evenings before Christmas]. She did not come in again, and for all they searched, no trace of her did they find. Then it occurred to them that she could have been taken into a mountain, and so they were given permission to ring the church bells to get her out again. They rang for three days. But the ringing did not help, and so they stopped, because they knew that the ones who had taken her would not let her out again.
At Hansebu, at that time, there lived some spry fellows. They were called The “Hansebu Boys.” One of them, ol’ Jacob—Hanse-Jacob he was called—got drunk one Imber evening. Then he started bragging loudly and showing off. Among other things, he swore that there was no such thing as haug-folk!
Ol’ Fosse sat listening to this, and became angry at such nonsense and said, “You’d better be careful about saying things like that, Jacob. If you dare to lie down by Ljoseng wicket tonight, it just might happen that you’ll get to see what you least expect!” There’s a fork there, a crossroads, and it’s just at such crossroads that one can see haug-folk on an Imber evening.
“Well,” said Jacob, “I’m not afraid to do that!” Ad later on that evening, just at midnight, he wandered up to Ljoseng wicket and lay down full length in the snow by the fork, and then he stretched out his arms so he looked like a cross. He had not been lying there long when a great company came riding up. First rode a huge, blue-clad man on a splendid black horse. He had a nose so long that it reached all the way down to the pommel of the saddle, and his legs were so long that they all but dangled down on the road. All the others had splendid horses too, and fine saddles and bridles, and halters with rings in them, so it almost sounded like they were full of sleigh bells.
When the first rider saw Jacob, he said, “Ow! There lies a cross!” And all the others said the same thing too when they saw Jacob. But last in the company rode a woman, and when she laid eyes on Jacob she said, “That’s no cross! That’s just ol’ Hanse-Jacob!” Then he recognized her; it was Guro Ljoseng. He asked her why she had stayed away so long, and how she had come to be in such company. “Things have gone well with me,” she said. “My husband is Tostein Langbein, who’s riding first. He took me up on his horse on Imber evening, when I went out to the stabbur for bread, and rode with me to a hill by Okshoved in Slidre. It was good they stopped ringing. When they did, I’d come all the way down by the fence at Ljoseng. If they’d kept it up just a little longer, I would have come home, but then I would not have had a day’s good health since. Now I’m Tostein’s woman and live as well off as if it was Christmas all the time!”
Hanse-Jacob looked at her, and she had on fine clothes all the way down to her feet, but around her feet she had bound some rags. Then he asked why that was. That, she said, was because her people had given all her clothes away to beggars, but not the shoes. She asked Jacob to tell her folks that they had to give away the shoes too; then she’d get good shoes on her feet, she said. Now she was on her way to Ryseberg to a feast; and away they rode.
But since that time, ol’ Hanse-Jacob was not so skeptical when there was talk of haug-folk!
Folktales of Norway, Reidar Christiansen pp. 77-78
In the story of the woman abducted by the haug-folk, we see motifs also found in the fairy- and folklore of Ireland: the worlds of the dead and of fairy are interchangeable: the fairies live in burial mounds; the dead live in fairy-land. There is also an Irish belief that if you give a pair of shoes to the poor in honor of one who has died, that person will have shoes in the afterlife/purgatory, where solid footwear was essential. It may even harken back to the Greek story of the man who was plagued by his dead wife because one of her sandals had fallen from the funeral pyre and was not consumed. Burning the shoe (along with a whole new wardrobe) placated the clothes-conscious spirit.
It is curious that Guro Ljoseng says that she was drawn by the bells, but would never have been healthy if brought back from haug-folk land. When human babies are returned by the fairies, they are almost always happy and healthy; some were even healed by their fairy fosterers. What would be different about a return of an adult?
But I have wandered far from the perils of the Norwegian Christmas season. If we take anything away from these tales, let it be this useful message: like vampires, fairies and Wild Huntsmen fear the cross. No need to carry one when it’s every man his own crucifix. Remember that if you find yourself in Norway at Christmas.
Modern tales of haug-folk, who have much in common with the Icelandic huldufólk? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.