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Arland Fiske: The “Primstav” — old Norse calendar

I had to visit Haakon’s Hall (Haakonshallen), a medieval castle in Bergen, to learn why my father always had his corn planted by May 15.

The most fascinating part of the visit was to see a woolen tapestry 80 feet long and 42 inches wide. Sigrun Berg completed it in 1961. Normally it is hanging across the length of the wall where kings used to dine. But it had been taken down for cleaning and placed over long tables, so I was able to study it with some care.

This tapestry is a “Primstav,” normally made of wood and found hanging in the entrance of a home. The wood probably derives from the Latin “Primatio Lunae,” referring to the new Moon. This wooden calendar, also called a “clog almanac,” was the way people kept track of times in the old days. There was a notch for each day.

The Primstav is laid out horizontally to show the two seasons; summer that began on April 14 along one edge of the board and winter beginning October 14 on the other side. There was a mid-summer day and a mid-winter day, but no spring and fall as we divide the seasons. When people finished one season, they flip the board over.

Originally, the Primstav gave weather forecasts. Planting and harvesting dates, pasturing dates for the cattle, moving dates, to tell when the fish will bite and such things that are found in the Farmer’s Almanac. Community life in Norway was organized around such dates. When Christianity came to Norway in the early 11th century, 37 new dates were added to the calendar. Religious emphasis was given to the dates from nature. The Christian holy days usually remembered martyrs, the Virgin Mary, Christ or the Apostles.

Each holy day is marked by a symbol. April 14, “Summer Day,” is a tree filled with leaves, telling people to get ready for planting. It was also moving day for hired help. If it snowed on this day, it would snow nine times before full summer came. October 14, “Winter Day,” has a mitten, showing that winter clothes should betaken out and put in order.

The most celebrated of the summer days is John the Baptist’s birthday, June 24. Fires are lit everywhere on the hillsides on the eve of this holiday to protect people and animals against witches and evil spirits. They still burn fires on the mountainsides on this night. I have seen them. The cows were taken to the seters (“outfarms”). If it rained, then it would be wet during harvest. The calendar symbol is a church building.

August 10 was the last day for putting up hay or it would be worthless as winter fodder. By September 14, Holy Cross day, all crops were to be in the barns for a blessing and cattle were turned loose to graze. Anyone who did not keep the holy days was fined.

When living in Minnesota, I had been waiting for some winter day when there is a snowstorm and the phone doesn’t ring when I can make a Primstav for my home. Maybe there is more wisdom in it than modern people think.

Now another of my childhood mysteries has been explained. I’m quite certain that my father did not know the origin of his beliefs that corn had to be planted by May 15 or it would ripen. We didn’t have a Primstav in our home. But he followed its advice, and our cattle and hogs always had their winter-feeding.

Next Week: Flying with the Scandinavian Air System

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.

Matt Cory

Matt Cory is the Editor of the Pioneer. Cory grew up in East Grand Forks and is a graduate of the University of North Dakota. He worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor at the Grand Forks Herald from 1993 to 2013, when he joined the Pioneer as Editor.

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