Before electricity Nordic winters were really dark. Here in central Finland I have around five hours of daylight at this darkest time of the year. In the dark evenings folks made handcrafts in dim light and told stories. So, let me tell you a Christmas story. The story is about horses, but if you know a thing about Nordic Christmas or me, you have already guessed that beer must be involved too.
In the Nordics 26th of December is the day of the Saint Stephen (Tapani in Finland). In Finnish folklore Stephen is the guardian of horses. How Stephen became associated with horses is a very convoluted story, but it seems that horses were celebrated around winter solstice already at pagan times, and later on the clergy related horses to St. Stephen.
Anyway, around 26th of December special rituals were performed to ensure luck with horses of the house. For example, this ritual was described in a Finnish court record in 1685:
At dawn men rode horses inside the cottage. Beer that was specially brewed for the end of the year was poured on horses’ head, back and crest. Then the horses were allowed to drink the beer. Finally the men drank from the same tankard as well, and rode out of the cottage and into the ice [of a lake?]
This quote is from Kustaa Vilkuna’s book Vuotuinen ajantieto (on Finnish folklore of calendrical events) published in 1950. Unfortunately the book does not cite the original reference, but Vilkuna was famous ethnographer and I am pretty confident that this is not just a legend. The ritual of riding a horse inside the house at Yuletide was also known elsewhere in Finland. How the story ended up in a court record is not explained either, but in 17th century people were occasionally accused of pagan rituals.
Another way of honouring the guardian of horses was preparing and enjoying a meal at a stable, and washing it down with ale or spirits. For example, Vilkuna mentions a western Finnish custom where “men boiled a rabbit or squirrel at a stable and had it with ale and spirits”. These rituals were strictly men’s affairs.
Also lively sleigh rides were very common on St. Stephen’s day, and nowadays St. Stephen’s ride can be done with a car, if no horse is available.
Now, I will briefly explain what I have been doing lately. During November and December I had to work very hard at my day job as an industrial mathematician and that really drained me. I could not write much. As Yule without ale is no Yule at all, I brewed three raw ales in the early December: sahti, medieval gruit ale and a smoky Norwegian farmhouse ale, stjørdalsøl – three ales on a single eight-hour brew day. With some practice raw ales are really simple to make, and I will certainly advocate this aspect of traditional farmhouse brewing techniques in the future.