Lesson #329: Burn the Yule Goat

I love random traditions, mostly because they encourage fun.  My undergraduate school had a Friday every spring where the administration rang the chapel bells at ten to signal the cancellation of classes and brought in carnival games and rides and pig races to encourage us to “get into” our college.* There’s a university in the midwest that spectates a basketball game in complete silence until their team scores 10 points and then it’s a student body/boosters dance party on the court for a few minutes. A village in Scotland plays a new year’s ballgame that doesn’t exist anywhere else.** And in Gävle, Sweden, they burn a 40-foot yule goat to the ground. Half the time.

The yule goat isn’t meant to be burned, but roughly half (26 or 28, depending on what you read) of the 57 total goats, which are built of straw, have been torched. One was hit by a car. Five more were vandalized. One was subject to a botched theft-by-helicopter attempt.

The first Gävle goat was erected in 1966, and, despite the frequent incineration, there has been a giant yule goat in Gävle every  year since, with the exceptions of 1973, 1975, and 1977.

The yule goat is one of the oldest Scandinavian Christmas traditions, but its roots — and purpose — are somewhat hard to nail down. It’s likely origin is paganism — either Germanic or from the Norse God, Thor, whose sky chariot was drawn by a pair of goats. The yule goat’s purpose has changed drastically over the centuries. It was at one time an animal that traveled with carolers and demanded gifts at people’s homes. And it has been a figure to be hidden in one’s neighbour’s house without their noticing. And it has been a giver of gifts. These days, it’s mostly a tree ornament.

But it’s also a 40-foot straw figure in the centre of Gävle that often ends up a pile of ash before the new year.

As of this writing, the 2013 yule goat is unscathed; firemen doused it in fire-retardant chemicals before its December 1st unveiling.

For more information see here, here, and here.

*It was colloquially known as “get intoxicated.” It was also meant to be a surprise, but everyone always knew when it was going to be because it was a small school and everyone knew someone who sat in student government.

**The history of that game is cool. I thought I’d written about it here before, but it seems I didn’t. That’s a failure on my part. There’s a very, very good article about it here that you should take the time to read.


Lesson #328: The Huron Carol

I mentioned in my last lesson that The Huron Carol is my favourite Christmas carol ever. Until just now, this was both true and untrue. Musically, I love it. But historically speaking, I had a bit of a hard time with it in that it’s a blatant attempt to subvert the native culture and religion and replace it with the western ideal of Christianity. But at the same time, it exists in three languages (English, French, and the Huron language of Wendat). So I was torn…

The Huron Carol is Canada’s — and, by extension, North America’s — oldest Christmas carol. Its lyrics were written in Wendat in 1642 or 1643 by the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf,* and are set to an adaptation of the traditional French tune of “Une jeune pucelle,”** (1557), which is itself an alteration of a slightly earlier folk song, “Une jeune fillette.” 

Until 1926, there were no English lyrics to this carol, which I actually find very, very interesting. How did it take nearly 300 years to record this? And…it turns out that the English version of the lyrics that are at the root of my “subversion of the Huron culture” qualms about this hymn aren’t even remotely close to the literal translation from the Wendat. The literal translation are far less “ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOUR!” than the lyrics I know. Which makes me happy.*** I can (mostly) appreciate that the missionaries who were immersed in the culture were able to compose lyrics that maintained a connection with the culture the Hurons knew while simultaneously weaving in the Christian narrative we all know. It’s an impressive skill to have, being able to merge cultures without seeming like a condescending douche.

Musically, I find the piece interesting in that it’s not interesting at all; its range is only an octave. I imagine it’s the simplicity that attracts me, and I find that kind of funny given my great love of Wagner. It amuses me that I can simultaneously have a deep love something as simple as this carol and something as complex as Wagner, but I suppose those two things are ingrained in different parts of my psyche. It’s okay for Christmas to be simple, but opera is much less forgiving.

For more information, see here, here (this link has the literal translation of the Wendat lyrics), here, and here.

*who is, incidentally, one of the eight Canadian martyrs. That there are eight Canadian martyrs — all of whom were Jesuits working among the Huron who were tortured and killed by the Iroquois in the Huron-Iroquois war in the mid 17th century — is a piece of information I’ve been carrying in my pocket for ages. It is one of the literal handful of parts of my poor grasp of Canadian history. But I can’t tell you why I know anything about the Huron-Iroquois war at all. I probably picked up a thread of related information years ago and followed it until I wound up with a relatively deep knowledge thereof. That seems like my style. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to name you someone I know other than my mother — with whom I like to share random information because I didn’t just wake up one day with a thirst for random knowledge — who knows that there ever was a war between the Huron and the Iroquois.

**There’s a recording here.

***I grew up Anglican, and Anglicans are poor prosthelytizers. For more on this, see Eddie Izzard’s brilliant take on Anglicanism. Bonus points to Izzard for addressing the fact that the Anglicans are part of the Catholic church, not the Protestant movement. When this routine was released, I was 19 or 20 and just out from under living with my parents — and therefore being forced to attend church — and his take on “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” had me howling. Cake or death is phenomenal. The whole routine is gold, but the religious aspects are absolutely brilliant.

Lesson #293: Paid Vacation Days

Autobiographical note: I have never held a job that offered paid federal holidays. In fairness, I spent four years working in baseball — and three years living abroad — and three to four of those holidays fall over the baseball season, which doesn’t care at all about whether a day is a federal holiday. Or a weekend, for that matter. My first season, we had a 20-game home stand. I thought I knew what long days were until I worked 16-21 hour days for 20 straight days. 

Randomly, and outside of any conversation with The Swede, today I learned that Sweden is second — behind Brazil — in the world in paid vacation/holidays with 41 days. All Swedes (or at least those working in Sweden and non-Swedes doing the same) are given five weeks of paid vacation and 16 state holidays. Of those five weeks of paid vacation, they are entitled to take four of them consecutively between June and August. Not only that, but vacation days can be rolled over for up to five years.

By contrast, by federal law, employers in the United States are not legally bound to provide any paid vacation or federal holidays. Awesome.*

*All of this information (and information on most of the Western World) can be read here.

Lesson #181: Canada Day

Today is my country’s 143rd birthday. Yay!

Canada Day celebrates the enactment of the British North America Act, which, on 1 July 1867, united the two British North American territories of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (which they stole from the French about 100 years prior in Le Grand Derangement — see my lesson on the Acadians) and the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada into one big dominion of Canada.*

The holiday became a statutory holiday in 1879 and was called Dominion Day until 1982, which, not coincidentally, was when the Canada Act was signed.

As a side note, apparently Quebec has its own holiday on 24 June.**

*Minus Newfoundland, which wasn’t a province until 1949.

**More information here and here.

Lesson #121: National Tartan Day

It’s a shame I’m just learning this now. I could have sent cards to my mother and grandmother (though technically speaking, she’s not the Scottish one).

Apparently, April 6 is National Tartan Day in the US. It is designed to celebrate the role the Scottish immigrants and their descendants have played in the shaping of America.

Anyway, you can read more about it on the official website.

Autobiographical note: I’ve just now learned the motto of my mother’s family…it’s In Ardua Tendit, meaning “he has attempted difficult things.” I find that wildly appropriate for that side of my family.

Lesson #119: Tu B’Shvat

I was having a conversation with a Jewish friend of mine today when the subject of Tu B’Shvat came up and I just kind of stared blankly. I went to school with a disproportionately high number of Jews (and took a bunch of Judaic Studies courses in my second and third years of college), so I have a fairly good grasp of Judaism, but this was new to me.

It turns out that Tu B’Shvat is a minor Jewish holiday celebrating the new year of the trees that takes place at the end of January or beginning of February. It is traditionally celebrated by eating dried fruits and nuts and planting trees. Tu B’Shvat is one of four new years days mentioned in the Talmud, along with the new year for kings and festivals, the new year for animal tithes and the new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees.*

*For more reading about Tu B’Shvat and the breakdown of the new year’s days in the Jewish tradition, see here.

Lesson #101: Easter Rocket Wars

Every year on the small Greek island of Chios (pop. about 51,000), two “rival” churches in the town of Vrodandos have a rocket war during Easter mass. The goal is to hit the opposing church’s bell tower with one of the 25,000 fireworks while the priest continues to say mass.

The rockets are made, illegally, by the town’s residents over the course of the year, though the police turn a blind eye to the process (presumably because it’s a longstanding tradition). The story behind the tradition is unclear, however it may be a link to the island’s days of fighting off pirates in which cannons were shot off at Easter. When the Ottomans removed the cannons in the late 19th century for fear of an uprising, residents started making rockets.*

*Read about it here. Watch it here.