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 #152: The 34th Anniversary

My parents are celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary today, which is pretty awesome mostly for the fact that I can’t imagine liking anyone enough to put up with them on an 8 week trip across a country (as they did just after they were married and as the devastatingly gorgeous Dutch guy I met in Wadi Rum is undertaking with his girlfriend on the Trans-Siberian Railroad next month), nevermind staying with them for 34 years.

Anyway, there is no traditional gift for a 34th anniversary, you know, because 34 is a really arbitrary number, but in modernity, the gift associated with the 34th anniversary is opal.

Congrats Mom and Dad!

Lesson #133: How to Behave at the Western Wall

I had been warned, by an old friend who happens to be a Jew, that I should be prepared to tour the Old City in long pants and sleeves that covered my elbows. For the sake of modesty, he told me, especially since I was going to be visiting the Western Wall, which is THE most sacred place in modern Judaism. I had been prepared for that aspect since my friend in Jerusalem is, for all her being a graduate of our college, more on the conservative end of Judaism than not, especially as regards her dress.

I was, therefore, unprepared to see tourists in short skirts and tank tops. There is actually a security gate through which you must pass where all your stuff gets x-rayed and you are sent through a metal detector — which happens pretty much every time you go anywhere where there are large numbers of people in an enclosed space — where there’s a sign posted with the basic rules of attendance. I find that somewhat odd. One would think that anyone making the effort to go somewhere that’s particularly holy, said people would know how to behave, whether or not they subscribe to that religion or not. I’m no more likely to play football at the Western Wall than I am to do it in a cathedral somewhere.

Anyway, where I was really going with this was that I learned that when you are finished with your prayers (or in my case, delivering a message to the wall for the aforementioned old friend), you’re supposed to back away from it. It’s something you catch quickly from observation and then just repeat. Once we had backed ourselves up, I asked my friend why that’s the approach and the answer is actually quite simple. You back away because you’re not supposed to turn your back on God.

Lesson #114: Crossing One’s Fingers

I was talking to one of my Swedish friends today and the subject of crossing fingers came up. He said that the only thing it means in Sweden is broken promises…the way we used it when we were kids at school. It doesn’t mean to wish for something.

According to various websites that are in no way reputable sources, the tradition of crossing one’s fingers comes from the European, pre-Christian belief that benign spirits lived at the intersection of the two parts of the cross. Therefore wishing on a cross was a way of holding the wish until it came true. Originally, this wishing required two people crossing index fingers to form the cross, but over time the tradition has evolved to the way we know today of wrapping the index finger around the middle finger.* Or, apparently, the middle finger over the index finger, but to me that just looks weird.

As a side note, according to my Russian physicist friend, in Germany (where he lives) instead of crossing their fingers, they press their thumbs.

*I can do this really well on my left hand, but for some reason, the index joint on my right hand is so inflexible, that an attempt to cross the fingers of my right hand ends hilariously with my index finger just lying on top of my middle finger.

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.

An Addendum to Lesson #3: The Specifics of the Orthodox Wedding

What follows is text from an email my cousin (who is getting married in the Orthodox Church a month from Thursday) sent out today:

“The Russian Orthodox wedding service (almost all of which will be in English!) is a little different than the one we’re all used to.  First of all, it is a very set order of service, with flexibility being primarily in the music arrangements chosen.

Fiance added to our website a bunch of info about various parts of the service.  For example, we get to wear crowns!  Also, a formal betrothal ceremony actually takes place in the doorway, which is where rings are exchanged.  Fiance and I move to the centre of the church only after this first part.  There will be programs.

I did want to prepare you for an additional thing…There are pews around the outsides, but primarily everyone stands. I think Mom has already spoken to many of you about this, but don’t be afraid to sit. While the order of service is inflexible, everything else is extremely flexible. Don’t be afraid to wander around, take pictures, get a different view, etc. Except for when the gospel is read, there will probably be people (especially kids) moving and it is completely fine. Don’t feel like you have to be anchored to the floor. Only place off limits is the centre of the big red stairs at the front. No one will go up there except the people wearing the funny robes. :)

On that note, there will be three priests, and possibly a deacon serving.  The reason being that many of Fiance’s extended family members are clergy.  (In orthodox church you can be a monk-priest, or you can be married with children.)  Fiance’s uncle is the priest at this church.

I attached a picture of the inside of the church so you can see what it looks like.  It’s very different.  Fiance and I will be standing where the tub is, which is actually the centre of the church (a big t-shape).

If you have any questions, please ask! Mom, Dad, Brother and I can field appropriately. I know it could be a little weird with the standing, etc. I just want to make sure you all know you should feel comfortable doing whatever you need to do.

See you soon!”

Lesson #81: Jack o’ Lanterns

Yes, I am aware that Halloween is not for another 8 months. But I saw this picture today and it cracked me up. Because I’m twisted like that.

The thing I love about things like jack o’ lanterns is that they have a legend attached to them. It’s not like someone just one day decided that it would be cool. And while you might think that the tradition is an American one (since pumpkins are native to the new world*), you’d be wrong.

The jack o’ lantern tradition comes from the British Isles where the Irish and Scots traditionally used turnips or potatoes and the English used beets to ward off evil spirits. And Jack of the Lantern.

Specifically, the legend is Irish and it tells the story of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack tricked the devil. Twice. Apparently the devil’s an idiot in Irish folklore. Anyway, the story goes that Jack invited the devil to share a drink with him. Not wanting to pay the bill, he talked the devil into turning himself into money so he could pay the bill, which the devil did. But instead of paying the bill, Stingy Jack kept the coin and put it in his pocket next to a silver cross to prevent the devil from changing back into whatever form it is the devil shows himself in normally. After a while, Jack decided to let the devil out on the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year and that if he died, the devil wouldn’t claim his soul. After a year, the devil shows up (for kicks apparently) and gets duped again in the same way.** Anyway, this time Jack tricks him into turning into a fruit and putting himself on a tree, which Jack then carves a cross into. So after a while, Jack lets him out again on the condition that he not bother Jack for ten years and should he die, his soul would remain unclaimed. Soon after Jack and the devil make this deal, Jack dies, but since he’s not exactly an upstanding citizen, he can’t get into heaven. But the devil can’t claim him either. Instead the devil gives him a handful of coal to light up the night and sends him on his way. So Jack carves a lamp out of a turnip and wanders off into the night. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since.***

*Which explains why I couldn’t find any pumpkin with which to make pie last fall.

**Like I said, the devil’s not too smart in Irish folklore.

***More reading here.