Yule Straw

Yule Straw

In Norway, Sweden, Estonia, and Finland decorations made out of straw appear in homes and shops during the Christmas season. These ornaments may represent the remnants of the old custom of sleeping on a straw bed at Christmas time. In Poland and Lithuania people do different things with Yule straw. There they use it to tell fortunes on Christmas Eve.

Straw Beds

In Norway the straw bed can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Medieval Europeans often scattered fresh straw on the floor for special occasions. This may have served to increase cleanliness and decrease odors, especially in dwellings with earthen floors. In Norway all members of a household would sleep on the straw-covered floor instead of in their beds at Christmas time. Several explanations have been offered for this custom. Christian interpretations suggest that the practice represented the pious desire that rich and poor should share the same conditions at Christmas time. Moreover, the custom reminded one of the only kind of bed that the Holy Family could find on the night Jesus was born. Medieval records contain complaints about the loose behavior of some of those practicing this pious custom, however. Other authors suggest that the custom survived from pagan fertility rituals. Still others connect it with old folk beliefs concerning Christmas ghosts. Belief in the seasonal appearance of the dead may itself date back to pagan Yule celebrations.

Whatever its origin, the belief in the yearly reappearance of the dead lived on until the nineteenth century in Norway. According to this belief, the ghosts of one's ancestors and others associated with the homestead returned during the Christmas season. Folk traditions warned of the actions unhappy ghosts might take and advised families on how best to placate the spirits. One tradition suggested that the family vacate their beds in order that the ghosts might rest comfortably.

Straw Magic

The straw spread on the floor for Christmas acquired certain magical properties from its role in the observance of the holiday. The dreams one had while sleeping on the Christmas straw were often held to be prophetic. The grains falling from the straw to the floor gave clues about the quality of the coming harvest and even about the fate of individual family members in the coming year. Out of respect for its mysterious powers, people did not simply discard the straw at the end of the Christmas season. Until as late as the nineteenth century people spread the Yule straw in the fields hoping to improve the coming harvest. They also fed it to sick cattle as medicine and twisted it into ornamental crosses.

Straw Decorations

Although the beliefs that supported the old practices have died out, the custom of decorating with straw at Christmas time remains throughout Estonia and Scandinavia. Popular shapes include mobiles, goats, stars, and angels. In past days the mobiles were known as "crowns." They consisted of several straw rings hung with a multitude of diamond-shaped straw ornaments. In some areas of Norway these mobiles were fashioned from the Yule straw. The straw goat originated in Sweden, where it survives as a reminder of the Yule goat who, in the past, brought children their Christmas gifts.

Straw Fortunes

Lithuanian families often strew their Christmas Eve table with straw, which they then cover with a white tablecloth before setting out plates and utensils. The hay reminds everyone that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable. After dinner Lithuanians enjoy telling fortunes. One old folk charm requires everyone seated at the table to reach under the tablecloth and pull out a straw. For an unmarried person, a short, fat straw predicts a short, fat boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. A long, thin straw assures one of attracting a tall, thin partner. Married people interpret the same signs in a different fashion. The long, thin straw means a year of hardship while a fat straw indicates abundance.

In Poland, too, people tuck Yule straw under the tablecloth on Christmas Eve. Girls can predict their marital fortunes by reaching under the cloth and drawing out a straw. Those who pick a green straw are sure to marry soon, while those who select a withered straw will continue to wait. Yellow straws mean a life without marriage, and short straws indicate an early death.

Further Reading

Foley, Daniel J. Christmas the World Over. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 1963. Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Norway Past and Present. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1970. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003