Scandinavian farmers customarily saved the last harvest cuttings for the ceremonial “Yule Sheaf” (Norwegian Julenek, Swedish Julkarve) of oats or other grain. The sheaf was suspended from a pole or barn roof during Christmas week as a blessing to the birds and goodwill offering for a favorable growing season in the coming year. This tradition continued among some families in eighteenth century America as described in verse by Ohio poet Phoebe Cary’s “The Christmas Sheaf”:
“And bid the children fetch,” he said,
“The last ripe sheaf of wheat,
And set it on the roof o’erhead
That the birds may come and eat.
And this we do for His dear sake,
The Master kind and good,
Who of the loaves He blest and brake
Fed all the multitude.”
Adolph Tidermand (1814-1876), Traditions—The Christmas Sheaf (1846)
Oil on canvas, 14 ¼ x 16 ½ inches
National Gallery, Oslo
Upon completion of harvest in some parts of Germany during medieval times, farmers preserved the last remaining grain as “Wödin’s Share” (Vergodendeel, Vergodenstruss), an offering to the ancient pagan Allfather (Norse Odin, Slavic Volos). To solicit Wödin’s favor for the coming year, the cuttings were left for his thundering herd of horses sometimes glimpsed swirling aloft as heaps of roiling clouds. Four-wheeled “Wödin’s Wagon” was known in some German traditions as the four stars of Ursa Major with the three that descend from the corner forming the wain’s tongue. German folklorist-philologist Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) found evidence of these traditions persisting well into the nineteenth century. After the ceremonial final reaping, some Saxon and Hessian farmers then struck the sides of their scythes three times with the strop, spilled a small amount of their beer, brandy, or milk on the ground, and waved their hats and beat their scythes three more times. Grimm further described a custom among some farmers to then parade home to the cry of “Wôld, Wôld, Wôld!/haven hüne weit schüt/jümm hei van haven süt….” British antiquarian John Symonds Udal (1848-1925) found vestiges of these beliefs in the celebratory end-of-harvest “crying of the neck whooping” of some Wessex descendants of Anglo-Saxon farmers in southern England. (“The neck,” in some places pronounced “knack,” was a small tied bundle of large heads gathered from the last cuttings.) Udal supposed their shouting “We hav’en” three times was “a survival of the old invocation to the great god Woden” that had remained through the centuries.
German farmers also contended with a malevolent menagerie of imaginary creatures—die Feldgeister (field spirits), including the Kornkuh (Grain Cow), Gerstenwolf (Barley Wolf), Haferbock (Oat Goat), Roggenhund (Rye Hound), and Aprilochs (April Ox). Folklore in Slavic Eastern Europe prescribed sparing the last few stalks of uncut grain for the field’s wild goat-like spirit, or for Baba Yagá (“Grandmother Witch”), though Christian influence confronted tradition in the words of a Russian folksong:
Let’s go girls, let’s go girls,
Out to the grain, out to the grain.
In our grain, in our grain,
Sits a witch, sits a witch.
Get out, witch; get out, witch,
Get out of our grain.
Our grain, our grain,
Has been consecrated, has been consecrated!
Go away witch, go away witch.
To Sen’kovo, to Sen’kovo—
There the grain there the grain,
Has not been consecrated.
Lodewijk Toeput (c. 1550-c.1605), Summer Harvest (c. 1590)
Black ink and gray wash over graphite, 10 ⅝ x 16 ⅝ inches
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.