While the desire to know what the New Year will bring seems to be universal, the sheer number of omens the Norwegian peasants considered indicates the desperate uncertainty of their living conditions and their deep-seated anxiety about the future. . . .

The still commonly used phrase “Etter alle julemerker å dømme . . .” (Judging by all the Christmas portents) continues to reflect the once firmly held belief that these Christmas signs could predict the coming year. The saying relates to the old peasant belief that the weather during the twelve days between the first and thirteenth days of Christmas (others say it was from the thirteenth to the twenty-fifth day of December) foretold the weather during the coming twelve months: if the first day brought snow, January would be snowy, and if the second day were especially cold or warm, that’s how February would be, and so on.

There were many other omens that Norwegians apprehensively studied in their uneasy quest to know the future. The remains of the straw that had been swept from the floor of the main house after serving as the household’s Christmas Eve bed could foretell how the next season’s crops would grow. Whole grains augured a good yield, while empty hulls predicted lean; whoever found the first grain would have good fortune throughout the year. How the candles burned on Christmas Eve received careful scrutiny, too; a clear and strong flame promised a prosperous year, but a smoking candle warned of unsettled conditions. The amount and nature of the smoke rising from the chimney made its own prediction: Norwegians hoped to see it thick and full of sparks, for that carried the best prospects. They also hoped to see many birds feeding at theirjulenek, for the size of the harvest varied with their number.

Young people, eager to know the identity of their future spouses, consulted various oracles. To see his future bride, a young man should walk backward around the table while silently saying the Lord’s Prayer in reverse. Like so many other magical methods, this device contains ritual elements believed to strengthen its power. Items of religious significance and actions performed backward, silently, or in secret would multiply magical power. So could repeating magical acts three times in a row, as we can see in the once widely known custom of “dressing the Christmas chair.”

Å kle julestolen, as the custom was known in Norwegian, was the method Norwegian women most commonly used to foresee their future husbands. Existing in a variety of forms, the custom essentially went as follows: The young woman placed on a chair the clothing she planned to wear on Christmas Day. She walked three times counterclockwise around the chair, then sat down on it before a table set with three bowls, one filled with beer, another with milk, and the third with water. Sometime during the night a vision of the man she was to marry would come and drink from one of the bowls. The one he drank from told how her marriage would prosper: if the water, they would live in poverty; if the milk, in modest circumstances; and if the beer, in prosperity. . . .

While the young considered their marriage prospects, their elders looked for omens of death, attempting to discover who among them would be taken in the year to come. During the Christmas brewing they noticed how soon the yeast started working: any delay predicted death—either for the brewer himself or a member of his family. Crossed straws under the table boded death for the one who sat there. A candle that suddenly went out signaled an equally sudden demise. Anyone who dared venture outside during the Christmas Eve dinner could look through a window back into the house and see those who were feige (soon to die) sitting with a shroud over their heads, without heads, or in shadows. If a cock crowed on Christmas night, one should feel its feet; if they were cold, the farm would soon have a corpse.