People have devised ways to keep track of the passing days for millennia. In Scandinavia, where the growing season is so short, this was particularly important. It was imperative to know the best time for the sowing of seed, or the time when cattle might safely be let out to graze.
In measures that varied from valley to valley, they notched off the days from that week in winter when the sun barely crept above the horizon, or from the day the ice broke up on the lake. The days were carved on a stick or board and eventually an elementary almanac of weather and crops evolved – the first “Farmer’s Almanac”, if you will.
The Primstav, or calendar stick, served our nordic ancestors for seven centuries as a guide long before the invention of printing. With the arrival of Christianity, the Primstav evolved as a religious calendar to keep track of the saints’ days.
Each day was represented by a notch on the stick and the year was divided into two halves. One side of the Primstav represented the summer season, beginning on April 15, and the other side represented winter, beginning on October 15. Symbols were carved onto the primstav as a reminder of merkedager (significant dates). Saints’ days were often marked by symbols representing the circumstances of their martyrdom.
Red Letter Days
A red letter day is any day of special significance. In Norway, Sweden, Denmark and some Latin American countries, a public holiday is sometimes referred to as “red day” (rød dag), as it is printed in red in calendars.
Here are a few of the merkedager Norwegians observed throughout the year.
- April 14 – Summer Day (symbolized with a tree or branch) – The beginning of summer
- June 24 – St. John the Baptist or Jonsok (an hourglass or sun) – Originally a solstice celebration and rededicated to St. John the Baptist
- Oct 14 – Winter Day (a mitten) – The beginning of winter
- Feb 22 – St. Peter’s Day (a key) – According to legend, St. Peter threw hot stones in water to keep it from freezing. His keys to the kingdom of heaven serve as a reminder that ice may be too thin to walk on safely.
Look here for examples of Primstav dates, symbols and meanings.
Make Your Own Primstav
For Barnesklubb this month, we learned how to make our own Primstav using the tutorial provided by Keith Homstad in the July 2011 issue of the Viking (a magazine for members of Sons of Norway). I have summarized the steps here for those interested in taking on this challenge – a wonderful hands-on history project.
- Pencils and erasers
- Flat piece of wood (3 feet long, 1 1/2 inches wide, and 1/4-inch thick)
- Permanent markers or wood burning tool
- Howard Wood Polish or other furniture polish (optional)
- Sand the stick to remove any rough edges.
- With a pencil, mark 1 1/2 inches from each end. One end will be the handle and the opposite end will be the “far end”.
- Choose one side for “summer” and measure 22 3/4 inches from the far end. Starting here, use a pencil to make 182 marks along the edge about 1/8 inch apart and 1/8 inch long.
- On the reverse side, measure 23 inches from the “far end” and mark off 184 marks along the edge for the “winter” side.
- On the “winter” side, the first mark (nearest the handle) is Winter Day on October 14th. Continue marking off 30 days for November, and 31 for December and January. Mark off 28 days for February, then make one marks for February 29 (Leap Year Day). Continue marking off 31 days for March and the first 13 days of April.
- On the “summer” side, Summer Day marks the beginning on April 14. Count off the remaining 17 days of April. Continue marking 31 days for May, 30 days for June, 31 days for July and August, 30 days for September, and the first 13 days of October.
- You may now begin to customize your Primstav by adding important family dates and any major holidays. Create a special icon or symbol for each event.
- Decorate the handle as you desire – perhaps with your name and the year you made your primstav.
- When you are happy with the design, consider using a wood burning tool to mark them permanently. Younger children can use a permanent marker.
- To protect your Primstav, you may also wish to apply a coat of furniture polish.
As an alternative to the traditional carved or wooden Primstav, I can’t tell you how much I LOVE this Embroidered Primstav. Embroidery is an art that has always enchanted me. I love this so very much that it is now a goal of mine to create my own. Thank you, Pam!!