HARD though the life of the Norwegian Bønder [farmers] is, it is not all work. For they, like other folk, have their festivals and merrymakings, which are enjoyed all the more because they are comparatively few in number. The great national festival is on May 17, in honour of the drawing up of the constitution at Eidsvold in 1814. It is observed all over Norway, and evokes an immense amount of enthusiasm. Of recent years there has been a return of the ancient commemoration of St. Olaf's Day (July 29). The patron saint of Norway represents to the people the independence of their land, which that great monarch achieved; and although after the Reformation its observance was discountenanced, and indeed, forbidden, yet it was never quite lost sight of in the country parts, and is now, within the last few years, gradually resuming its ancient place both as a religious and national festival. The eve of the day, or Olsoks, as it is called, is observed by the lighting of bonfires on the mountain-sides, and on rafts or islands in the fjords, somewhat in the same way as St. Hans aften (June 23), which in Norway, as in so many other countries, is thus commemorated. Of the religious festivals, Christmas takes easily the foremost place in social rejoicings, and the pretty custom of placing a sheaf of corn for the famished birds on one of the outbuildings of the farm is everywhere observed, and the domestic animals have also their extra share of good things.
Weddings were the most festive occasions in Norwegian country life, and in some parts the feast extended over two or three days. Many of the old customs are dying out, but still a Norwegian country wedding is an event of great importance, and the opportunity of seeing one is much prized by visitors. Most marriages among the Bønder are a matter of arrangement between the parents of the bride and bridegroom [!], but at the same time it must not be imagined that love-matches are by any means unknown. When a young man wishes to get married, negotiations are opened, usually through the medium of a friend of both parties. If all questions as to dowry, &c., are satisfactory, then the principals appear upon the scene, and the date of the marriage may possibly be arranged, for when the financial part of the matter is reached, the actual wedding is not far distant. Of course, there are many instances of long betrothals, where the marriage is a love one, and where the parties are obliged to wait for want of means, or the intending bridegroom is without a farm. But we are now dealing with the immediate preliminaries of the wedding. When the important day draws near, great are the preparations in the bride's home. Supplies for the feast are laid in, and the guests are invited. It is usual for the guests to bring contributions in the way of provisions to the feast, like butter, fish, sausages, &c., as well as beverages, beer and aquavit. Of course, in the more prosperous farmers' families this custom varies very much.
The Norwegian bride is in some districts a very imposing-looking person, as for the first and only time in her life she wears a crown. These bridal crowns are often of considerable antiquity, for they are preserved in families for generations, but often, indeed generally, it happens that they are hired from some one who has purchased one, and who derives a small income from the hire. Some parishes possess a crown which is lent without charge. The shape of the crown varies in different parts of the country; usually it is circular and worn like an ordinary crown, but in some places it is of a crescent shape and fastened under the chin like a bonnet. The bride's dress is black, with rows of coloured (usually red) braid round the bottom. A belt of silver plates is worn, and lappets of ribbons, embroidered with coloured bugle beads, hang down from the crown. The bodice is also elaborately embroidered with beads, on red or green cloth. Silver chains are often hung round the bride's neck. Her hair on this occasion hangs down her back, which it has never been allowed to do since her childhood, and will probably never be allowed to do again. When all is ready the procession starts for the church, headed by that indispensable person the fiddler. If the route is byroad, the bride and groom drive together in a "stolkjerre", followed by their friends. If by water, as is common in the fjord districts, the procession of boats makes a very attractive picture, the boat in which the bride and groom travel being naturally the central point of attraction, with the fiddler seated in the bow and the national flag waving in the stern. The bride is not attended by bridesmaids, but by brudekoner, or brideswomen usually the mothers of the bride and bridegroom, who when the party reach the church put the finishing touches to the bride's apparel and carefully dust the bridegroom's garments. The marriage ceremony is a tolerably long one, and ends with an elaborate sermon addressed to the couple. The return home is a very joyful procession, and all along the road the people turn out to wish the happy pair good luck.
Then comes the feast. And here a very important functionary must be mentioned, and that is the kjøgemester, or, as the word might be translated, "governor of the feast." This important person played a prominent part in former times, for the old race is now almost extinct. He had to be a man of ready wit, and always see that everything was right at the feast. He went round to make sure that every one had plenty to eat and to drink, and was ready with his jokes to smooth over any difficulties which may arise in the course of the festival. The toasts are numerous, and there is no lack of beverages wherein to drink them - sometimes rather too many, and quarrels are not unknown. As late as the seventeenth century the women in Sætersdal and Telemarken were accustomed to bring their husbands winding-sheets to weddings so as to be prepared for emergencies.
In recent years there has been less drunkenness, owing to the efforts of the many "totalafholdsforeninger" (total abstinence societies), but any one who has been present at a wedding in the country, will know that the drinking of healths is a very arduous undertaking, and requires a strong head to ensure safety.
After the feast has been partaken of, the dancing begins, and is kept up with extraordinary spirit for hours; and to dance with the bride is the honour and duty of all. This in former times, and in many places still, was an honour which had to be paid for, and the sum paid varied according to the wealth and position of the dancer. The result was often a comfortable little sum of money for the young couple to begin housekeeping with. If the feast is spread over more than one day the bride appears the second day without her gorgeous crown. Probably the bridal crown will eventually become a thing of the past, like so many other old institutions, but it survives at any rate for the present, and is an interesting and picturesque adjunct to the wedding costumes.
The Norwegians of all classes are fond of dancing, and among the country people they have very curious dances, such as the halling, which takes its name from the Hallingdal, a large and picturesque valley which lies south-west of the beautiful Valdres district. It is not every one who can dance a halling. Bjørnson in "Arne" gives the following description of one: "He [Nils, the dancer] squatted on the floor; hopped sidewards in tune with the violin; swung to and fro; sprang up again and stood as though he was going to take a leap, and then went on hopping sidewards as before. The violin was played by a skilful hand, and the tune became more and more exciting. Nils bent his head backwards and suddenly kicked the beam, so that the dust from the ceiling came scattering down upon the guests. They laughed and shouted around him, and the girls stood almost breathless. The sound of the violin rose high above the tumult, constantly egging him on by wilder and wilder strains. He did not withstand their influence either, but bent forward, hopped in time with the music, stood up as if about to take a leap, but shirked it, and swung to and fro as before; and then just when he seemed as though leaping was the furthest thing from his thoughts, leaped up and gave a thundering kick upon the beam again and again. Next he turned 'cart-wheels' forwards and backwards, standing up quite straight after each. Then he would do no more. The tune passed through some wild variations, quiveringly sank, and at last died away in one single, long low note. [From "Life by the Fells and Fjords," by Bjørnson (English edition).] Such is the famous halling, which still survives in parts of Norway, and is, of course, only a man's dance. The "spring dance" is for both sexes, and is a very bright and pretty one. These social gatherings greatly help to enliven the tedium of the long winter months. When the snow comes, the young people often have a merry time on ski, and in skating and sledging.
Where there are a considerable number of farms near together, meetings for religious and social objects are often held. Foreign missions, and especially those in Zululand and India, receive hearty support from the people, and also the Seamen's Mission, for which bazaars are often held. In the rural districts the parish priest naturally takes an active part in supporting these missions, and he is glad to enlist the sympathies of his people in all good works.
The Bønder are a very intelligent race of men, and take a very keen interest not merely in politics, but in all social movements, very much more, perhaps, than the same class do in other countries. It would be a surprise to many to stand in a country post-office after the mail comes in, and, when the letters and papers are being distributed, to note the great variety of papers taken regularly by even poor farmers. Every household takes two or more - mostly weekly publications, though the well-to-do have their daily paper. There will be found journals about home life, agriculture, missions at home and abroad; all sorts and kinds are regularly subscribed for, and find their way into often very remote districts, thus keeping the people in touch with the life and doings of the towns, and of the wide world beyond. Each country district has also its local paper, sometimes partly, or wholly, written in landsmaal, and, in these papers all the local events are duly chronicled.
Varieties of costume [bunad] are still to be found amongst the Bønder of Norway, but the disappearance of this characteristic dress is only a matter of time. Not long ago each large district had its own peculiar costume, but the gradual spread of the means of communication and the closer connection of town and country, as well as the return to their homes of those who have been to America, have all tended to discourage its use. Even in the towns a certain amount of costume was often to be seen only a few years ago, but it is now almost extinct. For example, in Bergen unmarried girls of the working class had a curious headdress - now rarely or never seen - made of red coils of a kind of thick cord, twisted two or three times round the head. Costumes may, indeed, be noticed in the streets of the town, but they belong chiefly to the inhabitants of the outer islands of the coast who bring their fish to market. It is curious that it is in the south and west that costume peculiar to the district is mostly met with. In the north and in the country around Trondhjem there is little or none, except, of course, among the Lapps and Finns, who, however, cannot be said to be of Norwegian race.
The most interesting of the peasant costumes in the south and west are those of Hardanger, Telemarken, and Sætesdal. The first-named is the most picturesque, and the last, one of the quaintest to be seen in any country. What is most commonly noticed in the various hotels, where the waitresses, as in Switzerland, wear national costumes, is generally the Hardanger dress, with a red embroidered bodice over a white shirt with full sleeves. A belt embroidered with beads is also worn, and a short, full black skirt, with red braid round the hem. But it must be remembered that this costume only prevails in the inner parts of the Hardanger Fjord, and is not the dress of the inhabitants of the outer districts, which is much less fanciful and of more sober hues. The Hardanger costume will be met with up to Vossevangen, but between that and the Sogne Fjord a quite different costume is sometimes seen, especially in the wilder valleys to the north of the main road. In Kvindherred (Hardanger) a very curious sort of headgear is still worn by some older women. It is called a regnhat, or rain hat, and answers the purpose of an umbrella, as the rim of the hat is very wide and made of tarred felt, and completely shelters the shoulders, so that the wearer can walk about in very heavy rain without being much the worse for it. A curious thing about this hat is that it is almost identical with a hat worn by the natives of Burmah in the rainy season. The Sætesdal costume is certainly more curious than beautiful, particularly that worn by the men when they are at work. It practically consists of an enormous pair of buxer [bukser], or trousers, which come up to the neck back and front, and are kept in position by straps across the shoulders. The breastplate, if one may so call it, is embroidered, generally, on green cloth, and has rows of silver buttons down it, and at the ankles it is somewhat the same, though less ornate. The back view is extraordinary, as there is an immense patch of leather sewn over the seat of the trousers, and going partly down the legs. This is intended to make this strange garment last the longer, and it doubtless fulfils its object. The vadmel, or frieze, of which it is made, is of a dark brown colour, and when seen from behind and at some little distance the effect produced is very much like that of a bear standing on its hind legs. On Sundays and festive occasions a jacket is also worn, which practically consists of a pair of sleeves, with a band connecting them at the back. The Buxer and a white shirt, often fastened at the neck by very handsomely chased silver studs about the size of a florin, form almost the whole costume.
The Sætesdal women wear very short skirts, fastened at the waist by a leather belt with silver buckles, and a white bodice, worn full, and fastened at the neck and wrists with very handsome silver studs, more beautiful and elaborately chased than those of the men. Long stockings of dark knitted wool are worn to above the knee, and are supported below it by silver garters. The shoes are curious, and turned up at the toes, somewhat after the manner of the Lapp shoes. The head is almost entirely covered with a scarf, which shows but little of the hair. The costume of Telemarken is more picturesque, especially the men's, and approximates to that worn in Hardanger, though of a more neutral tint.
It is curious that the practice of smoking prevails very much among the women both in Sætesdal and Telemarken; and not merely among old women, for I have seen quite young married women walking through the fields with their pipes in their mouths, and their little children toddling contentedly after them.
From what has been said the reader will now be able to form a fairly clear idea of the life of the farmers of Norway. They are in the truest sense the Norwegian people, and, as we have seen, they possess an absolute and overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary representatives; and they are still, as they have always been, while Norway was a free nation, the controllers of the policy of their country. The towns, and especially the capital and Bergen, exercise a just and increasing influence, but the man who is to rule Norway must possess the confidence of the freeholders in the country parts. These Bønder of Norway form a class which stands almost alone in Europe. They have never known anything of feudalism, either its advantages or its drawbacks. The towns never exercised any control over them, and they are to-day, in the main, what their forefathers were centuries ago - an honest, hardy, independent race of men, proud, and legitimately so, of their ancient lineage, though they trace it not from noble blood, but from men who stood firm by the kings whom they themselves had chosen, and according to their lights served God truly - and faithfully. "The Northman's way," as their old song has it, was to "be true to God and their king."