When Dr. Thomas DuBois came to Seattle this fall to introduce his English translation of Johan Turi’s “An Account of the Sámi,” I was intrigued to find that my subdued childhood Christmases may have had something to do with Sámi tradition (as filtered through Laestadianism).
“It was a time to be very quiet,” Dr. DuBois said.
We certainly were that. In our Laestadian home, there were no “pagan” Christmas trees or lights, no Santas or carols, only a few fir boughs and candles, and a lot of cookies. We read from Scripture and sang hymns (softly). This was weak tea compared to story books and my classmates’ accounts of their holidays, and I was determined, when I had my own children, to make a big fuss of the holiday.
. . . the day before the Christmas . . . is the most dangerous of evenings. If the children make too much obnoxious revelry they can wind up bewitched, and if anyones goes in for too much godlessness, they will be bewitched, even if they are full-grown adults, if they are too impious and know too little the word of God. But they who know and can recite by heart the word of God cannot be beset by beargalat (demons) or a riehtis (devil).
Turi includes some horrific stories of children who “made merry” and were killed and eaten by the Stállu (which Turi describes as an “ogre-like legendary creature, prone to attacking and eating the Sámi, especially associated with Christmas eve”).
On Christmas eve, much wood is gathered and neatly stacked so the Stállu’s caravan does not snag upon it, and a full kettle of water is maintained so that the Stállu, should he come looking for water, will not suck out someone’s brain instead.
Like many fables, these stories were probably intended to frighten children and keep them in line. Laestadius himself used analogous stories and haunting language in his sermons, which one could argue had (and still have) the effect of frightening his audience into obedience. While beliefs about Stállu may sound strange to modern ears, they are not categorically different than the those about the Devil, or the Eucharist, baptism, holy water, last rites, black cats, the number 13, the tooth fairy, Santa, etc.
Turi’s book, available in both paperback and an illustrated hardover version, is available by order, and also at Ellen Marie Jensen’s upcoming book events in the Pacific Northwest, which will be listed on her Facebook page. If you already have the book, please join us for a chat on December 30th the Saami Book and Movie Discussion Facebook page.