December 21: the feast day of Thomas the brewer

Midwinter is not just the pagan yule, it is the Norwegian feast of St. Thomas, sometimes just called Thomas the brewer. It was on this day that the pre-Christmas brewing had to be finished.

The Norwegians were isolated in their frozen valleys, so they carved calendar sticks called primstavs to help them keep track of all the feast days.

On this primstav from the Norsk Folkemusem, Christmas on December 25 is shown with a big drinking horn, while Tomasmess on December 21 is marked with a barrel with a person on top.

On this primstav you can also see:

Annedagen, or St. Anne’s day, in memory of the Virgin Mary’s mother Saint Anne. It is often marked December 9th as a small female head, but it can also be marked with a can. This was the day when you had to brew the Christmas beer.

Tomasmess, for St. Thomas, sometimes called Doubting Thomas, is usually marked with a cross, a hand or an ølfat (beer barrel). This day was the traditional day of resurrection.  On this day you should taste the Christmas beer and drain it from the fermentation barrel. The symbol used on the primstav above is out of the ordinary. A barrel or barrel symbol is not uncommon, but the person sitting on it is associated with King Gambrinus, the legendary beer king often depicted on a beer barrel with a crown on his head and mug or tankard in his hand.

Norwegian primstav cropped
The Christmas beer was to be brewed on December 9th, on Anna’s day, and tasted and poured at dinners on December 21st.

There is widespread misunderstanding that the 21st was when the beer was to be brewed. Firstly, it would not have been done in time for Christmas, and secondly, there are many explicit descriptions that beer that is started on this day does not go bad. It was the tasting, not the brewing, that was to be done on this day

Juledagen, or Christmas Day, on December 25, with a drinking horn as a symbol, also a candelabra, barrel, or sun symbol can be used.

Brettedagen, Bryggemess, Brittifumessa or Brettemesse on January 11.  On the right of the primstav is a horse for the Celtic saint Brettifa. In Norway, it was tradition on this day for the remains of Christmas dinner to be folded in pieces, cooked in a pan and eaten together with the rest of Christmas beer.  A superstition associated with this day was that things were broken easily, hence the horse; you should not drive with horses this day because it could break a leg. In some places they brewed again and had a Brettemesse party for friends and neighbors which they aptly called pompgilde (draining the lines or bleeding the pump).

St. Brettiva

The cult of St Brettiva has been associated with Trøndelag.  In particular the monastery church (now in ruins) in Munkeby near Levanger was said to have been devoted to Brettiva. The Catholic youth team in Levanger, St. Brettiva Youth Organisation (St. Brettiva barne- og ungdomslag), part of the national Norwegian Catholic youth group NUK, is still named for St Brettiva. 

Gulathing’s law (Gulaþings lög) . St Brettiva was established in the church calendar by law (Gulaþings lög) c. 1260, but not in John’s 1284.(?) Early Scandinavian law was oral, memorized by lawspeakers and recited ever year at the Thing or Althing. The first written laws were Gulathing’s law (11th century, Norwegian); the law of Jutland (1241, Danish); and the laws of Uppland (1296) and Götaland (early 13th century), both Swedish.

58. 11th.— Symbol, a small cross with two arms to the right. Cm. gives here Johannes. Mod. Icel. Alm. Hyginus, also Brettiva-messa. The last is probably the saint here commemorated, S. Brictiva. The day is still called in Norw. Brykke-messa (F.M. Brokkes-mess), when the fragments of the Yule feast were broken ‘ i Gryden‘ (into a hotch-potch ?). Also Brette-messa. In Thelemark, so it was said, a peasant wished to drive out on this day. The neighbours asked him, ‘ Know you not that this is Brette-mas?’ (Now, in Norse Brette = to turn violently). Whereupon he replied, ‘ Turn me this way, turn me that, but I shall turn me home a hay-load.’ So out he drove, but the horse stumbled and broke its leg, P. A.M. (quoted by E.M.). This and the term Brokke or Brykke above are again popular etymologies. The name of the saint Brittifa is found in the Gulathing’s Law (ca. 1260), but not in abp. John’s (1284), E.M.  –“ON A NORWEGIAN STAFF CALENDAR BELONGING TO THE SOCIETY.” Communicated to the Society by H. F. Morland Simpson, M.A.,  F.S.A. Scot., on the 29th July, 1891. (“Of the previous history of this calendar nothing appears to be known except that it has long been in the possession of the Society, and is said to have come from Stavanger.”)  , Archaeologia Aeliana, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Volume 15, p. 290 (IA scan).

Churches associated with Saint Brettiva.

  • Church dedicated to Saint Brettiva in Skogn [source -in Norwegian]

St. Brettiva. Brettemesse, January 11th, was celebrated in memory of the Holy Brictiva/ Brettiva. She is little known and the legend about her is forgotten. Probably she was only celebrated in Norway and in Iceland.

Some historians have sought to identify the church at Munkeby with a St Brettiva church in Skogn, mentioned twice in medieval documents, the first time in 1488 in connection with a farm sales (Myklenboor/Storborr). They claim that the monastery was located at a shrine for this mysterious local saint, that there was probably a church on the site and that this along with the land rights was given to the monastery when it was established. This was no unusual procedure for the creation of new monasteries.

Other researchers are very skeptical about this theory. It is pointed out that it would be contrary to the Cistercian principles to build a monastery at a pilgrimage site. The design of the church also speaks against such theory. It seems solely to be built to function as a monastery, the plan of the grounds shows almost an ideal typical Cistercian church.

There are also different views of whether the saint Bretteue church in Skaugn is identical to the monastery church in Munkby. According to the rules of the Cistercian Covenant, all abbey churches should be devoted to St. Mary. Therefore, St. Brettiva’s church must be one other than the church at Munkeby – perhaps Levanger church. On the other hand, this is difficult to reconcile with the information in archbishop Olav Engelberktsson’s landbook (jordbok). Since the source material is so sparse, we probably never get certainty in these questions.

  • Munkeby Abbey/Munkeby kloster

MUNKEBY STA. MARIA, STA. BRETTIVA (abbey church), gnr. 51 (= 303) Munkeby (Levanger parish). Levanger municipality. Closed church place. ID 7018 Klüwer noted in 1823, following a survey of the ruins of the place, wells and fish ponds at (gnr. 303) Munkeby that “After ancient legend, this monastery was destroyed by fire; probably not long before the Reformation “. The monastery church is today a ruin. The oldest written review of this Cistercian monastery is in 1475 (Monastery in Munchaby, DN XVII: 1105), but archaeological research has shown that the church was completed around 1150/60, expanded in the 1170s, burned at the end of the 1100- century, was rebuilt in the 1470s and demolished after 1589 when the church was decommissioned. The church had a rectangular ground plan where the choir constitutes the eastern part of the building. Out of the cross section, north and south, there are little chapels. The building was masonry in brick with marble waders in wall openings, niches and probably outside corners. The masonry is Romanic with a lying brick in a dense shift and flat paving stone. As there is a high likelihood that the mentioned Monastery in Munchaby (DN XVII: 1105), Sancte Bretteue Church in Skaugn (1533, OE, 62, 83) and Munckebye Kircke (1589, Thr.R. At the same time, it is reasonable to conclude that the abbey church from around 1470 until close to 1600 served as a chapel or annex with occasional operation. At the same time, it must mean that the monk Stefanus` attempt in the 1470s to rebuild the monastery for a municipality failed and it can further imply that the church building itself has not been in complete ruin between the late 1100s and 1470s. Both Rygh and Hallan has shown that the landlord that was added to the Tautra cistercian monastery at the establishment in 1207 consisted mainly of farms and farms that can be located to Skogn and that most of them belong to Frol and the other parish around Munkeby. Hallan finds no other reasonable explanation for this than that Tautra at the establishment in 1207 took over the goods that had belonged to a Cistercian monastery at Munkeby. Thus it can be reasonably established that Tautra took over as the Cistercian monastery in Trøndelag after the facility at Munkeby had been closed, and that in 1207 the latter was no longer an operating monastery (Brendalsmo 2006: 593ff m / ref.). The dictation is after a letter of 1488 (DN V: 938) as well as the fact that all churches at the Cistercian monasteries were dedicated to Maria. Petersen (1926: 49) recorded the following memorials at Munkeby: “There are 7-8 burial mounds here, of which one is very large, slightly up in the field east of the houses at Søndre Munkeby. In a small pile down at the monastery ruins, a leaf of iron from the Iron Age was found, which is now stored in the Stockholm museum. ” This can be a burial discovery, from the farm town where the monastery was built. (map reference: CT 134-5-3). [Source: KILDEGJENNOMGANG Middelalderske kirkesteder i Nord-Trøndelag fylke (Medieval churches in the county of Nord-Trøndelag) by J Brendalsmo – ‎2016 (PDF) (text viewer)

  • Bretteue’s Church in Skaugn (Sancte Bretteue kirke i Skaugn) 1488 farm sales in Myklenboor “ath Bretteue messe dagh i iolom oc viidh sancte Bretteue kirke i Skaugn“)(gbooks) (IA text scan)
  • Levanger church (possible identity of St. Brettivas kirke, instead of Munkeby)

Saint Brettiva was mentioned in the Saga of King Sverri of Norway (Sverrisaga) for events occurring in the year 1198 “two days before Brettifa’s mass-day”, in the Skaun district of the south shore region of Trondheim fjord. [Saga of King Sverri of Norway (Sverrisaga), p. 179, (Google books, Hathitrust (same G book scan with a better viewer), see also “Map 2 Throndham” p. 291)]

Iceland Bishop Gudmund the Good of Holar blesses a well - R. WeissSt. Brettiva was also mentioned in the history of  Iceland bishop, Gudmund the Good, the year after Saint Bishop Thorlak died in 1193, traveling on Saint Brettifa’s feast day in 1194 without apparent mishap:

“The Life of Gudmund is a translation of the Old Icelandic Saga Guftmundar Biskups Arasonar, printed in Biskupa Sogur, gefnar ut af hinu islenzka bdkmentafdlagi, i, 407-558, from MS. AM. 399, 410. The last two chapters are translated from MS. AM. 657 C, 410 (ibid., i, 584-6), and variant readings from this MS., and from the texts of Sturlunga Saga, have been followed in a few instances. Certain annalistic and genealogical sections, and passages not essential to the main theme, have been omitted.” [“The life of Gudmund the Good, Bishop of Holar”, The Viking Society for Northern Research, Curtis and Beamish, Ltd, Coventry, 1942, tr. G. Turville-Petre and E. S. Olszewska, p. 52]

In,that winter Bishop Thorlak the Saint died at Skalaholt two nights before Christmas.
22. In the next winter, after Christmas, on the Feast of S. Brettifa, Gudmund made ready to leave home and travel west across the moor to Holar to visit Bishop Brand and other friends; as usual, many people accompanied him on his journey, and there were sixteen in the party altogether. In the evening they went up to Sk’eic} and spent the night there. The next morning they pre-pared to cross the moor by way of Heljardal Moor, and they called to Gudmund to make haste with the service, but he did not do so, and the service took longer than they wished, though it was shorter than he would have it; he said that hurrying over the service would not make their journey any the ea,sder. Then theyi got ready for their journey but made a very late start.

For more about Brettiva, see A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume 1 p. 131

St. Brettiva, Jan. 11 (Brictiva, Brittifa, Broteva, Brykke). Supposed to be Irish, but worshipped chiefly in Norway and Iceland. From the 11th century her name appears there in the catalogues of saints’ days to be kept holy. Broteva is still found as a name in Iceland, and popularly understood to mean the guilty Eve. In the Norwegian calendars a horse is the sign for St Brettiva’s day. The word breite means to turn violently, to double up.

A farmer drove out for hay on that day. Being warned that it was Brette Messe he obstinately and profanely made a pun on her name, by answering, ”Turn me this way, turn me that, I’ll turn me home a load of hay.” But his horse fell and broke its leg. The pictured horse, therefore, stands in the calendar as a warning. The festival is also called Brykke Messa and Brokkis Messa, from the custom of the remnants of the Yule fare being stewed and eaten on that day.

Also about Saint Brettiva, from On a Runic Calendar Found in Lapland in 1866, published 1877, by Eiríkr Magnússon, p. 24:

St Brettiva, Jan. 11th, (dom. lett. E, i. o. D), is a saint who was chiefly worshipped in Norway and Iceland. This local Saint’s day is unknown in Archbishop John’s law ; but in the older Gulaþings lög (Gulathing’s law), from the eleventh century, it is already entered in the Catalogue of Saints’ days, which are to be kept as holy days without the so-called nón helgi , that is, without the previous day being kept holy as a Sunday from nón, or from three o’clock in the afternoon. It is not known who this saint was ; it is supposed that she was of Irish origin. In the Gulathings law her name is spelt Brittifa, but Brictiva is another and common spelling of it as well. The name is still found in Iceland in the form of Broteva, which is popularly understood to mean the guilty Eve, brot meaning the breaking of a commandment, trespass. The emblem of the day is a simple cross ; but on Norwegian calendars a horse is frequently introduced as an emblem of the day, and is said to owe its origin to a Norway farmer having driven out on that day for the purpose of fetching home a waggon load of hay ; but, being met by a brother farmer, was asked if he knew that it was Brette-messe, as the name of the day was popularly pronounced, brette other wise signifying violently to turn, double up, crease, whereupon he answered, ” Turn me this way, turn me that, but I shall turn me home a load of hay.” But the horse stumbled and broke its leg. The mishap was enough to create a warning emblem against the repetition of the trespass by other folk. Brykke messa and Brokkis messe are also popular corruptions of the name of the day, still lingering among the people, and are said to derive their origin from the remnants of the Yule-fare being stewed in a pot, in Norwegian called at brokke, brokke sammen, for a final consumption by the household.

See also: The Oxonian in Thelemarken; or, Notes of travel in southwestern Norway in the summers of 1856 and 1857. With glances at the legendary lore of that district. by Metcalfe, Frederick, 1815-1885. Publication date 1858.

[Gbooks free ebook (p.204)] [Internet archive – Vol 2, p.204] [Hathi Trust (scan no.1 scan no.2 Vol 2 p.204)]

That’s St. Brettiva, (Jan. 11), when all the leavings of Yule are eat up. You see the sign is a horse. I’ll tell you how that is. Once on a time a bonder in Thelemarken was driving out that day. The neighbour (nabo) asked him if he knew it was Saint Brettiva’s day. He answered —

Brett me here, brett me there,

I’ll brett (bring) home a load of hay, I swear.

The horse stumbled, and broke its foot ; that’s the reason why the day is marked with a horse in Thelemarken.


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