Primstav | a calendar-stick was a must on the old farm | Norway

A primstav is an old wooden calendar-stick, marking the days of the year and important events. It splits the year into two equal halves: summer and winter.
LA Dahlmann | talk NORWAY
A primstav - a calendar stick. | Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfeldt - Norsk Folkemuseum cc by-sa.
A primstav - a calendar stick. | Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfeldt - Norsk Folkemuseum cc by-sa.

Each year followed the same pattern

Our ancestors saw the structure of each new year as a repeat of the one before. The old Norwegian calendar stick – the primstav – laid out the days and the key events of the year. The annual cycle was forever the same, generation after generation.

The oldest primstav found in Norway dates back to the mid-1400s, but the historians believe the tool goes back even further.

Mother Nature dictated the rhythm

One key purpose of the calendar-stick was to guide people through their working year. It helped them keep track of what to do and when. It was Mother Nature who dictated the annual rhythm and the tasks.

The calendar of the Catholic Church

The calendar-stick also included the annual calendar of the Catholic Church. Christianity came to Norway around the turn of the second millennium AC.

A notch for each day

The primstav is usually a flat, sword-shaped piece of wood. The calendar of the summer months is carved on one side, and the winter months on the other: one notch for each day.

Added symbols

In addition to the 365 days, other carved-in symbols mark special events, religious or otherwise, or the starting point of a particular process in the working year. One is the haymaking period – høyonna – which, according to tradition, starts on the feast of Saint Knut, on 10 July.

Summer and winter

Summer started on 14 April, with midsummer on 14 July – and winter on 14 October, with midwinter on 14 January (in some sources listed as 12 January).

People focussed on events rather than the year

Today, our primary reference point when we talk about history is the year number: it was in the year 1086 AD that it happened. Our forebears looked at it differently: their main historical reference points were instead important events: it happened 7 winters after King Olav died.

Replaced by the almanac

With time, the printed almanac replaced the old primstav. The first Norwegian almanac came in 1644, printed and published by Tyge Nielssøn. It had 48 pages. But many continued to use the primstav for at least two centuries still.

The Norwegians became Protestants in 1536

The Norwegians abandoned the Catholic Church in 1536, when they joined the Protestant movement. But the old Catholic feast days stayed on as markers in people’s consciousness, and on the all-important calendar-stick and in the almanac. The modern-day calendars include some of these feast days even today, nearly 500 years later.

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