Every culture has its own unique holidays and traditions, but one of the most interesting cultural holidays is St Knut’s Day. St Knut’s Day, also known as the Feast of St Knut, is a traditional holiday celebrated in the European countries of Sweden and Finland. St Knut’s Day is celebrated annually on January 13th, and usually marks the end of the Christmas season with a Knut’s Party, or feast.
The murder of Canute Lavard on January 7th 1131 AD, in Denmark, led to the celebrations of St Knut’s Day across Scandinavia but especially in Sweden and Finland. (FredrikT assumed / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Story of St Knut’s Day: From Murder to Merry Feast
The origins of St Knut’s Day stem as far back as the year 1131. Though celebrated in Sweden and Finland, St Knut’s Day actually has its origins in Denmark. Canute Lavard (also known as Knut Lavard in Swedish) was a Danish prince born in 1096. It is historically known that he was the only legitimate son of King Eric I of Denmark, which gave him a direct path to the throne once his father passed. Lavard’s first high position came at age 19, when he was appointed to be the first Duke of Schleswig by his uncle, King Niels of Denmark.
Lavard worked tirelessly as the Duke of Schleswig. It is said that he was able to bring peace to this region after many decades of war and strife. He was also able to protect it by fighting Vikings who came to raid the area and by eliminating any other intruders to the region. His loyalty to Schleswig made him popular with the locals and he was revered as a highly respected leader.
Unfortunately, not everyone in Denmark at this time was pleased with Lavard’s successful 15 years of work. His uncle, King Niels, and his cousins, Magnus the Strong and Harry Skadelaar, began to fear that his popularity would give him priority over his cousins as his uncle’s successor to the throne. This would make it possible for him to be king before the passing of his own father and would put the royal lines in both of their hands.
Lavard also began receiving more recognition by other rulers including Emperor Lothair III, who recognized him as King of the Western Wends. Seeing this recognition and relationship between Lavard and Lothair began stirring feelings of distrust amongst his people, though it is now believed Lavard was only fostering this relationship in an attempt to convert the emperor to Christianity. Fearing Lavard growing any more powerful, King Niels sent his sons to murder Lavard in Haraldsted Skov, a popular forest in Denmark.
Lavard’s half-brother, Eric Emune, and the people of Schleswig were enraged over his murder due to his loyalty to the region for 15 years. Tensions were so high that soon after Lavard’s murder, a civil war broke out over his death, started by Emune. In the process of this civil war, Canute Lavard was declared as a St, and St Knut’s Day was celebrated on January 7th for several hundred years. As time passed, some groups began to correlate Knut’s name with the Epiphany, a Christian holiday also known as Three Kings’ Day or “Little Christmas,” which was fitting given Lavard’s known religious beliefs. Epiphany was originally celebrated for eight days, between January 6th and January 13th. Because of this, it was decided in 1680 that St Knut’s Day would be moved to January 13th and be celebrated as the “twentieth day of Christmas.”
On January 13th, which is St Knut’s Day, the Swedes dance around the Christmas tree one more time and then the Xmas holidays are over. ( Ernesto Gabriel K. Evangelista )
The Swedes: Party Animals
Sweden and Finland each have their own quite different approach to celebrating St Knut’s Day. In Sweden, St. Knut’s Day is a representation of the end of the Christmas and holiday season. The holiday season in Sweden typically includes Advent Sunday, St. Lucy’s Day, Christmas, New Year, Epiphany, and St. Knut’s Day, which are all celebrated throughout December and January. This final holiday is typically celebrated with a large feast or party, typically referred to as Knut’s parties. It is believed that a feast is the main aspect of this celebration due to origins rooted in Swedish agrarian society , during which children would run home to home on St. Knut’s Day asking for food and drink.
Nowadays, the Knut’s party is still very much associated with children. During the 20th century, a focus was placed on children and candy, similar to Halloween. This observation expanded to full-fledged feasts in the 1950s. Churches, schools, kindergartens, and other childcare places typically host Knut’s parties, which may involve candy, food, and the taking down of Christmas decorations . Children and families may sing songs and dance while removing or destroying Christmas décor. Stealing candy from the Christmas tree, smashing and eating gingerbread houses, and scarfing down leftover Christmas desserts are all common occurrences at children’s Knut’s parties.
Another popular aspect of the Knut’s party includes removing the Christmas tree to signify the official end of the Christmas season. Before removing the tree, the children will typically sing and dance while circling the tree to celebrate it one last time. They also do this to find the last of the treats hidden in the tree to make sure no more ornaments are left on the tree by the end of the party. At the end of the party, the Christmas tree is disposed of in one of many ways. One common way in the 20th century was to simply throw the tree out the window, but this later became problematic due to littering and tree build-up. Nowadays, fake trees are more popular and are simply broken down and stored for the next year, but real trees may be chopped down for firewood.
Drawing by Hugo Hamilton (1802–1871) of a Knut’s dance in one of the cottages at Boo manor, Sweden. (Hugo Hamilton (1802–1871) / Public domain )
So, You’ve Been Invited to A Knut’s Party
The Knut’s Party typically lasts a few hours in Sweden, as long as it takes to rid the tree of all its sweet treats and rid of it via an axe, a storage box, or a window. Common treats found on the tree include chocolates, dried fruits, popcorn, Christmas crackers, cookies, and candies. Sometimes, even the garland is made of these treats and must be unwound and taken apart to eat the treats. The children will eat the treats right after they are taken off the tree before the tree is taken away. Once the treats from the tree are gone, children may get more delicious snacks from a Swedish Fiskdamm (fishing pond) filled with more sweets.
Once the treats are all gone, the traditional singing and dancing to bid farewell to the tree begins. Often, the community may get involved in the traditional dancing around the Christmas tree. Families may gather to officially switch off the Christmas tree lights before beginning their dance. This party is known as Julgransskakning in some areas, which translates to “Plundering the Christmas Tree.”
Regarding the song and dance found at a Knut’s party, many of the songs are traditional Christmas songs sang throughout the holiday season. A few songs may have lines specifically written for the Knut’s party, such as “Tjugondag Knut dansas julen ut och då plundras och kasseras granen,” which translates into “Knut’s 20th day dances Christmas away and then plunder and scrap the spruce tree.” The dancing is usually simple, children and their parents jumping and skipping as they circle the tree several times to the tune.
Though Norway is not particularly known for their overt celebration of St. Knut’s Day, some do still celebrate the Swedish tradition there and sing their own songs dedicated to St. Knut. Their rhyme says, “Sante Knut og jaga jula ut,” which translates into “St. Knut chases Christmas away.” Rather than throwing the tree out the window like the Swedes, they choose to toss the tree out the back door, or sometimes even down a fjord! There are even signs located at different hills and fjords clarifying if you are allowed to throw your tree in those areas.
For those choosing to repurpose the tree, chopping it into pieces for firewood is a common occurrence. This gives the beloved Christmas tree a second purpose once it has been taken down and is no longer needed for the holiday season. In addition to cutting apart and burning the tree, some families choose to use parts of the tree for carving and whittling. Some may carve ornaments for the next year’s tree or even create new tree toppers with the remains. Kitchen utensils and household knickknacks are also commonly made with the remains of Christmas trees after St Knut’s Day.
The weird Finnish goat people of St Knut’s Day in Finland. Nuuttipukki is a common Finnish character that is dressed as a goat and visits houses for leftover food and drink. ( All Things Finnish )
St Knut’s Day in Finland: Free Candy for Goat People!
The Finnish celebration of St. Knut’s Day is quite a bit different from the Swedish version. Though both celebrate the end of the Christmas or holiday season, Finland focuses less on the Christmas tree and more on a creepy goat. Nuuttipukki is a common Finnish character that is dressed as a goat and visits houses for leftover food and drink. In the original years, it used to be performed by young men but is now traditionally performed by children.
Individuals dressing as Nuuttipukki would dress in furry jackets, horns, and a leather mask to appear as goat-like as possible. Though this physical appearance is similar to the described appearance of Krampus, another scary holiday character, they are not the same and do not have related origins. Nuuttipukki travels house to house demanding food and drink from the head of the home, particularly favoring leftover alcoholic beverages.
If a household rejected the demands of the Nuuttipukki, he would begin causing chaos and performing evil deeds in the home. Sources say that Nuuttipukki and his friends may scare your animals, destroy your garden, and even harass your children and servants. An old proverb from western Finland even claims, “Good [St.] Thomas brings Christmas, evil Knut takes [it] away.” Young men who used to engage in this tradition were usually mischievous and increasingly drunk as the night went on, further contributing to the belief that misfortune would come if you did not fulfil their demands of more treats.
Nowadays, it is usually children that dress as the Nuuttipukki and go home to home, searching for candy and other treats. There is less of a scary association with the Nuuttipukki than there was previously, as many children engage in this holiday. It is quite similar to Halloween, during which children also dress up in costume and go house to house searching for sweets. Though not all areas of Finland still celebrate it, it can still be found in Satakunta, Southwest Finland, Ostrobothnia, and the Âland Islands.
St. Knut’s Day is started as a tribute of respect for a murdered Danish Duke has evolved into a regular holiday for children and families across most of Scandinavia. ( There is a Day for That )
A Yummy Tradition
Though St. Knut’s Day is not celebrated in the US, the sentiment of wishing to bid farewell to Christmas can resonate with all of us. What started as a tribute of respect for a murdered Danish Duke has evolved into a regular holiday for children and families across northern Europe. Even in Finland specifically, it evolved from young men dressing as goats for free alcohol to children dressing up for candy.
Though the holiday is not as celebrated throughout Sweden, Finland, and Norway as it once was, St Knut’s Day has not died out just yet. In many areas across Europe, the holiday and its traditions are still going strong. With this, it is possible that the holiday could pick up speed and become more popular once again. It could even evolve further and develop new traditions involving children, families, and communities over time. Regardless, St Knut’s Day lives on for many and will be passed down as a beloved holiday tradition for many.
Top image: January 14th, the day after St Knut’s Day, in Stockholm, Sweden is when everyone tosses out the Christmas tree but only after a good party the day before! Source: Swedense
By Lex Leigh