One of the items I pulled out of the boxes I received after my Norwegian aunt’s recent death puzzled me. It was a long, very narrow piece of off-white linen with cross-stitch embroidery on both sides, mostly done in black thread but with a bit of red here and there. At the top of one side was written “sommer” and on the top of the reverse side, “vinter.” Under each heading, symbols of various kinds were embroidered all the way down on each side.
It was pretty clear that it was some kind of calendar, likely embroidered by my grandmother, who was very skilled at needlework. Was it some kind of agricultural calendar, listing the order of planting, harvesting, etc. Or was it a liturgical calendar, marking the saints’ days? Some of the symbols were certainly Christian, but others were less obviously so.
Evenly spaced small lines were embroidered on the edges and I realized that the strip resembled nothing so much as a ruler. When I measured it, it turned out to be exactly one meter long. The embroidered section was 6 cm across, and the small lines embroidered at the edges were half a centimetre apart. So this was both a calendar AND a measuring stick! I do not recall ever having seen this piece of embroidery in the home of either my aunt or my grandmother but it was my guess that it was a copy of an article that had historical significance.
It took some sporadic and creative Google searching over a couple of days for me to hit upon the word primstav. This piece of embroidery was a cloth copy of “calendric devices made of wood, with lines or notches for the days of the year and carved characters for solstices, equinoxes, festivals, and holidays.” (The Norwegian American, June 29, 2017.) They had been in use in Scandinavia until the 17th century.
Photo: Roede photo / Wikimedia Primstav from Hallingdal, Norway, 18th century
The word prim means “new moon” in Old Norse and stav means “staff.” The winter side starts on October 14 and the summer side on April 14, apparently reflecting the natural division of the year for northern, agricultural societies into the production side (summer) and the consumption side (winter). Knowing at least this much has helped me to decipher the meaning of some of the symbols associated with the Christian year but I’m sure some of them will always remain a mystery to me!