Last Friday was Friday the 13th, and with the exception of an extremely unlucky Italian cruise ship, the day passed like many others. Work, grocery shopping, På Spåret, and then sleep, heavenly sleep.
The special thing about last Friday, January 13, passed almost completely unnoticed, even in this country that loves holidays. There were no themed pastries, no advertising campaigns, no trivia quizzes in the free newspaper you get on the train. It’s like the whole country was totally unaware of the significance of this holy day, Tjugondag Knut, the official end of the Christmas season.
Tjugondag Knut translates into “20th Day Knut,” which refers to the 20th day after Christmas Eve. This used to be the day when Swedes, Finns, and Norwegians would ransack the tree of the candy and cookies it had been adorned with before Christmas and then kick it to the curb, so to speak. Now it seems to be widely forgotten, and if you ask me, it’s kind of a pity, because St. Knut’s Day is one strange but awesome holiday.
So who is Knut? Good question. Even though the holiday is not celebrated in Denmark, it is actually connected to two different Danish princes/saints connected to St. Knut’s Day, and they go under at least five different names: Knut, Knud, Canute, Canuto, and most unlikely of all—Nuutin (Finnish, of course).
According to those who should know, St. Knut’s Day has taken on a very non-Christmas related meaning in Spain among certain circles due to the second meaning of “canuto” in Spanish. (It’s a joint.)
The Knut that the holiday actually refers to is the Danish prince, Knut Lavard, Duke of Schleswig, hereafter referred to as Knut #1. He was murdered by the Danish king’s son, Magnus the Strong, and in 1169 was canonized as a martyr for justice by the Catholic Church. There’s no mention of any particularly holy behavior, so I’m not totally sure why he’s a saint, although Bartleby’s Lives of the Saints claims that “valour, prudence, zeal, and goodness endeared him to all.”
Then there’s Knut #2, Knut the Holy, also known as Knut IV, who is the patron saint of Denmark as well as Knut Lavard’s uncle. (Scandinavian nobility clearly took the 100 Years of Solitude approach to naming their children.) Knut IV was a very hard but very devout king who appropriated lots of money from his people and then gave it to various churches in Denmark and Skåne, especially to Lund. Knut gets some posthumous props from me on Lund’s Cathedral, which he helped finance. It turned out nicely.
Jolly old St. Knut Lavard, the aforementioned Knut #1, whose claims to holiness are shaky at best. Photo: Fredrik Tersmeden (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In a move that could have been pulled straight from today’s political scene, a peasant revolt broke out, Canute and his men ran away, and then rebels stormed the church where Canute was taking refuge and killed him. People reported miracles taking place at his burial site, and then the crops mysterious failed to grow for the years following his death. (All this information is coming from Wikipedia and an online saint directory, by the way, so take it with a grain of salt.) Plus, Knut’s generous tithing had won him a big fan in the Church, so he was canonized in 1101.
Now here’s where the actual “20th Day” part gets a little shady. Knut #1, Knut Lavard, was supposedly killed on January 7, so that’s the date his feast day got assigned to. January 7 is very close to January 6, which is the Epiphany and the final day of the Christmas season in many countries around the world. St. Knut’s Day and the Epiphany got kind of blurred together in a general “let’s eat all the food left in the house” end of the holiday season celebration.
For some reason, in the 1600s, St. Knut’s Day got moved back a week to January 13 in the minds of those Scandinavians who celebrate the day, even though it’s still January 7 in the official church register. There are a couple of theories about this. Maybe the Lutheran Church wanted to strengthen its position by expanding the holiday season. It could also be that there was a church tradition of an “octave” period of eight days that would put another holiday on the 13th. In short, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who has a definitive reason for the “20th Day Knut” celebration.
Maybe the secret behind the date change is contained in these pages, taken from “Hur länge har tjugondag knut burit namnet Knut?” by Astrid Lindhagen, 1912. http://runeberg.org/fataburen/1912/0175.html
Here’s the fun part, though. In some parts of Sweden as well as in Finland and Norway, St. Knut’s Day had a Halloween-esque element. People would dress up as a scarecrow, a hag, or as a straw goat and go around the countryside, knocking on people’s doors and trying to scare the dickens out of them. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it started to be a little bit more like trick or treat: kids would get dressed up as witches or scarecrows—maintaining the emphasis on scary costumes—and ask for treats.
In recent years, however, the tradition has been dying out. Maybe it’s because the scary elements of Tjugondag Knut don’t jive with the mys-factor that permeates the rest of the season, or maybe it’s because we’re less willing as a society to eat 20-day old cookies and candy off the tree than we were before. Maybe it’s because the story behind St. Knut’s Day is too far removed from the present day and frankly doesn’t make any sense any more. Perhaps this will be one of the holidays that fades away over time and lives on only in history books.