Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Jenny Yearous's blog

Holiday Spiders, Goats, and Pigs: Learning about Different Christmas Traditions

In 2017 we received Christmas ornaments from the North Dakota Former Governor’s Residence. The ornaments were gifts from local chapters of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society of North Dakota, Three Crowns Swedish American Association, Sons of Norway, and the Ukrainian Cultural Institute. Starting in 1985, different ethnic-themed Christmas trees were decorated at the residence as each year another group donated ornaments. I have mostly English ancestry and I am not a native North Dakotan, so I was a bit confused by some of the ornaments. A dala horse, stave church, or rosemaled coffeepot with “God Jul” (Merry Christmas) I could understand.

3 Scandinavian Christmas ornaments

Scandinavian stave church, dala horse, and coffeepot ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.28, 2017.78.2, 2017.78.29)

But what is a tomte, and why were they on the tree? What was up with goat- and pig-shaped ornaments? Why would the Ukrainians put a spider’s web on the tree, or the Norwegians a stabbur (storehouse)? These just didn’t make sense to me, until I did my homework.

two small Scandinavian ornaments

Scandinavian stabbur and tomte ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.30, 2017.78.10)

The tomte and the stabbur are related. The Swedes (tomte) and Norwegians (nisse) have similar stories of a small creature with a long white beard wearing a brightly colored conical cap living in the storehouse, or stabbur, on a farm. If the farmer and his family treated the tomte well, it protected the farm and the items stored in the stabbur. If they were bad farmers or were not good to the tomte, it would pull small pranks or even ruin the farm as punishment. Every Christmas Eve, a bowl of sweet porridge or porridge with butter was left for the tomte to keep it happy. Now the tomte figure and stabbur made sense.

I am familiar with camels and sheep, even a donkey or reindeer, on Christmas trees but had never heard of pigs, goats, or spiders. I found out that in Scandinavian countries the Yule Goat might help deliver presents or could be ridden by Santa Claus instead of a sleigh. This idea can be traced back to before Christianity, when it was thought the Norse god Thor had a chariot pulled by two goats. It makes sense how the story of a Norse god with his goats could have been reimagined to be Santa Claus and a goat.

two Scandinavian goal ornaments

Scandinavian goat ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.13, 2017.78.11)

The pig is a little more complicated. In Germany, marzipan pigs are often gifted as signs of good luck for the new year. In Scandinavia, pork is an important part of the Christmas feast. It is thought that this goes back to the Old Norse religion, where the boar Saerimnir was killed and eaten every night in Valhalla, and sacrifices to the god Freyr were made for a good new year. These stories were combined and reimagined with the introduction of Christianity to become the tradition it is today. This background gave me an understanding of why there is a pig on the tree.

Two small Scandinavian pig ornaments

Scandinavian pig ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.1, 2017.78.24)

I found the spider’s web to be a lovely story. According to Ukrainian folklore, a poor family had a Christmas tree, but they had no money to decorate it. The children went to bed sad on Christmas Eve. Early the next morning, the children woke to find the tree covered in cobwebs. When the first rays of sunlight touched the spider’s webs, they turned into silver and gold, and the family was never poor again. Supposedly, this is the origin of tinsel on the Christmas tree. Also, in many European countries, spiders are thought to bring luck, and to destroy a spider’s web before the spider is safely out of the way is bad luck.

Ukrainian spiderweb ornament

Ukrainian spiderweb ornament (SHSND 2017.78.20)

In doing a little research, I learned a lot about Christmas traditions in different cultures and now have a greater appreciation for the diverse Christmas traditions of my adopted state. If you are in Bismarck, stop by the ND Heritage Center & State Museum through Jan. 2, 2020, to view these ornaments on our Community Tree.

Pigeons and Eggs and Bears, Oh My: Natural History Collection Research

People often have the misconception that objects we collect and preserve in the museum collection just sit around in the dark, and no one will ever see them unless they are on exhibit. On the contrary, the objects we hold have many purposes beyond exhibits. In my mind, research is one of the most useful purposes for an object in our collection. Our ethnographic collection has the most research requests, followed by our natural history collection. We have almost 4,000 specimens in natural history including large elk and bear mounts, small humming birds, fish, reptiles, insects, rocks, and fossils. Since many of our animal specimens were collected between 1900 and 1930, they represent species that are still common, some that are rare or no longer found in North Dakota, and a few that are now extinct.

Our natural history collection has generated myriad research projects. In 2001 our black-footed ferrets had their DNA tested by a researcher from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. She was looking at the loss of genetic diversity in black-footed ferrets when they almost went extinct in the 1980s. In 2012, a student working on his master’s degree in natural resource management cataloged the Holton Shaw egg collection (1991.54). The Shaw egg collection had been in our possession since 1924 but was never cataloged into the database since we didn’t have a biologist on staff. His work made this collection usable for future researchers. In 2014 our passenger pigeon drew visitors because of the 100th anniversary of the pigeon’s extinction.

Recently the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the University of Mary have invested time into a mutually beneficial research opportunity. When Dr. Michael Lares, a biology professor teaching an ornithology class, asked if his students could have access to our bird mounts and egg collections, I said “yes” with a slight hesitation. My hesitation was not because they were students, but rather because most of our specimens are preserved with arsenic, and I wanted to make sure the students would be safe when handling them. From our over 350 bird mounts and study skins, Dr. Lares picked study skins for the first lesson. The students learned how to take measurements that a researcher would normally do in the field. Learning how to do this on a dead specimen is much easier than on a live one. The students were able to learn how similar species varied and about the variation between individuals of one species.

Box of tagged birds

Study skins in storage. A study skin is typically stuffed with cotton with no attempt at a life-like pose.

three students measuring a bird

University of Mary students measuring a bird.

During the second lab, the students looked at the eggs. With more than 800 clutches of eggs (a clutch could consist of one egg to more than a dozen), they had many to choose from. The students gained experience measuring and describing eggs. They learned how size and shape varied between species and how shape and color were related to the nesting habitat.

box of bird eggs

Bird eggs in their storage boxes.

male student measuring an egg

Student measuring an egg.

Their third visit was set aside for a project to help the bird collection. I learned that as science progresses, the scientific names of birds have changed. The students checked the identification of a group of birds to see if they were properly identified.

two students checking bird identification tags

Students checking on bird identification.

This past year I also had the students photograph the birds. Many of birds were brought into the collection before photographing artifacts became standard practice. These photographs allow us to track changes to any artifact over time.

two students photographing a duck

Students photographing a duck.

This winter I was able to call on Dr. Lares and a few students to help me when I found some of the boxes that housed the eggs had been damaged during a water leak in our collections storage. I also found that all of the acid-free boxes had become acidic in the 27 years they had been used store the eggs. Dr. Lares and his students in one day made new acid-free boxes, transferred the eggs to the new boxes, put the eggs in numerical order, and did a box inventory. They found a few inventory mistakes including eggs in wrong boxes and clutches spread over two boxes. The eggs are now housed properly, and the database is up to date.

Dr. Lares commented, “I would not be able to teach the ornithology lab without the help of the collections at the Heritage Center, as study skins are difficult to obtain. Being able to work with the collection is a great opportunity for my students, and we also appreciate being able to give back through projects like verifying the identity of birds, photographing the specimens and re-housing eggs. It is a mutually beneficial collaboration.” In turn, I really appreciate all that Dr. Lares and his students have done to help the bird and egg collections. It is also good to know that these collections are being used for educational purposes.

There are still many opportunities for scientific research of all kinds in the State Historical Society’s natural history collections. For example, we are currently looking for someone who might be interested in working with our insect collection that has never been cataloged, nor have the insects been completely identified.

student and teacher moving boxed eggs

two students and the teacher with boxes of eggs

Students with Dr. Lares rehousing eggs.