Dark Traditions

This Saturday we celebrate Skull Sunday.

Bremanger #1

Bremanger #1

In two days time I’m leaving for Spain to not celebrate Christmas. This is an attempt to make the Christmas holiday an actual holiday (also to escape Norway’s soggy winter darkness). But before ditching all traditions, let’s observe some traditions.

Bremanger #2. Family photographs

Bremanger #2. Family photographs

Skull Sunday is a perversion of old traditions observed through need, transformed into a celebration itself. I’ve touched upon the topic before: It’s the annual eating of boiled sheep heads.

Bremanger #3

Bremanger #3

Bremanger is the island where my father grew up. The default weather here is shite. This close to winter solstice daylight lasts only for a few measly hours. The dark grey landscape is regularly lit with vulgar Christmas displays. Neon santas riding neon reindeers through neon snow are out of place in more ways than one. Mostly because this doesn’t feel like winter at all. Outside temperature was close to 13 centigrades when I got up at nine this morning. That’s a nicer temperature than we had mid summer.

Winds are rocking the old house, darkness is creeping in, half eaten half heads of lamb are piling up on the kitchen table.

It all feels very wrong in just the right way.

Bremanger #4. Workbench

Bremanger #4. Workbench

Bremanger #5. Cigarette Jesus

Bremanger #5. Cigarette Jesus

Bremanger #6. Food cooking

Bremanger #6. Food cooking

Bremanger #7. Potato

Bremanger #7. Potato

Bremanger #8. Christmas

Bremanger #8. Christmas

Bremanger #9. Food is ready

Bremanger #9. Food is ready

Bremanger #10. Road off the island (closed)

Bremanger #10. Road off the island (closed)

Skull Sunday

Ever had a staring contest with dinner?

Skull Sunday #1. Serves three

Skull Sunday #1. Serves three

When I photograph food for clients, we’re usually speaking of the gourmet stuff, prepared and styled to look its very best: let’s say scallops hand picked by the restaurant’s own divers, seared to perfection and carefully arranged in their shells on a sculpted mound of sea salt and… you get the picture. All at a price point that could probably get you a decent secondhand car in any former Soviet satellite state.

Skull Sunday #2. Bremanger

Skull Sunday #2. Bremanger

This is of course pretty far removed from what most of us consider everyday meals. But on the opposite end of the scale, and for many as equally removed from the everyday as a Michelin starred restaurant, you find the hardcore tradionalism. Food customs observed through nostalgia, mostly by the older generation. Such as Skull Sunday.

Skull Sunday #3. Bremanger. Again

Skull Sunday #3. Bremanger. Again

Skull Sunday #2. Simmering sheep

Skull Sunday #4. Simmering

Let’s set the scene. I wake up in a tiny bedroom in my grandmother’s house on the island of Bremanger. My dad or perhaps one of his brothers must have slept here as a kid. Old music posters of Ian Anderson, Marc Bolan, Suzi Quatro and some local 70s bands unheard of even in Norway are still gracing the walls, or rather, covering holes in even older wallpaper. Fat, lazy winter flies are buzzing like small drunken helicopters. Gusts of wind reaching storm strength are shaking the entire house, having torn off the roof of a community house a few nights before. In a basement periodically flooded, on an old electrical stove top, sheep heads are boiling.

Skull Sunday #2. Blink, blink

Skull Sunday #5. Blink, blink

Skjeltesøndag – literally “skull sunday” – is traditionally a local variation on the old concept of the dirty Sunday, the last Sunday before Christmas when after cleaning the house one was allowed to wear everyday clothes to the dinner table, to save one’s formal attire for Christmas. In the same vein, one was also supposed to save the good foods for Christmas, on this day eating lesser foods such as the heads of sheep. Only that somewhere along the way sheep heads made the transition from a lesser food to something of a celebration in itself. A delicacy, actually.

Go figure.

FAQ

Is it any good?
Actually, the meat is quite tasty, this is after all, just lamb meat. But I’ll willingly admit that I find the overall experience quite disturbing. There is something about food that stares back.

Speaking of which – do you eat the eye?
Hell no. But my great grandmother did. Lustily, I am told.

Is it even legal?
Lamb heads are. Adult head production is forbidden due to fear of scrapies.