This New Year’s Eve, Try Årsgång: A Year Walk
A Swedish Ritual for Divining Your Future
“I went looking for a new practice that was kinder to my waistline than a Swedish pancake fest and kinder to my wallet than a trip to Ikea. I landed on the practice of årsgång.”
According to my ancestry report, I’m 29.6 percent Swedish. You’d never know it from my Midwestern-twang-meets-New-York-sass dialect. Most people rightly guess I’m part Scottish since I wear a tartan kilt for clergy duties and still pull off a reasonable Highland Fling. Yet my Swedish side has always been a bit elusive even to me―especially since my great aunt Aimee died.
Aimee Adelaide Möllenhoff was a statuesque woman with dark black hair, always wrapped in a tight bun. When visiting her in rural Iowa during my childhood, my sister and I would sneak up her back stairs to watch Aunt Aimee remove a seemingly unending amount of bobby pins each night, unleashing waist-long locks we envied.
We also coveted her sing-song accent—which reminded us of the Swedish chef from the Muppets. Before each meal, she would stand and offer a short prayer, “I Jesu namn till bords vi gå, välsigna Gud den mat vi få.” Yet, try as we might, neither my sister nor I could grow that hair or pronounce those words.
Recently coming across an old photo of her, I decided to recover my Swedish heritage. So, I went looking for a new practice that was kinder to my waistline than a Swedish pancake fest and kinder to my wallet than a trip to Ikea. I landed on the practice of årsgång, a ritual intended to unveil what the future might bring. Traditionally practiced on the eve of various holidays, it seemed like the perfect New Year’s Eve inspiration for this year-gone-awry.
Roots of the Årsgång Tradition
Folklorists note the heyday of årsgång happened from the 17th century through the early 20th century, most prominently in southern Sweden. In English, the practice can loosely be translated as “year walk.” Not walking for a year, mind you, but rather a walk that was done annually.
Although the specific tasks varied widely depending on where and when one lived, there were some constants. Fasting usually preceded the walk. It was done at midnight and must conclude before dawn. Finally, the walk usually progressed in a leftwards direction and included circling something—such as a church or other building―a specified number of times.
How the walk was done also mattered. “A year walker was not allowed to laugh, stray from the path, or look back, and he or she needed to be prepared to see things that could seem comical, alarming, or baneful,” reveals Tommy Kuusela, a researcher in Uppsala, Sweden, who has studied 18th-century manuscripts and hundreds of archived records.
Purposeful walkers might undertake the journey to increase their luck in the coming year or in hopes of learning practical magic. Many sought access to hidden insights. Kuusela explains, “Success meant that the omen-seeker could acquire knowledge of the following year; it was a ritual that sought answers regarding the unbearable uncertainty of being.” And so, on the return trip home, one might receive omens about how next year’s harvest, whether there would be illness or death, or if a budding romance loomed on the horizon.
Supernatural beings sometimes delivered the messages. For example, otherworldly small men carrying large bushels of crops could foretell a prosperous harvest.
Yet, not all beings were of the pleasant variety. No, årsgång was not for the faint of heart. Wandering around in churchyards after midnight could be a perilous task. For example, being touched by Gloson, the fierce ghost pig, might cause bad luck, illness, or even death. (Well-prepared walkers carried seven-year-old nuts to feed Gloson, and thus alleviate any adverse outcomes.)
A Modern Adaptation of Årsgång
As this new year arrives, none of us will be packing dancefloors or kissing strangers at midnight. Few of us will be donning sparkly evening wear or calling late-night Ubers. While some of us may have one more Zoom event still in us, many of us may be thinking with abundant sarcasm, “Oh, joy. Another holiday spent in my sleepy pants on the sofa.”
We probably all have high hopes for 2021. With the recent Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius leading the way, perhaps our time is best spent on a new year’s walk to make the hidden visible—and to envision a year worth looking forward to.
Begin your New Year’s Eve with fasting to help prepare your body, mind, and spirit for metaphysical connection. (Get fasting tips here.)
Take a delicious mid-afternoon nap wrapped in soft blankets. Consider applying essential oils―such as peppermint or rosemary―to an eye mask to stimulate your spiritual energy.
During the evening, avoid screens and media, opting for slower activities such as reading, crafting, or puzzling.
Shortly before midnight, toss a small notebook in your pocket and head outside. Walk at an easy pace three times around your house or apartment building in a counter-clockwise direction, using whatever illumination is necessary to do so safely. As you walk, observe what is around you without speaking. Just tread silently and slowly.
After the third pass, find somewhere to sit comfortably. Ask yourself this question, “What needs to be revealed?” Jot down any messages you receive in your notebook.
Try a Swedish practice to start your day on the right note: “Got Gökotta?”