"Stjernegutter" - The Star Boys Tradition of

This paper will concentrate on the tradition of starboys or stjernegutter in
Norway. In this case
I will use the Norwegian term stjernegutter instead of the English "starboys" or "starplay". The
English words can easily generate misunderstandings or misinterpretations of what I am going
to talk about here. Today, the stjernegutter act out their play on two locations in
Norway: in
the city of
Grimstad in the south and on the islands of Vigra, Giske and Valder? the west. I
will focus on the tradition in Grimstad (I apologise for my somewhat misleading abstract).

My sources are based on fieldwork conducted in Grimstad over Christmas and New Year in
1997, 1998 and 1999 as part of my work for my master thesis. Interviews, videos, photos,
observations and collection of other written sources were gathered during this period. Growing
up in Grimstad, I've also had the chance to experience and observe this tradition over a long
period of time.

So, what constitutes the tradition? Over Christmas and New Year, young boys in Grimstad
act out a short play based on the biblical account of the birth of Christ. The boys usually
perform at night, between the second day of Christmas and 6th of January which, according to
Christian tradition, is the day of celebration for the Three Kings. During this period the boys
visit private houses in the central and most populated areas of Grimstad. The boys also
perform on request at private parties and at different social events during Christmas. In
general, there are nine boys working actively as stjernegutter each year, plus one or two
substitutes. These boys are divided into three teams called stjernelag which get different areas
of Grimstad to visit.

The play involves young boys of around ten years old who dress up and act the characters of
the Three Kings going in search of the new-born Jesus. They are dressed in black trousers,
white shirts and black ties. They tie red sick scarves around their waists, the scarves then
hanging down their left legs. On their heads they wear white and red paper hats called
stjernehatter (starhats). The cylindrical hats are decorated with angels and stars and
approximately half a metre long. The performers also carry a big star with them, made of wood
and paper and decorated with red and white paper and with pictures of angels and stars. The
star is roughly one and a half metres in diameter and bigger than the boys themselves. Inside
the star there is a candle that is lit during each performance. The boys also paint their faces.
Using soot made from burnt cork, they paint their faces with moustaches and beards, thus
imitating adulthood.

The play has little dialogue. Indeed, the central part of the play involves the boys singing. For
the duration of the song, the lights in the room where they are performing are switched off and
the candle in the star is lit. During the song the star is turned around, specific movements are
made by the actors, and money is collected. Each play involves three boys. During the
performance, one of the boys switches into a role known "Judas with the purse". This happens
when money from the spectators are collected. Each year, the money is donated to Mother
Theresa's Catholic humanitarian organisation. When the stjernegutter are performing, there
can be anything from one to a hundred spectators present - all depending on whether the
performers are visiting private homes or larger events.

Field of interest
I will not discuss the stjernegutter as a ritual. Nor will I discuss the tradition in a historical
context, or focus on ritual experience ? even though all these perspectives are both interesting
and important. I will not be looking into the tradition, but behind it. I will try to focus on
exactly who is creating the tradition in question, and how this is carried out. By studying the
stjerneguttene and carrying out fieldwork I became aware that this particular tradition is
inspired, directed and controlled by a few people that functioned as experts.

During the last decade, discussions on what is normally called "cultural heritage" has become
increasingly important, both in public management and administration, as part of public social
and political debate, in political conflicts, in tourism and in national and regional constructions
of identity. Two examples of this can be seen in the European Community's recent focus on the
collective European cultural heritage, and UNESCO?s list of specific objects and places worth
protecting and preserving.

During the last few years, Cultural Heritage has also been a focus for academic studies. In this
context, the term "heritage" is ? as the Swedish folklorist Barbro Klein puts it ? : "...frequently
used to refer to phenomena in a group?s past that are given high symbolic value and, therefore,
must be protected for the future." Klein also emphasises the fact that "Heritage, then, is not
something that is merely there. It is selected or appointed in complex processes" (Klein
2000:25). This definition focuses on cultural heritage as a specific content produced in the
past, stressing that this content serves specific social functions in the present. When studying
cultural elements as cultural heritage, it is the dynamic between the specific content from the
past and the functions it serves in the present that one must focus on: what keeps it together,
what historical links are created ? all within the dimension of time and space. I?ll try to focus
on this here. Specific persons are central in this particular case: four persons, all known in
Grimstad for their interest and engagement in specific cultural elements and cultural issues,
have been particularly active in the transmission of the tradition. And they have been active for
decades. By doing so, they define how the stjernegutter are to be interpreted, and they manage
and direct the activities in the tradition. We can call them "tradition-experts". And here I am
touching on some of the same areas that Peter Tofosky talked about in his case-study from

There is no doubt that the stjernegutter in a certain perspective are a tradition. Certain practices
are rooted in the past. For generations, young boys have dressed up as stjernegutter and
performed a play for the inhabitants of Grimstad. What I want to avoid in this case is a view of
tradition as a phenomenon which transmits cultural elements from one generation to the next ?
as a kind of natural object with a life on its own. In this view, factors such as continuity and
authenticity serve as qualities inherent in the tradition itself. I would rather see tradition as a
different use of strategies and that these strategies are applied by certain specific experts. The
strategies refer to how the past is interpreted in the present (Handler and Linnekin). By
"strategies" I mean the way certain cultural elements from the past are chosen and transmitted
to the next generation, while others are forgotten. The term "strategies" implies that some
elements are seen as being more important to be transmitted and preserved for the future, while
others are valued as being less important. And this is of course important. When we look at the
past, it is always a question of how the past is interpreted in the present. When I look at the
amount of activity conducted by some people, I can with certainty conclude that the tradition is
given high symbolic value, and seen as being regarded as being important to protect ? to use
Barbro Klein?s words. This might not be surprising, as this tradition is far from controversial:
young boys are acting and singing, activities that it is sometimes difficult to get boys of this age
to carry out, and the collection of money serves as token of a collective consciousness of
humanity, just to mention a few aspects of the tradition. By not being controversial, but by
using symbols related to Christmas, it becomes a tradition that is not hard to sell. But what I
find more interesting here is how the tradition is given this symbolic value. I want to take a
look at which strategies are used in this process of transmission and preservation. What is
protected? Or constructed?

To understand the strategies involved we need to look at the tradition with the eyes of the
experts. How is the history interpreted by them? I will present a few examples.


According to the experts, the Stjernegutter have been a part of the Christmas celebration in
Grimstad from the second half of the 19th century. The oldest star still in use in the play dates
back to around 1900. People in Grimstad also point to a list which is said to exist, and
contains the names of all the young boys who have been active in the tradition from the late
1800s. The star and the list both serve as proof of the tradition's continuity in this period.

The different "objective" elements of the tradition have not changed much during the last
hundred years, according to the experts. However, the boys who played in the past were a few
years older. From the second half of the 19th century, there have always been three boys in the
play, nicely and neatly dressed in white skirts and black trousers, and the places where they
have performed have remained the same: private houses and large social events. There have
never been any girls actively involved in the tradition, and this is used as an argument for the
continuous exclusion of girls. During the whole period of time that the tradition has been
going, the boys who have been recruited to be stjernegutter, have been connected to the school
in the centre of Grimstad. This is also the case today. In this way, in the eyes of the experts, the
tradition has retained its acting arena in the city. In the past, some people have noted the fact
that the best areas of Grimstad are those in the centre of the town, and that the tradition in this
respect is thus defined by class. Is it a tradition for the rich and wealthy? This is not thematized
by the experts, however. Their arguments are based on what they interpret as being tradition.
Here some memories are selected and underlined, while others are suppressed or forgotten.

Mentality - Independence

The story goes ? according to the experts - that during the second world war, the tradition
went on every Christmas despite the collective Nazi curfew of Norwegians and the strong
dislike and prohibition of the tradition. This story has been transmitted during the decades
since the war. Late at night, throughout Christmas the young boys were supposedly sneaking
round house-corners, secretly visiting houses and by doing this, keeping the tradition alive
throughout the war. I have not been able to confirm whether these stories in fact are true or
not, but the story itself is interesting. The story symbolises in a strong way the view of
stjerneguttene as an independent tradition. The stjernegutter could not be stopped by the war or
the Nazis, and went out of their way to give the people of Grimstad their star, even though this
was both dangerous and illegal. The stjernegutter can in this sense even be said to represent a
part of the various forms of resistance during the war - and as such - a symbol of

This emphasis on the tradition as being a strong, independent tradition that would not bow to
external factors is also powerful today. As one of the persons active in the transmission of the
traditions puts it - and I quote ? "I?ve been scared to death by the thought that some Christian
organisation will take over the responsibility for the tradition". The protection of the tradition
is important on many levels, as regards, for example, as freedom of expression, freedom to
choose who money will be donated to, and the freedom for boys outside a particular Christian
community to be involved. All of these factors can definitely be discussed in terms of the
tradition as it exists today, but it is not in general seen as being problematic by the people of
Grimstad. As the tradition is interpreted in a historical perspective ? in terms of being
independent - this is also protected in the tradition today and for the future. The independence
is seen as a quality, and makes the tradition a "tradition for all", not one defined by specific
religious, economic or social factors. The religious content in the tradition is not
communicated in any particular way, even though the Catholic roots are obvious. And when
the experts do not emphasise the religious aspect, the religious content and meanings in the
tradition are set aside. What is interesting, though, is the indisputable fact that two of the
experts are practising Catholics. Why this religious freedom? Let me point at one possible
explanation: by claiming independence and religious freedom, the tradition has the best
potential for common participation in the tradition in a post-modern, secularised and
multicultural society.

Every year, the children in fifth grade at Grimstad Primary School get a visit. In December, one
of the central persons in the tradition visits the pupils in order to recruit performers, telling
them about the history of the tradition, and giving them specific instructions about how the
play is performed. This particular person ? a man of around sixty years old ? has four
generations of stjernegutter in his family. He is considered an "expert" on the tradition by the
people in Grimstad, and has been active over a long period of time in the transmission of the
tradition. You can find four or five "experts" of this kind in Grimstad. His visit to the school is
one of the things he does in this regard. He also gets the local paper to write about the

This visit, however, is not the first time the pupils hear about stjerneguttene. In earlier grades
at school, the tradition of the stjernegutter has an integrated role in the pupils' education in
local history. The material used in this education is assembled by one of the experts. During the
month of December, the young boys and girls also get a visit from the boys who will be
stjernegutter the following Christmas. In the first years of school the pupils are given drops of
information and experience the tradition, and in this way are "prepared" for the task itself when
they are old enough and the opportunity might arise. Among other things they also experience
the play live - so to speak ? when new boys are practising as stjernegutter.

For the persons involved in the transmission of the history of the tradition, and in the training
of new boys, this is utterly important. In the training of new boys, a video film is used ? a "blue
copy" as they put it ? to show the boys how the play is performed. The video stems from a
recording of the stjernegutter in the 80s made by the Norwegian Broadcasting Company.
Through the use of a video, the performance can be copied by the boys: movement, the
singing, the dialogue, the clothes ? everything. And this is exactly the point. The video
represents the tradition as it is meant to be according to the experts, and therefore it is
important that the transmission is as accurate as possible. For the experts, it is important to
sustain ritual continuity, and this is the way in which this is secured.

The way in which the boys are educated in school, and the video used in the learning of the
ritual, makes the tradition a homogenic unit. One specific version of the stjernegutter is
created. But it is also a regressive process in which an attempt is made to protect the historical
ritual. In one way, one can (perhaps) say that what is presented today is an idea of how it all
was ? further back in time.

Material objects

Another element of interest in the tradition is the star - or more precisely - the stars that are
used by the boys in the play. Today there are four stars of which three are in use. The fourth is
preserved in the local museum in Grimstad. The stars are of different ages: the oldest has been
dated back to around 1900, on the basis of markings inside the star. This particular star serves
as a model for what new stars should look like, and how old ones should be restored. During
the last few years, some people have tried to make the star more modern and practical. One
year, a star was covered in plastic by one of the boys' parents. The idea was to make it less
vulnerable in use. This was disapproved of by one of "the experts" that I have referred to
earlier, and was altered after having been in use for only one season. Other parents have
wanted to change the light inside the star to electric light ? to avoid the danger of burning
candles being carried in stars of paper and wooden, and to ease the work for the young
performers. This has also been rejected. The arguments are clear. It is worth quoting the
reactions of some of the persons involved: "By keeping it as it has always been, the continuity
is easily secured" ? "If you change these things, I think the tradition will lose some of its
content, and some of its meaning" ? "In making the tradition modern, you will lose a specific
ritual experience".

By underlining the specific ways in which the stars are to be restored, by using the same
material - and really going out of their way to get exactly the same material - the star functions
not only as a symbol of the past. By refusing to allow people to bring new material to the stars
? time in some ways is frozen in around 1900.


One of the conclusions we can draw from all of this is the obvious fact that the tradition of the
stjernegutter in Grimstad is not "merely there" to use the expression of Barbro Klein. Specific
people are involved in the process in which new boys every year are picked out to be
stjernegutter. Furthermore ? the material objects used in the tradition, and the way in which the
boys dress and act, are all directed by a just few people who are considered as being "experts"
in the tradition.

So to try to provide some answers about what is protected, one can say that the act of
protection can be recognised in both specific ideas about the tradition, and in concrete material
objects. As Jack Santino noted earlier, there is a certain consciousness regarding the tradition
that these tradition-experts are trying to pass on. And when it comes the material objects, time
has been frozen in more than one way.







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last updated: 8 February 2003