Christmas is for the Birds

For generations the Swedes have fostered the holiday spirit by saving the last cuttings of the harvest to make a Julkarve, or Yule Sheaf. It’s a bundle of oats that’s hung on a lamp post, fence, or barn to feed the birds on Christmas morning.

As legend goes, if many birds come to eat, a good crop will follow. But it is also a reminder to all that no matter how lean the times, people have to share.

A field of drying oat bundles
Stalks of grain drying in a field will soon become part of the Christmas Yule Sheaf Grillby Lions in Stockholm sell to raise funds at Christmas time.

The Lions of Grillby, about 50 miles from Stockholm, have honored this heartwarming tradition since they chartered in 1965, making and selling the popular sheaves of oats. But the Lions aren’t just sharing their bounty with the birds, including the red-breasted bullfinch, Sweden’s popular Christmas bird. Year round they are using the US$4,000 (SEK35,000) earned from the sales to support diabetes and cancer research, Lions Quest, scholarships, Syrian refugee children in Turkey, and efforts to bring clean water to the people of Somalia.

They sow the oats each spring on Lion Gerth Thorsell’s land, and in August the harvest begins. There is nothing new or high tech about the process, says Lion Georg Nilsson. That’s what makes it special.  The self-binder from the 1950s is stored at Thorsell’s where it has to be tuned up each year to keep it running the next year and the year after. On harvest day, with Thorsell driving the tractor and Lion Lennart Sjoberg manning the bushel binder, the machine cuts and bundles the stalks of grain that are then left in the field to dry.

When dried, more Lions in the club of 19 will gather as many as 500 bushels and transport them home.

Two men pose next to a tractor in a field
Grillby Lions work the field in preparation for the Yule Sheaf Christmas sales.

For a few days and evenings in October and November, club members will work together to check the sheaves for flaws, making sure the straw ends are chopped even and the band around them is tight before packaging. In the package, there’s often a Christmas greeting from the Lions and a note telling the buyer what organizations will be supported by their purchase.

This year the club had 1,740 sheaves to package and sell.

Cart loads of sheaves are brought to their small town as Christmas approaches. With people eager to buy bunches of them, and with Lion Justus Wahlstrom taking the lead for the club, they sell them door-to-door and at Christmas markets for about US$5 each, not only making money but promoting their club. Support from neighboring clubs helps too.

People sort bundles of grain
Grillby Lions sort grain bundles and prepare them for sale.

“Since 1965, Lions Club Grillby has collected more than US$238,000 (more than 2 million SEK) which has gone in full to our relief activities,” says Nilsson, a Lion for more than 25 years. “We expect to continue selling Christmas shards for many years to come.”