by guest blogger Louisa Andersen
Norwegians love Christmas and all that it brings – the magical atmosphere of snowy streets and lights in every window, Christmas markets filled with traditional gifts, quality time spent with family and friends, and the chance that you might be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights. In Norway, the holiday season has an almost sacred quality to it – you don’t mess with Christmas!
My name is Louisa and I have been friends with Erica from Return Refreshed for almost 20 years now. I first met Erica back in high school, when I had just left my family behind in Norway to venture into the world as a young-adult. Despite having lived in the Bay Area as a kid, I had never even visited Southern California before, and Erica took me under her wing and gave me a family in LA. I will forever be grateful to her for that.
When Erica asked me a few months ago if I would share my experiences of Norwegian Christmas with her readers, I jumped at the chance! There is something truly special about Christmastime in Norway and it is always the most peaceful and restful part of my year. I know for some, that must be hard to believe, but let me tell you why…
Christmas in Norwegian is ‘jul’ (pronounced ‘yule’). Growing up, our family’s holiday traditions may have seemed strange to the average outsider, but to us, Christmas/jul was a perfectly formed amalgamation of our two cultures, American and Norwegian. My mother took the best of both our culture’s traditions and beautifully blended them into our family’s own unique celebration – one that seemed to remain unchanged regardless of which country we were celebrating in at the time. (My family moved a lot, but we’ll save that story for another time!) I now live in the UK with my British husband, but to this day, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a trip to Norway, celebrating with my family. And it would be almost impossible for me to write about Norwegian Christmas without peppering it with our family’s quirky traditions!
A Truly Tranquil Holiday Season
One of the most notable differences I have experienced between Christmas in Scandinavia and Christmas in other places I have lived is how noticeably peaceful Norway is during the holidays. While some nations seem to be more focused on the commercial aspect of the holidays (don’t get me wrong, Norwegians like to shop, too!) Norway seems more focused on Christmas being a time of peace, rest, and tradition. You won’t find the shopping malls packed in Norway with post-Christmas Day sales, in fact, it is common for many businesses to remain closed in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The most common way to spend that week is with family, eating leftover Christmas food and enjoying the great outdoors, no matter how cold it might be!
Norwegian Christmas starts with the period of Advent, on the first Sunday of the month. The season is marked with the lighting of a traditional advent candle and singing the first verse of a Norwegian advent song that can be heard in homes and churches across the nation. This ritual takes place each Sunday before Christmas, with the fourth and final candle being lit and the last verse of the song sung on Christmas Eve.
During the advent period, Norwegians will decorate their homes with traditional star and heart ornaments, watch old children’s programs from years gone by, and start their Christmas baking. A popular tradition in Norway is to make pomander balls – a clementine decorated with cloves and hung from a red ribbon. As the fruit dries and fuses with the cloves, it releases a wonderful aroma into the house. Incidentally, clementines are also one of the most popular things to eat in Norway during the Christmas season… it doesn’t matter what time of year it is or where I am when I eat a clementine – as soon as I start peeling one and those sharp citrusy notes hit my nose, I am instantly transported to Christmastime in Norway!
December is the darkest month in Scandinavia, with some parts of the region experiencing full 24-hr darkness. This is partly what makes the holidays so atmospheric there – it’s a time to bundle up in your warmest clothing and light up your home with candles and decorations. And if you’re lucky, you might even be treated to a stunning display of the Northern Lights. Christmas may be ‘dark’ in Norway, but the snow reflecting the many twinkling lights seems brighter than any other place I’ve spent the holidays, and is what gives Norway its magical and unique feel.
One of my favorite things to do in Norway during the holidays is to visit the local Christmas market. These are not your typical commercial markets, with the sounds of blaring pop music and children screaming on rides – they’re mostly quiet and peaceful places, with stalls commonly run by local farmers and craftspeople, selling everything from handmade soaps and knitted sweaters to fresh meats and cheeses. You can also get your tree at the market or a last-minute wreath to give to your neighbor. You know you’re at the market when you catch that first whiff of caramelized roasted almonds – no trip would be complete without a warm bag in tow!
Please don’t get Norwegian Christmas confused with the Scandinavian concept of ‘hygge’. We have long been mis-sold sweaters and candles as the “necessary” items needed to achieve hygge but this is a commercialized misrepresentation. Hygge is not a thing, it is an idea, and it exists at all times of the year, not just during the holidays or when it’s cold outside. To experience hygge is to acknowledge and enjoy the moment you’re in. Of course, this can include things like candles and cozy blankets, but it’s the way in which you appreciate them that makes it ‘hygge’, not the items themselves.
In Norway, we also use the word ‘koselig’ (pronounced ‘cool-shlee’) to describe the concept. There isn’t really a word in the English language that sums it up, but cozy gets you 75% of the way there. Koselig is mostly a social concept, usually experienced in time spent with others. If you’ve ever lived in Norway, you will have grown very familiar with the word. Norwegians are good at acknowledging and enjoying their relaxing pauses, and it’s partly what makes Christmas there so special.
Little Christmas Eve – aka ‘Lille Juleaften’
The 23rd is known to Norwegians as ‘Little Christmas Eve’, or ‘lille juleaften’. Traditionally, this is when the family gets together and cleans the house for Christmas – they even have a dedicated word for this, ‘julevasken’, which literally translates to ‘the Christmas clean’. There’s even a song about cleaning and Christmas preparations by one of Norway’s most well-known sons, Alf Prøysen.
After the big Christmas clean is complete, the tree goes up, and is decorated with candle-like lights and Norwegian flags. In our house, we usually break this tradition by putting the tree up earlier in the month, but ‘Little Christmas Eve’ still comes with its Norwegian aspects, one of which is to eat rice porridge when all the hard work is done. This warm dish is traditionally served with a melting pool of hot butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. It’s customary to hide an almond in the mixture and whoever finds it in their bowl is awarded a marzipan pig!
Making Christmas hearts (traditionally with felt but you can also use paper) is a common yuletide activity in Scandinavian households. These pretty decorations can be hung from the tree or around the house. Check out this tutorial to make your own!
Perhaps the biggest difference between American and Norwegian Christmas is the celebration of Christmas Eve. In Norway, the 24th is traditionally the main event.
Norwegians are usually finished with their shopping by Christmas Eve and it’s a quiet morning often spent at home. In the early afternoon, families will dress in their finest clothing (often traditional costume) and meet at the local church for a service. Most Norwegians aren’t regular churchgoers, but every church in the land is packed on Christmas Eve. There, children will normally perform a play, and it’s common to sing carols together. One of the most popular Norwegian Christmas carols is ‘Deilig er Jorden’ (Fairest Lord Jesus), performed here by The Norwegian Girls Choir.
(Video: Deilig er Jorden, Det Norske Jentekor)
If you just listened to that and are wondering why you recognized the tune, it may be because it was part of the inspiration behind the song Vuelie, the theme to the movie Frozen, composed by Norwegian musician Frode Fjellheim. This version, sung by the now world-famous Norwegian choir Cantus, it’s sure to get you in the Nordic Christmas spirit!
After church on Christmas Eve, families will go home and eat their Christmas dinner together. The meal will vary depending on where you live in Norway – each region of the country has its traditional dish. In some places they eat sausages and mashed root vegetables, others will enjoy pork belly or lamb with all the trimmings, and in the coastal regions, it’s common to eat fish. Some Norwegians indulge in the famous (or infamous!) ‘lutefisk’, though it is most common to eat meat.
In our house, we have a good ole fashioned turkey with all the trimmings – more American in style. Because Norwegians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving (it’s just a normal working day there) our family decided one year to save the Thanksgiving meal for Christmas instead, and thus a new family tradition was born. My mom even makes a pumpkin pie!
Cookies and cakes are also popular in Norway, with gingerbread cookies (‘pepperkake’) being the most popular. Believe it or not, it’s actually more common in Norway to buy your pepperkake premade, either in dough form or already baked. If you want to try them at home this year, this brand is pretty close to the real thing. At our house, we usually make a mix of Norwegian and American cookies… my siblings and I have shared many friends among us through the years that loved coming to our house for the ‘special’ Christmas cookies!
After dinner on Christmas Eve, Norwegian kids get a visit from Santa, known as ‘julenissen’, who always comes to the door to deliver his gifts in person (often Santa is played by a neighbor or relative!). Then they open all of their presents together. This is where our family does things the more American way – we’ve always waited until Christmas morning.
On Christmas Day, Norwegians will enjoy a large breakfast/brunch type meal, called ‘Julefrokost’. This is another tradition that combines cultures in our house, with both Norwegian and American dishes making it to the table. The meal may have ‘breakfast’ in the name, but it’s more like a meal that lasts all day! We usually wait until after presents to have ours, and inevitably end up re-visiting the table and nibbling until bedtime… If you don’t go to bed stuffed on Christmas Day, you’re doing it wrong!
Some of you may remember watching Rick Steves’ European Christmas special back in 2005, where Norwegian Christmas got a notable mention. This short festive documentary focusses on Christmas traditions all throughout Europe – from England to Norway, Paris and Rome, to the top of the Swiss Alps. It’s sure to put you in the Christmas spirit! You can watch it here.
I hope you enjoyed this little trip to Norway and that it might inspire you to incorporate some Norwegian Christmas traditions into your own holiday celebrations this year!
Merry Christmas, or as we say in Norway, God Jul!