Christmas Traditions in Norway
What type of country mixes celebrations of saints with deeply held suspicions about the presence of dwarfs – a country that is rightfully proud of its rich forests of Christmas trees but warns families to scan the countryside first for trolls?
The type of country whose eclectic Christmas traditions have been influenced by a myriad of cultural and historical events. So believe what you will, rebuke what you don’t, but come December 13 – the official start of the Christmas season – it’s time to wish everyone in Norway “Glædelig Jul,” which is Norwegian for “Merry Christmas.”
The celebration is relatively new in this country, which lies on the Scandinavian Peninsula, near the Arctic Circle. It was expedited by the arrival of Christianity in about 1100, with most residents eventually joining the Evangelical Lutheran Church. It remains the official church of Norway among a population of nearly 5 million, although many Roman Catholics also influence events during the country’s Christmas season.
Like some of their European counterparts, Norwegians celebrate St. Lucia Day on December 13, when tradition holds that the youngest daughter in the family should awake at dawn, don a white robe, red sash and a crown of evergreens and serve her family sweet Lucia buns and coffee. In this way, she honors the memory of St. Lucia, who was killed in the fourth century for secretly bringing food and water to the Christians hiding in Rome.
Similar processions are played out at Norwegian schools and churches, with little boys wearing white shirts and pointed hats. Many people regard Lucia to be an angel, but the tradition also represents a quest for the return of the sun, since her name, in Latin, means “light.”
And Norway, which is very close to the North Pole, is often shrouded in darkness. In fact, the northern portion of the country is called “the land of the midnight sun” because from the end of November to the end of January, the sun does not rise. In the earliest days, Christmas in Norway was merely a festival marking the transition from winter to spring, with many people toasting the pagan Scandinavian gods with juleol (beer).
Through the years, one Norwegian tradition has remained largely intact: many families still light a candle every night from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day. But it’s doubtful that a mere candle will scare away the trolls that many Norwegians believe roam the land between St. Lucia Day and Christmas. As they emerge from their caves, trolls are feared for their ferocity, but two-headed trolls are thought to be surprisingly friendly by comparison.
With any luck, Norwegian homes and farms are protected by gnomes. But there’s a proviso: children must leave their protector a bowl of porridge somewhere outdoors during Christmastime to placate him so that he keeps the peace.
Chances are the children will not forget, because families in Norway are fond of the outdoors and prefer to chop down their own Christmas trees. Norway is the most mountainous country in Europe, and with its vast forests of spruce and pine trees, it also features more Christmas trees than any other country in the world.
The Kingdom of Norway, as it is officially known, continues to share this source of national pride with the United Kingdom as a gesture of thanks for the country’s stalwart support during World War II. Every year, Norway ships a towering tree to England, where it stands in grandeur in Trafalgar Square in the middle of London. The annual tree-lighting ceremony there often draws hundreds of spectators who bask in the spirit of festivity and goodwill, from one kingdom to another.
The Christmas tree continues to be an important Norwegian focal point on Christmas Eve, but not before church bells ring out at 5 p.m. to signal the official start of Christmas. Called ringe julen, or “ringing in Christmas,” families gather around the tree in a circle. There, one person picks up a gift and hands it to the recipient. Everyone watches as the gift is opened, and then another person circles the tree and repeats this custom until all the gifts are opened. Children usually have to wait until Christmas morning for their gifts, which are delivered by a small gnome called Julenissen (also known as Julesvenn).
Later that night or the next day, the Christmas feast begins – often with a main course of fish that is readily available amid Norway’s ample islands, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and fjords. Lutefisk, made of dried fish, usually cod, is the sentimental favorite, accompanied by heaping side dishes of peas and potatoes.
Despite the popularity of lutefisk, Norwegians consider fårikål (lamb served with cabbage and peppercorns) to be their country's national dish. In fact, the meal is so popular that an entire day is set aside in its honor: National Farikal Day takes place the last Thursday in September. Temperate cooks prepare the dish with water; more daring ones use dark beer to imbue the lamb with added flavor. Either way, boiled potatoes, mashed rutabaga or sauerkraut round out the meal.
Norwegians may debate the main course, but it’s a rare Christmas buffet that doesn’t feature risengrynsgrøt (rice pudding) or riskrem (rice cream). Sometimes served with a fruit sauce made from strawberries, raspberries or blackberries, one of the portions is often served with a hidden almond, with the finder winning a prize, such as a foil-covered chocolate. Ideally, the finder isn’t a hungry gnome (who should be eating his porridge outdoors). The dish often competes with rommegrot, which is made from sour cream, flour and milk and has been a favorite among Norwegians since the days of the Vikings.
Not to be forgotten, children often gravitate toward a sweet bread called julekake, which features raisins, candied fruit, and cardamom, as well as Norwegian Christmas cake, which consists of mashed potatoes, raisins and nuts. And, of course, children are usually happy to gobble up an array of cookies, including pepperkaker (gingerbread cookies), kokosmakroner (coconut macaroons) and sirupsnipper (syrup snaps).
In Norway, Christmas celebrations continue until January 13, and there is still plenty to do in the meantime. Parties held after Christmas Day feature only foods that are all white to signify purity, such as lutefisk, lefse (a Norwegian potato pancake) and creamed potatoes.
But it’s the children whose custom truly embodies Norway’s compelling mix of fun and fantasy, for they indulge in a ritual similar to trick-or-treating by dressing up in costume and going door to door, asking for sweets and goodies.
The practice is called Julebukk, which follows since “Jul” is Norwegian for “Christmas.” What many newcomers to the country don’t always know is that the name is derived from a goat owned by Thor, the Norse god of thunder and storms. The Norwegians worshipped Thor in ancient times, and so it seems wholly appropriate that, like the gnomes and trolls he could most certainly intimidate, Thor’s powerful hand continues to add color and vibrancy to Christmas in Norway today.