In search of Christmas: Where spectral lights brighten dark winter nights—Norway
|The dazzling display of the Northern Lights over Tromsø, Norway. Photo: Mark Robinson.
In search of Christmas this year brings us to the land where mystical northern lights dazzle the nights of winter while echoes of Nordic traditions resound throughout the valleys of the fjords—welcome to Christmas in Norway and with that, I wish you God Jul or Glædelig Jul (Good Christmas or Happy Christmas).
|Christmas shopping at Røros. Photo: Thomas Rasmus Skaug - Visitnorway.com.
As we begin our journey through Christmas, we'll discover a rich tapestry of Norwegian juletid woven together over time since pagan customs yielded to Christianity more than a thousand years ago. Tales of old will come to light as we meet mythical denizens of the barn, follow the procession of light, listen to the pealing of Saint Olaf's bells in Balestrand and relive hilarious moments from a film that has since become an annual Norwegian classic on "Little Christmas Eve." Adding even more texture are the family traditions celebrated by new friends whom I met last year during my visit to this kingdom of the north; each adding their own richness, color and flavor to this joyful season. You'll find their stories below in "Shared Traditions." I hope you enjoy this Christmastime expedition to Norway.
Legends of Mythical Yuletide Characters
Fjøsfissen or Nisse (The Barn Elf)
|The Barn Elf or Fjøsnissen rests in the barn after a full bowl of porridge. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Based on Scandinavian folklore, Fjøsnissen or the Barn Elf is a tiny man who dresses in gray and wears a little red hat that if turned inside out to reveal its gray lining, renders him invisible as he blends in perfectly with the bleak gray winter landscape. As you may have guessed, this shy little elf lives in the barn but he's quite the farmhand and on Christmas Eve, he waits for his bowl of porridge and mug of beer. If the farmers forget to bestow his food and drink, he wreaks havoc in the form of jokes and pranks. Oftentimes, the Fjøsnissen was the scapegoat for unexplained phenomena and because of this, a bowl of porridge and mug of beer are still left out today for the Fjøsfissen's merry making.
Julenisse (The Christmas Elf or Santa Claus)
|Julenisse combines many elements of Fjøsnissen and the more familiar Santa Clause. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Sharing many similarities with the Fjøsfissen, Julenisse combines the elements of the former with those of the more familiar Santa Claus. But this Norwegian figure who travels from house to house on Christmas Eve, requests songs from the children in exchange for his gifts. Most of kids sing "På Låven sitter Nissen" or "In the Barn, Sits the Elf" and according to my Norwegian friends, you can't go a Christmas party without hearing this song as least once. Enjoy!
Jul or Jol
When Nordic settlers lived by the Germanic calendar before the end of the first millennium, long before the Julian and Gregorian calendars, Jul was the season that marked the midway point between the recent harvest and spring. Extending from mid-November to mid-January, it was the time for celebrating—for the work of the harvest was now behind them, the animals were fatted for slaughter and it would be sometime before the springtime planting. These winter solstice fetes always began with juleol (beer) drinking parties, a tradition that remains today once Advent arrives.
|Christmas at the City Hall in Haugesund, Norway. Photo: Haakon Nordvik.
According to one my friends from Haugesund, Ingun, the period between mid-December and mid-January is known as Mörsugur (translated "absorb fat") according to the Viking calendar which divided the year into lunar phases—from full moon to full moon. Mörsugur was the third winter month and it was very important for Norwegians to eat hearty meals during the bitter cold of winter. My friend Ingun explained that very little work is carried out during Mörsugur, just as it was in the Viking Age. And if you should be visiting Norway during the holidays and a Norwegian stops to wish you a nice Mörsugur, it means both Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
|Christmas Market in Haugesund. Photo: Haakon Nordvik.
With Advent comes Norway's Christmas markets and lots of juleol as I mentioned above with many parties heralding the season. Donning their holiday finest, enchanting Christmas markets brighten cold winter nights with twinkling lights and festive chalets brimming with delights from handcrafted gifts to tasty morsels of deliciousness. Imagine a visit to Bergen's Gingerbread Town and the aromas of fresh-baked gingerbread wafting through the air!
Saint Lucia Day, December 13
|Saint Lucia processional in Norway. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
For centuries, most European nations have celebrated Saint Lucia Day but she's a relative new comer to Norway arriving only after World War II when the tradition was imported from Sweden— Luciadagen. [According to MyLittleNorway.com, Saint Lucia was originally introduced in Norway at the end of the first millennium but long forgotten especially after the Protestant Reformation swept through Norway in the 16th century.]
Saint Lucia embodies light in the bleakness of winter's longest night—winter solstice which on the Julian calendar fell on December 13, hence the reason why Saint Lucia Day is December 13. Saint Lucia is our patron saint of light, and the blind, and is personified by a young girl dressed in white and around her head, a wreath of light (candles). Leading a processional of boys and girls also dressed in white, Lucia bestows gifts of her Lussekatter or Lucia sweet bread (boller).
In the time leading up to Christmas, another friend hailing from Trondheim, Gunhild, has shared with me that she really enjoys Christmas concerts to get into the Christmas spirit. She then adds that "Christmas is about reflecting and being with family."
|Trondheim's Julemarkedet (Market Square Christmas Market). Photo: Sven-Erik Knoff | www.fotoknoff.no.
Little Christmas Eve
|Haugesund Christmas Magic. Photo: Haakon Nordvik.
This tradition came as a complete surprise to me in many ways—Little Christmas Eve, and December 23 is a big night in Norway. It is on "Little Christmas Eve" when families gather together to put up their Christmas tree and make homemade decorations including heart baskets, strings of Norwegian flags and of course gingerbread! Among the scrumptious treats served is a Norwegian favorite—julegrøt or risengrynsgrøt—hot rice pudding served with sugar, cinnamon and butter. Inside, an almond is hidden and if you're the lucky one to find it in your serving, you win a delicious marzipan pig, reminiscent of the times when pigs were highly valued possessions.
One of my Norwegian friends, Beate, told me of a tradition that has grown in popularity throughout Norway, watching the classic, "Dinner for One" while the Christmas tree is being decorated. Again, another surprise to me because I have never heard of this Christmastime classic that originally aired on German TV in 1963. As it turns out, it's shown on National Norwegian television every year. Have you seen it?
In Beate's own words, "Ask ANY Norwegian about this, this is a huge Christmas tradition actually!"
Little Christmas Eve at the Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand
|Little Christmas Eve at the Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand, Norway. Photo: Courtesy of Kviknes Hotel.
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of my visit to Norway was my stay in the Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand. They call it the "Jewel of the Sognefjord" and it's no surprise when you see this "Swiss-style" hotel rising from the shores along the fjord. Add snow, and it's a picture-perfect Christmas card. Originally opening in 1877, the Kviknes Hotel remains owned and operated by the Kvikne family and since my visit, we've become good friends. You'll find them mentioned often throughout this article.
On Little Christmas Eve, the Kviknes Hotel proprietor Sigurd Kvikne and his sons venture into the forest to cut down their Christmas tree and later, gather in the evening for the decorating festivities. One of their favorite drinks is gløgg or mulled wine.
|Gålå in Gudbrandsdalen. Photo: Terje Rakke/Nordic life - Visitnorway.com.
Of all the juletid celebrations in Norway and like many other European nations, Christmas Eve is the main event of the holiday. The day is spent rushing around to buy last minute gifts, attending church and heading home for the Christmas Eve feast and the much-anticipated arrival of Julenisse. At 5 p.m., the bells of Christmas ring throughout the villages in Norway to welcome the holiday.
|Christmas market at Norsk Folkemuseum. Photo: Theresa Søreide/Norsk Fokemuseum - Visitnorway.com.
Undoubtedly, dinner tables throughout Norway will be serving the traditional fare: pinnekjøtt—smoked or dried lamb ribs; fresh codfish especially along the southern coast of Norway; Christmas ham; turkey—among others—with the most delectable side dishes of potatoes, sausages, meatcakes and lingonberries.
|A scrumptious view of the Kransekake ring cake. Photo: Nathanael Hevelone.
Following the main feast will be sweet indulgences like Småkaker, a kind of smorgasbord of different cookies; Multekrem made of cloudberries (Norway's answer to the raspberry) and whipped cream; Kransekake or almond ring cake; Julekake made of raisins, candied peels and spices; and my favorite, Marzipan, especially when it's coated in chocolate.
|Tasty treats from from Trondheim's Julemarkedet (Market Square Christmas Market). Photo: Sven-Erik Knoff | www.fotoknoff.no.
And filling the mugs and glasses will be gløgg, Norway's answer to mulled wine. Oh yes, you'll find plenty of aquavit (water of life) and juleøl (beer) too!
|Norway's answer to mulled wine—Gløgg. Photo: Knuton.
After dinner, Julenisse finally arrives but there won't be any gifts until everyone performs a Christmas song for him.
Here's a wonderful video from Rick Steves that captures the magic of Jul.
Gunhild from Trondheim:
"We always listen to the Sølvguttene synger julen inn (Silver boys sing Christmas)."
Christmas Eve with the Kvikne Family
Christmas Eve starts with Sigurd and one of his sons, Teddy, driving throughout the village of Balestrand to deliver Christmas presents to their staff and families. Sigurd then settles into the kitchen to prepare the traditional feast of Pinnekjøtt. With four generations of the Kvikne family gathered plus aunts, uncles and cousins, it's a family affair on Christmas Eve. So says Teddy, "I love it!"
|Christmas snow in Balestrand. Photo courtesy of my friends at the Kviknes Hotel.
At 4:30, Sigurd and his sons travel to Saint Olaf Church to ring in Christmas at 5 p.m. After climbing two ladders, they reach the top of the tower and open up the windows so that all of Balestrand can hear the yuletide sounds of Christmas. For the next 30 minutes, the pealing bells resound throughout this tiny hamlet on the Sognefjord. I can only imagine how delightfully enchanting it must be as the bells echo through the fjords. Teddy explains, "we have to bring ear protection as the bell is ringing just 30 cm from us." The rest of the Kvikne family gathers on their terrace to listen.
After the bell ringing, the Kvikne men meet with longtime family friends who regale them with stories of the good ol' days when young Teddy's grandfather was still alive. Teddy loves listening the stories about his grandparents and their adventures in Balestand while they share a toast of Aquavit. Upon their return to the homestead where the fourth-generation Kviknes anxiously await, they gather together to open gifts. For hours, they share stories, toasts and enjoy a most festive family gathering.
God Jul from the Kviknes Hotel. Here's this year's annual Christmas card video.
|Horse and sleigh at Røros. Photo: Thomas Rasmus Skaug - visitnorway.com.
Christmas day is the day for a long feast that starts with a big brunch at noon or an early-afternoon dinner which may last hours upon hours!
Julebukk (Christmas—New Year's Day)
Although Julebukk traditions have changed time and time again, it embodies community nonetheless. According to legend dating back to Norse paganism, the Julebukk is a spiritual being that dwells within the house during juletid presiding over the festivities of the season and protecting the families within from the ghosts of winter not to mention watching over who's naughty and nice. Originally, the julebukk was the yule goat that was slaughtered during Romjul, the period between Christmas and New Year's. As time passed, the legend became a yuletide tradition and the spirit of the julebukk manifested by way of one or more of the men from the community dressing up as goats and traveling from house to house receiving gifts in return for the protection they provided from the ghosts of winter.
Once Christianity arrived in Norway, Julebukk grew to become a children's tradition, much like our Halloween, where kids dress in costumes and travel from house to house singing carols and handing out gifts to the families as well as receiving them. Dressed up on old clothes symbolic of the times when the poor children traveled door to door in hopes of having a good Christmas too, today's children give out their gifts of baked goods, fruits and nuts.
Although Julebukk is fading from Norwegian tradition, some keep it alive especially in the smaller communities. Today, you'll see the symbol of the Julebukk, an ornament made of straw and fashioned to resemble a goat with a red ribbon around its neck. It is usually placed under the tree however, it's also the object of a Christmastime prank when the julebukk is smuggled into a neighbor's house and hidden from view. Once the homeowner discovers it, he or she hides in another's house and the Christmas prank continues all season long. Once again we see this element of community coming together at Christmas.
|Julebukk goat fashioned from straw, complete with red Christmas ribbon. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
In western Norway, adults dress up in goat costumes and travel from house to house to share Christmas drinks and stories with their neighbors. If the family guesses the identity of the julebukk, he or she must reveal themselves. If not, they move on to meet with another family, and so on, and so on. Once again, community.
|Christmas market at Norsk Folkemuseum. Photo: Innovation Norway.
For my Trondheim friend, Gunhild, it's about the music: "On the 27th, the third day of Christmas we always attend the Christmas concert at the local church, Byneset Kirke, dating back to 1180."
Christmas Highlights in Norway
|Christmas Market in Røros. Photo: Innovation Norway.
- Winter is the best time to see the northern lights in this kingdom of the north.
- Bergen's Gingerbread town is not to be missed if you're visiting. Check out VisitBergen.com for more information.
- Tregaarden's Christmas House in Drøbak is only 20 miles south of Oslo. This year-round Christmas shop stocks all of the holiday's essentials and has its own post office with Christmas postmark.
|More Jul Magic from Trondheim's Julemarkedet (Market Square Christmas Market). Photo: Sven-Erik Knoff | www.fotoknoff.no.
|Children dancing folk dance at Norsk Folkemuseum. Credits: Theresa Søreide/Norsk Fokemuseum - Visitnorway.com.
- During the Viking Age, "Christmas peace" was also known as Jolafridr.
- According to Travel + Leisure, Tromsø, Norway, is listed as one of the best places to enjoy Christmas due to its proximity to the magical northern lights.
- Each year, Norway bestows the gift of a Christmas tree to the UK as a way of saying "thank you" for their assistance during World War II. The tree stands in Trafalgar Square in London.
|Dessert anyone? Photo: More Kransekake via Elaine Ashton.
I hope you enjoyed this Jultime journey through Norway. What are your favorite Christmas traditions? Please share your favorite holiday memories below.