An Old-Fashioned Norwegian Christmas

In Norway Christmas starts on what we call Little Christmas Eve, which is the 23rd of December. On that day most schools and offices are already closed. The celebrations start on Little Christmas Eve evening. When I was a little girl we would all, the whole family, gather together to decorate the Christmas tree, which was of course always a real Norway Spruce. My mother would fill the table with Christmas cookies and gløgg, which is spiced or mulled wine, with a non-alcoholic version for the kids made from blackcurrant juice.

Gløgg or Spiced Wine.

My brother and I would unwrap all the Christmas tree ornaments, and we would laugh and tell stories about the origin of each ornament. My mother would get a new Christmas tree ornament every year, a tradition I have kept up with now as an adult. My father was always the one to put the lights and the Christmas star on the tree. After we had decorated the tree we would each fetch the presents we had kept secretly hidden in our rooms and put under the tree. This was the most exciting part of the evening, especially for us kids. When the Christmas tree was ready and shining in all its glory close to the window (most Norwegians put their tree somewhere close to the window so that people can see it from outside. A very cozy thing to do, I think!) we would gather in front of the TV.

The Christmas Tree in my parents’ house.

Every year there is a special “The eve-before-the-Eve” program on TV featuring a special beloved skit at the end. My mother would serve us rice porridge with melted butter sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. We ate one bowl each and then we had to save the rest of the porridge for the next day when my mother would turn it into cold Rice Cream pudding with crushed strawberry sauce (strawberries picked from my granny’s garden last summer). The skit at the end of the program is the same every year, it is an old British black-and-white skit called “Dinner for one”. Little Christmas Eve is still not the same for me without it. Thank God, it is now available on YouTube!

A still from the skit “Dinner for one”.

The next day my brother and I would wake up to the smell of Christmas. To me that is the smell of pine needles, burning birch twigs in the fireplace, rutabaga mash, and lamb being boiled on twigs from the forest. Even after I became vegetarian at 11 years old, the smell of the slow-boiling lamb-on-sticks still instills the warm feeling of family Christmas in me.

Christmas Soda or Julebrus in Norwegian.

My brother and I would get up at 8 am to a wonderful Christmas breakfast spread consisting of Dutch cheese, potato salad, ham, scrambled eggs, fruit salad and smoked salmon. My mother always told us to eat well as she would not serve another meal until the evening. But we never really got hungry during the day anyway because we spent the rest of the day munching on marzipan, chocolates, Christmas cookies, doughnuts and gingerbread, washed down with what we call Christmas Soda in Norway, which is a kind of raspberry soda pop only available at Christmas time.

Most children in Norway spend the day watching Christmas cartoons on TV just waiting for the day to pass and the evening to arrive. My brother loved the vintage Disney cartoons, like Donald Duck and the snowball fight, Mickey Mouse in the Christmas carol, and Chip and Dale and the Christmas Tree. My favorites were “Three wishes for Cinderella”, a Czech film from the 1970s (I have reviewed this film here: https://talesfromthefairies.wordpress.com/2016/11/23/three-wishes-for-cinderella-tri-orisky-pro-popelku/) and the Norwegian classic “The journey to the Christmas Star” (This is a review of the newer version of this film https://talesfromthefairies.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/journey-to-the-christmas-star-reisen-til-julestjerna/ ).

Our local Church in the forest.

My family never really went to Church as I was raised in an Atheist family, but I developed the habit myself when I was a little older. I mostly went so that I could sing the Christmas carols and get in the Christmas spirit. Our local Church is only 3 minutes’ walk away from my parents’ house. It is located inside a forest. The Church would have three services as there were just too many people to manage with just one. I used to go to the service around 2 pm. Sometimes my granny would accompany me.

The Silver Boys or Sølvguttene in Norwegian.

5 pm is the official Christmas time in Norway. That is when the Church Bells will “chime the Christmas in” as we say in Norway. I would always open all the windows so that the beautiful sound of the bells would fill the house. This was not always so popular as it is very cold outside in late December in Norway, and the church being just 3 minutes away (perhaps around 300 meters?) the sound from the church bells would be rather loud. Another thing that happens at 5 pm is that the Silver Boys (a Boys’ Choir) have a Christmas concert on TV, directly broadcasted from Oslo Cathedral. I still need to hear this concert in order to feel that yes, Christmas has really arrived.

At 6 pm the guests would arrive. My mother always preferred to host the Christmas party so most of my Childhood Christmases were spent at home. All my cousins, with their parents, and my grandparents would come. For each guest that arrived the space under the tree would grow narrower and narrower until the whole living room floor would just be an ocean of presents. Norwegians are really big on presents! It might not always be the most expensive gifts, but we love to make each other laugh and buy little things like a pair of socks or a chocolate bar or a bottle of wine, and wrap it in small individual presents, just to make the quantity of presents more.

Norwegian Rice Cream Pudding with Strawberry sauce.

My family are not religious so most of the evening revolved around the presents. Us kids would not be able to sit still during the dinner as we were just too excited to start the gift giving. But the adults would of course drag it out as long as they could, with my aunties doing the dishes in the kitchen and my uncles having coffee and cognac in the living room. Before opening of the presents we would have the Rice Cream Pudding my mother had prepared that morning, and hiding inside the Rice Pudding was a blanched almond. The one that found the almond in their pudding would get a small gift, mostly a marzipan pig covered in chocolate. This would always be a fun affair, accusing each other of hiding the almond so that everyone would eat more pudding.

Marzipan Pig.

When we were really small my uncle would dress up like Santa (Nisse in Norwegian) and give us extra Santa presents (these were different and often smaller than the “real” presents under the tree). We would always be a little scared of Santa, even though we understood quite early on that it was our uncle under the costume.

Me as a little girl in the national costume trying on my new skis.

Then finally the gift giving would start. In my family there would be one who would “announce” the presents, which was normally me, and one assistant who would hand out the present to the right person. I would read the label on the present out loud while everyone paid keen attention. The labels would often be funny or cryptic like “To my dear wife from your devoted husband” (leaving us to guess who was the recipient and who was the giver) or “To my lovely owner from Missy the cat”. Some labels might even have riddles or small verses on. We would always sit and wait for the recipient of the gift to unwrap it, and then he or she would show the content of the gift to everyone. This is why sometimes we would buy each other funny presents, like underpants or a back scratcher or a tiny chocolate wrapped inside a huge box. We would always laugh at the funny gifts together and marvel at the special gifts. My mother would always give me what I had put on the top of my wish list, which had as much to do with my sensible view on economy as her generosity, but it was still thrilling each year to see if she had bought me the “right” gift that year too.

Italian Christmas Cake.

The gift exchange would go on to past midnight and by the time it was over we would all be tired. Still, there was more eating to be done. My mother would bring out the Italian Christmas cake, a soft cake with a Cointreau filling (orange liqueur) covered in hardened chocolate, especially imported from Italy. Then we would pop the French Champagne, and even us kids got to taste a sip. Finally, by 1 am it would all be over and the guests would leave. My brother, my father and I would go to bed, leaving my mother to clean up. Something she actually preferred because after she finished she would put her feet up, have another glass of Champagne and watch the Pope’s Christmas speech directly from the Vatican.

My auntie’s house all decorated for Christmas.

Next day my brother and I woke up to Christmas stockings filled with chocolates, Christmas comics and another little gift. Christmas day was spent playing with our toys and attending another Christmas Party in the evening, often at one of my aunties’ house.

Romjul is the perfect time to play in the snow and build Snow People.

The time between Christmas and New Year, called Romjul in Norwegian, was mostly spent attending Christmas parties and meeting up with friends. Another custom we enjoyed when we were little was dressing up as Santas and going caroling. All the neighbors would be ready for the little carolers with gifts of chocolates and candy. We would always go caroling at night with red Christmas lanterns, and this made it extra atmospheric and exciting.

Me and my best friend’s little brother dressed up as Santas, ready to go caroling.

Then by New Year’s Eve it was all over. Most Christmas trees are taken down after New Year’s Eve, and by January fourth schools and offices reopen.

Granny’s old-fashioned Christmas Decorations.

I still carry with me a lot of these traditions today, even though I have swapped out some of them with more spiritual traditions adopted from here and there. I have also made up a lot of new traditions myself, and of course I’ve had to rewrite my whole Christmas menu after becoming vegetarian at 11. After living in India for some time, my Christmas smells now include the scent of sandalwood, incense, Cinnamon, cardamom, Irish Coffee and Vanilla. But I still have to watch “Three wishes for Cinderella” and “Dinner for one” every year, and still the beautiful sound of the Silver Boys “singing in” Christmas fills my house every Christmas Eve at 5 pm.

Old-fashioned Norwegian Nisse in Granny’s House.

I am wishing all of you a happy holiday season. Remember, Christmas is what you make of it yourself, so don’t hesitate to start new traditions or repeat the old ones from your childhood, no matter where you are in the world and with whom you celebrate with.

An old-fashioned Norwegian Advent

I grew up in Norway, the country where you are almost guaranteed a white Christmas, so needless to say, snow was a very important ingredient in my childhood Christmas. But it was much more than that.


 
In Norway, Christmas starts either by the first Sunday of Advent or December first, whatever comes first. On the first Sunday of Advent a huge Christmas Tree is lit in evert city and town. This is a big event where families, friends and neighbors come together to take part in the lighting of the tree and the singing of Christmas carols. Children are especially fond of dancing around the tree linked to one another in big circles, starting with the smallest ones closest to the tree. This is also the day the Christmas exhibition starts in the shops and streets, and you will find children glued to the windows of toyshops where trains carrying Santas go around and around in a loop, and where the newest shiniest toys are displayed for Children to put on their Christmas wish lists.


 
When I was a little girl I was especially fond of Santa’s Workshop, a huge display in the mall where motorized santas and elves chopped wood, ate porridge and wrapped presents. I was, however, a little scared of the people dressed up as santas with scary plastic masks and fake beard wandering around in the streets handing out oranges and gingerbread men to the kids.


 
From December first children will open the first door in their Advent Calendars. Some calendars have colorful pictures inside, some have chocolate, but the best ones are the homemade “present calendars”, and I was lucky enough to have one. The whole of November my mother would collect little presents, anything from small toy cars and parts of a lego set (for my brother), colorful fun-shaped erasers, troll pencils or doll furniture (for me), and wrap them in 24 neat presents. These presents she would hang on a homemade calendar. My brother and I had a wooden Santa each with little hooks on, but more common is the embroidered cloth calendars with plastic hooks. Mothers and grandmothers everywhere would sit in late evenings after the children had gone to bed making these beautiful calendars.


 
Even in school we had an advent calendar. Each child (in Norway a class typically has 22-26 pupils) would bring a small gift, the gifts would be mixed up, hung on the wall and every day we would draw a name from a hat to see who would get to open today’s gift.


From last year’s Christmas Calendar on NRK «Snowfall».
 

At 6 pm every day of December every Norwegian child (and some adults too) will be glued to the TV. Nrk, our government broadcasting channel, will each December show a Christmas Calendar on TV. Every day there is a new episode which typically ends on a cliffhanger so that you just need to see what happens next. The finale of this show will be on Christmas Eve.

My mother would bake Christmas cookies to last the whole month, and on the four Sundays of advent we would have a fiest of Christmas cookies and other sweets while we lit the advent candle and recited the accompanying poem. Each poem is a prayer for a more loving, peaceful, and kind world. In almost every house in Norway you will see a Christmas star and an advent candle holder throughout December.  Nowadays, most of them run on electricity though, but in the olden days (when my granny was a little girl) they would have real light in them.

 
« A Scandinavian vintage postcard”

13th December is Saint Lucia Day. This is the darkest night of the year, and Norwegians celebrate it with lights. A procession of kids, girls dressed up as Lucia and boys as star boys, with wreaths of light on their heads will sing the Lucia song while giving cakes (called Lucia cakes) to anyone they meet. Nowadays this is often done in homes for senior citizens.


Us kids eating away at the Christmas cookies.
 
Around mid-December my grandmother would invite the family for a Christmas workshop. This would typically be on the third Sunday of Advent. The purpose of the workshop was to make Christmas decorations. Days in advance my granny would collect evergreens, holly, moss and cones, and my mother and aunties would bring ribbons, little decorative birds and santas, and we would all make beautiful wreaths and baskets with big candles in them. When the day was coming to an end granny would serve rice porridge with sugar and cinnamon for us kids and pea soup for the adults, followed by coffee and Christmas cookies. All of us six grandchildren used to love this day in particular and would look forward to it every year. When we came home we would hang our wreaths on the door, light our candles and wait impatiently for Christmas to arrive.


 
To be continued…

A Child’s Life at Sea Part 4

I slowly reach my hand out for my brother. It is so dark I can’t even see where my hand is. Then suddenly I feel something on my foot. ‘There is something on the ground,’ I whisper to my brother. ‘I felt it.’ Then I hear a splash and a croak and several other small splashes. ‘It’s just a frog, dummy,’ laughs my brother. ‘Perhaps you should try kissing it. Maybe it will turn into a prince.’ ‘Yuck!’ I say. ‘You kiss it yourself if you dare.’ But my brother doesn’t fall for that. He just keeps teasing me. I still am not able to find his arm in the dark, but hearing his familiar teasing is kind of reassuring. Then suddenly we hear footsteps behind us.

The sound is heavy and thudding, like it belongs to something really big. I hold my breath. My heart is pounding and I close my eyes, even though it doesn’t make a difference, it is just as dark in the tunnel as it is when I close my eyes. Then suddenly it is quiet again. My brother has stopped his teasing. He must be just as scared as me. I am completely frozen, I can’t even run. Then all of a sudden I feel a big hand on my shoulder and a voice whispers in my ear: ‘Got you!’

‘Daaaaad!’ Complains my brother. ‘I knew it was you!’ A flashlight lights up and I see my father laughing in front of us. My brother looks pale, but he starts laughing too. ‘Good one, dad!’ I want to laugh, but I can’t, my heart is still kind of racing around inside of me. ‘Come on,’ says my father and takes my hand in his. ‘ Let’s go see the canon.’ And we do, and just like that, with my hand in my father’s, I feel safe again, and everything is right in the world.

A Child’s Life at Sea Part 3

‘Did the soldiers really hide in here, daddy?’ ‘Sure did, honey. They used these tunnels to move unseen underground when there was an attack. If you follow the tunnel to the end you will find a lookout post with a canon pointed to the horizon.’ ‘Did they really shoot the bad guys, daddy.’ ‘They had to, honey, there was a war and if they didn’t protect our country, innocent people would die.’ I stare at my father. ‘Did you fight in the war, daddy?’ My father laughs. ‘No, sweetie, the war was long before I was born.’ I feel a little disappointed, I really wanted my dad to be a hero. ‘Come on!’ complains my brother, ‘let’s go inside!’

We are on a small island on the south coast, known to be one of the many military bases during the Second World War. Our boat is docked by the stone pier, and my father has taken me and my brother up to see the tunnels carved deep into the mountain. They go on for kilometers and have no natural, or any other form, of light. But my father has brought a flashlight. My brother is already on his way into the pitch black tunnel. I take my father’s hand and we follow him.

There is water dripping from the ceiling of the tunnel and it makes an eerie drip-drop sound that echoes far into the deep. My father switches on the flashlight, but all we can see is black wet slippery stone walls, uneven and bumpy. The ground is also wet. Our plip-plop footsteps bounce off the wall and disappear into the deep, only to return as a hollow mimic of themselves ten seconds later. The sound makes me think of ghosts dragging their skeleton feet on the ground. My brother seems to think the same because he whispers in my ear: ‘I bet it’s haunted! Soldiers must have died in here, you know.’ I shiver and all of a sudden I feel very cold. I grip my father’s hand tighter. We walk further and further in.

‘If the tunnel collapses now, we’ll be dead,’ whispers my brother. And even though I am sure my father can’t hear him, he just adds to the horror be saying out loud: ‘well kids, we have reached the point of no return. We are further from the entrance than we are from the exist.’ I swallow hard. The flashlight flashes a couple of times, and both my brother and I jump. ‘Hold on, let me just…’ My father lets go off my hand to adjust the batteries in the flashlight. Then all of a sudden it goes completely dark. I want to scream, but for some reason I seem to have lost my voice. My brother on the other hand has not. He lets out a roar, fit for a lion. ‘Daaaaaaaad, what’s going on?’ There is no answer. I desperately reach out for my father’s hand, but it is not there. He is gone. My father is gone, and with him: the flashlight.

To be continued…

A Child’s Life at Sea – Part 2

‘Please don’t let her come, uncle, she is too little!’ My brother complains to our favorite uncle and puts his hands on his hips for emphasis. ‘She can hold the torch,’ says my uncle, and smiles wistfully to me. My brother sighs. ‘ She always gets what she wants.’ I glance at him behind my uncle’s back and stick my tongue out at him. He kicks a pebble so hard it flies into the sea and makes an exquisite plopping sound as it breaks the surface. My uncle looks at him sternly. ‘ You are already scaring the crabs away.’ My brother puts on the Life jacket my uncle hands him. He has a sulky face. ‘ At least I don’t have to wear a baby vest.’ That hits home and I give him one of my angriest glares. I am quite a big girl now, but I still don’t know how to swim and my brother delights in the fact that I have to wear a big chunky bright orange Life Jacket with an oversized collar that hardly lets me turn my head from side to side. ‘ Be kind to your little sister, says my uncle as he lifts me into the dinghy. My brother scowls and climbs in after me.

It is already dark and long past our bedtime, but we have been given special permission to stay up. We are going crabbing. My uncle steers the outboard confidently across the black sea, and the little rubber dinghy practically flies above the tiny white-sprayed currents. I squeal with delight. My father would never drive this fast! The sound of the outboard is the only sound we can hear in the dark early autumn night, and the subtle roar echoes against the cliffs, perfectly silhouetted against the starry sky. ‘ Can I have a go?’ Asks my brother, and to my surprise my uncle agrees. My brother doesn’t drive quite as fast, but I am twice as scared. He is still just a boy and I don’t trust boys to drive boats, even little boats like our Rubber-Linus.

As soon as we approach the steep cliffs my uncle takes over. And a couple of meters off shore he lets the outboard die, and we simply float with the current and the leftover push from the engine up to the cliffs. Now it is completely quiet. Only a few nightbirds screech hauntingly in the dead of night. The ocean splashes eerily against the cliffs, and the sound makes me feel so funny inside, like I am excited and scared, happy and sad at the same time. ‘ You’re up, sweetie,’ says my uncle and hands me the torch. I take it with both hands and switch it on. A white ghostly shadow creeps across the black surface and climbs slowly up the steep cliff. ‘ Now remember,’ says my uncle, ‘ when I tell you to switch off the torch, you have to do so immediately, okay? This is very important. The light will scare the crabs away.’ I nod nervously. ‘ Now point the light at the wall of the cliff right under the surface.’ I do as he says, and my brother and uncle lean over the edge of the dinghy as far as they can and stare into the water to the place I point the light. ‘ I see one! I see one!’ Shouts my brother excitedly. ‘ Hush!,’ scolds my uncle, ‘ you’ll scare it away!’ My brother looks embarrassed and is red all over. ‘ Now quickly, switch off the light!’ He whisper-yells to me, and I fumble with the off-button. I should have been keeping my finger on it all the time, I inwardly scold myself. But apparently I am quick enough, because my uncle has already grabbed the crab by its claw and is now flinging it hurriedly into the boat. The crab immediately goes into attack position with its claws out, and to my horror, it is running sideways towards me. I squeal loudly and jump instinctively unto the inflated rubber-side of the dinghy, but I jump with too much force and before I know it I am splashing around frantically in the water. I scream as loudly as I can and try to pull me feet up against my body. I remember overhearing my uncle telling my father that this place is teeming with crabs. Convinced that they are going to catch my toes in their sharp claws I continue screaming at the top of my lungs.

‘ Stop it! You’ll scare away the crabs!’ Yells my brother just as loudly. My uncle has already managed to get a good grip on the sides of my huge orange baby vest and he hauls me out of the water and back into the boat, much like he just did with the crab. The crab is still running around sideways in the boat and as soon as I see it I start screaming all over again. My uncle lets go of me, grabs the crab by its claw and hurls it back into the sea. Finally I stop screaming.

I can see my brother sulking in the bow of the boat. ‘ I told you not to bring her, ‘ he complains to my uncle. ‘She is such a baby.’ I stick my tongue out at him and make a fearsome grimace. ‘ Come on, ‘ says my uncle, ‘ We’ll better get you home, little one, before you catch pneumonia.’ ‘ Arrrrrgh!’ Says my brother. ‘Can I at least drive?’ He looks hopefully at my uncle. My uncle nods. ‘ Okay, but you better make it fast before your sister catches her death.’ At that my brother’s face lights up and he roars the outboard into life and head out to sea in a fierce pace that makes the water foam excitedly around the prow. I sit shivering in my uncle’s arms, but I smile to myself when I think of the crab happily running about in the bottom of the sea.

A Child’s Life at Sea – Part 1

My brother bangs the side of his cot as a huge wave crashes into the wooden side of the boat and soon after my little round-shaped window is submerged in water. The boat, in which we are sleeping, or are supposed to be sleeping in, topples over and my brother holds on for dear life as he is pushed by the mere force of the ocean towards the edge of his cot. We both laugh out loud and I shout in excitement: It’s like being rocked in a huge cradle! ‘ Yeah, ‘ adds my brother, ‘ or a hammock!’ We both giggle at that, and soon it is my turn to be hurled over sideways by King Neptune. But it is then that I feel it. It sneaks up on me like a mischievous current, but when it starts pushing its way through there is no going back. I cringe. But I have to go, it’s impossible to pretend my way out of it. ‘ Daaaaaaad!! I have to pee!’ I shout. My father soon appears in the tiny wooden door separating our sleeping quarters from the deck. ‘ You really really have to?’ My father sighs. I nod my head apologetically. ‘ Okay, but you can’t go to the bathroom in this weather. To sea is too rough.’ The bathroom is all the way on the other side of the boat. ‘ But I HAVE to go!’ I insist. My father looks thoughtful, but then he smiles and disappears. He is, however, soon back. With a bucket. He places the bucket on the floor next to my cot. ‘ If you can’t go to the toilet, I bring the toilet to you,’ he says and smiles. I giggle as I worm my way out of my sleeping bag and slowly climb down from the cot. ‘ Incoming!!’ Shouts my brother, and I brace myself. Luckily the floor is not much larger than the bucket so it still remains standing up when the wave hits. I can’t stop giggling as I squat over the bucket. When I am done my father collects the bucket. ‘ Are you gonna throw the pee in the sea?’ Teases my brother. My father ignores him. Relived I climb back into my cot, still giggling a bit. ‘ My sister peed in a bucket! My sister peed in a bucket!’ My brother makes his voice into a sing-song rhyme, and I stick my tongue out at him. But I am giggling too much to make an angry face. And soon we are back playing our wave-game again. It is a seven hour crossing. I can hear my mother complaining to my father on the deck : ‘can’t they just go to sleep.’

Dancing Fairies


Art by August Malmstrøm

Imagine rowing quietly over a lake a summer night. You are in the north and the sun is betwixt dusk and dawn, still giving off a mellow gleam of pale yellow and grey light. Above the water a mist has gathered, twirling in slow motion in the stillness of the night. And that is when you see it. Is it just a formation of white vapor gracefully leaping in the air? Or is it something else, something you thought only existed in your imagination?


Photo by: Ingolf Endresen

Ever since the first people came to Norway, they have been asking themselves this question. Of course, fairies are not supposed to exist, but how can mist move so intently and musically without even a breath of air? The tales speak of fairies coming out to dance in the mysterious light of the summer night, disguising themselves in the glamour of white mist upon water.

What do you believe? Perhaps you are not so easily convinced of the existence of fairies, but if you were there, rowing quietly over a lake a summer night…you would perhaps not be so sure…

Image credit: The beautiful photo is taken by the very talented Ingolf Endresen. You can see more of his incredible photos here: https://blog.ingolfendresen.com/

Midsummer Madness


Midsummer Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup, 1909

It is the end of June and school is finally out. Kids and parents pack their picnic baskets and head for the nearest meadow or beach, or as the last resort; a gravel football court, where a huge bonfire has been standing tall, composed of old branches and throw-away furniture, since the first day of summer. For some, this is the day they pack their cars or boats, and head for their summer getaways. But the bonfire is certainly not to be missed. Will the witch adorning the top of the driftwood tower fall over before she is licked clean by the building flames this year, or will she collapse at the first touch of smoke like last year?

The witch is the main character of this suspiciously pagan Nordic holiday. She, and her sisters, will be on the prowl on midsummer night, looking for eligible bachelors to kidnap, and god help the girl who tries to stand up for her lover! So the inhabitants of each village try to scare her away by burning replicas of her on a huge bonfire. Since the witches normally fly quite high in the sky, this tend to work fine. At least it has for centuries now, with a few exceptions, so do NOT forget the witch on top of the bonfire tonight!

Since this is a night steeped in magic, more than just witches may be heard from or even seen. The fairies will be out and about too. And it is said that, because of this, if a young girl picks seven different types of flowers from a meadow at midnight and puts them under her pillow when she sleeps, she will dream about the man she is going to marry!

When I was little, midsummers were spent at sea with my family. There would be a huge bonfire on a rock in the sea close to land, and it would burn far into the night. We would grill sausages on a smaller fire and tell each other stories about ghosts and witches. With me always being the main narrator. Sometimes I would scare my two younger siblings half to death!

If you want to learn more about our Nordic Midsummer Madness, you can read the beautiful book which is the inspiration for this post: ” Moominsummer Madness” by the Finnish author Tove Jansson. In this delightful children’s book you will encounter a floating theatre, electric ghosts, private property protests, and wild orphans who dream of seeing a real play.

Midsummer is a time for fairy magic, for fun and for family and friends. It is one of those delicious festivals that dates back to ancient times when it was the turning of the sun that marked the passing of the year, and gave cause for celebration. So no matter where you are, please have a magical Midsummer, and be sure to sprinkle a bit of Midsummer Madness in there.

Happy Midsummer!

My Adventures at Sea – Memories of a Norwegian Childhood Part two

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I always tell people I grew up on the sea. This is only partially true; I grew up by the seaside on a hill, eating breakfast every morning to the sight and sound of the roaring ocean outside the broad red-curtained window. But I became a true sailor at age six when my parents decided to build a 35 feet long wooden sailing boat on a raft on the South-side of the country. My uncle, who was already an experienced sailor, agreed to pilot the new sailing boat, with us on board, safely home across the open sea the summer I turned six. And that was the start of my maritime adventure.

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My family’s wooden Sailing both next to my Uncles’ boats.

Both of my mother’s sisters and their husbands and kids had boats of their own, not a homemade sailing boat like ours, but mass-produced fiber boats with powerful cruising engines and double back propellers. My father had baptized our sailing boat Linus, and from the day of the naming ceremony she was my best friend. I loved her fiercely and fed her bread crumbs from the prow where I usually ate my meals. I was never seasick; the waves had a calming soothing effect on me, lulling me into a dreamless sleep as though I was being rocked in a cradle. And we did meet with rather tough seas at times, so much so that my father had to provide me with a bucket to pee in because it was too dangerous to leave the cabin where I slept. I would lie, shaking with excitement in bed, squealing every time the tiny porthole next to my berth went underwater.

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Here I am sitting in the bow of Linus, singing songs from a songbook.

We had a favorite island of course. It was called Sheep Island and had a perfect little sandy beach, a tall cliff, a forest and a huge green slanting meadow. It was a popular spot for the local sea scouts and we would tense with anticipation every time we rounded the cape of the island to see if the little stone pier was occupied or not. My brother learned to shoot on this island, with a too big rifle and empty tin cans as targets, and I found a perfectly tall flat rock to function as a puppet theater where I could hide while using my dolls to peak over the edge of the rock and enact intricate tales and dramas I made up on the spot. Oddly shaped rocks became rides in an amusement park, and smaller rounded smooth rocks were made to build rock trolls, coming to life with moss hair and store-bough craft eyes. In the evenings, my father and uncles would light a bonfire on the stones that made up the pier, and we would make stick-bread wrapped around birch branches and chocolate bananas secured in tin foil and left to burn on the logs. One time my father climbed a tall tree, made an insertion in the bark and attached an empty bottle to the wound, the tree bled into the bottle through the night and the next day we all tasted beautifully sweet sap.

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My little cousins, my big brother and I on Sheep Island.

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My father hoisting me up in a tree on Sheep Island (oh yes, very much at my own request!) In the background you can see the Theater Rock.

Sandy Cove was another much loved mooring spot. It too had a huge green meadow stretching all the way down to the make-shift pier, but with a dangerous scattering of goat droppings hiding underneath the tall grass. My mother arranged sharp stones for us to scrape our shoes on before boarding the boat, but alas, children will be children. The reason why we, the younger sailors that is, loved Sandy Cove so much was because it had a ghost house. A big yellow abandoned house perched on the top of a hill, surrounded by various fruit trees that never bore any fruit. My uncle and I made up a story about the old lady Olga Sandy Cove who had died in that house and who now haunted it. We convinced my younger cousins of this story, and I practically forced them to join me in exploring the underground basement of the house. The basement was a storybook image of a creepy haunted cellar. It had a damp muddy floor, racks of empty glass bottles, tin boxes with outdated faded labels, rusted garden tools and rotting discarded furniture. And it had a black cat. Of course we only found out later, after running screaming out of the cellar, desperately trying to get away from the black shadow lurking behind the shelf. I had never had so much fun in my life.

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My Uncle, Aunty, Cousin, father, big brother and I having lunch on Sandy Cove by the pier.

Easter was when we peeled of the winter coat tucked around our hibernating sailing boat and set sail once again on our yearly virgin voyage to the islands. Sometimes there was still a thin layer of ice around the prow of my beloved Linus, and I would sit there, wrapped in woolen blankets listening to the ice cracking around the nose of my nautical friend, as my father captained her towards the deep blue horizon. My uncle was the most playful and fun-loving of the adults, and of course a favorite with us children, he would charge us varying amounts of candy to watch the morning telecast of BBC’s “Chronicles of Narnia” on his tiny black-and-white television, and roar with laughter when his tiny son developed the habit of emptying the little leftovers in the cast-away beer bottles into his small mouth. It was my uncle who invented all the games, like the Easter Egg Hunt. He hid a huge Easter egg filled to the brim with candy somewhere on the island, and then left clues for us to find that would eventually lead us to the treasure. We pretended to be pirates as we prowled around in my father’s rubber dinghy, named Rubber-Linus, looking for bottles with messages in them and crab traps bated with clues. When we eventually found the X marking the spot, we hoisted the Pirate Flag and hollered dirty songs, to the utter embarrassment of our poor mothers.

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My two youngest cousins and I in Rubber-Linus.

Whale Island is where I learned to swim, after being tormented and teased for years for not being able to master the craft. I had been splashing around like a maniac, terrified of sinking to the bottom of the sea, until my smiling calm aunt took over the training wheels, and encouraged me to relax and breathe. Under her gentle guidance I learned the dreaded task in a matter of hours, even though I never grew accustomed to being under water, and kept my head always above the dark dangerous deep. Both my uncle and father were certified divers, and we children would get in the dinghy and follow the bubbles as they went into that mysterious underworld that I was always so afraid of.

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The summer I learned to swim on Whale Island.

Long Island was our Bad-Weather-haunt, a small city island only an hour away from the urban coast. This island had a proper pier standing on wooden stilts, and under that pier was the “Death Chamber”. My brother and I would go exploring this dark haunting place in Rubber-Linus, listening to the echo of the many-voiced sea crashing against the echo of our own mysteriously dark hollow voices. When the sun shone its dim light into the openings between sea and pier it blanketed the surface in phosphorescent ghostly green making the orange corals, the pink starfish and the spiky sea urchins glow like some otherworldly creatures.

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Going on an adventure!

In the summers we were granted four blessed weeks on the sea, and we could sail a little further, exploring stranger tides and foreign shores. One year we sailed all the way to Denmark where we bought ten feet of licorice and smuggled boxes of Danish beer back to Norway. Another year we went north, discovering traces of UFO’s and conch shells singing tales of the sea. But it was the South Coast we loved the best. Every year we went island hopping along this beautiful coast of blue-doored white houses, little seaside gardens, red-topped lighthouses and tiny wooden towns selling seasonal ice cream and homemade cinnamon buns fresh from the oven. In the mornings we were greeted by boys in motor boats calling out offers of newspapers and breakfast rolls, and sometimes vanilla Danish or something called “School Breads”, a yeasty pastry with cream, coconut and powdered sugar. The summer my father bought a video camera was the summer I turned movie director/actress/screenplay writer. I wrote, directed and acted in my own films, filmed and produced by my brother. We made documentaries, animated movies and motion pictures. Later on, I casted my cousins in various roles in these movies, and these projects became elaborate productions featuring trolls, detectives, murder mysteries and dance numbers.

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My brother and I in one of the red-topped Lighthouses.

The year I became a teenager was the beginning of the end of my adventures at sea. Boys and parties and friends replaced pirates and sails and treasures. My last summer at sea, and the last summer of Linus, I compromised with my parents and was allowed to take a friend on board. But the sea didn’t agree with her, and she fell seasick on the very first crossing, vomiting into a bucket while holding on for dear life while Linus gave her all in the fight against towering waves splashing on to the deck. We spent a few days in a little sea port, boyspotting from the mast and making up secret knocking codes to indicate the attractiveness of the boys. My friend soon grew tired of the nautical life, and we were shipped home on a train by my parents who, I’m sure, longed back to the days when I would play quietly with Barbies on the deck. Not long after that summer, Linus was sold and replaced by a much bigger sailing boat equipped to sail around the world, a long-time dream my parents fulfilled when I was a student in college. But I will always treasure my childhood at sea, and the sea, with its moodiness and mysteries, will always hold a very special place in my heart, calling out to me to it like an open-armed mother every time I miss home.

Granny’s House – Memories of a Norwegian Childhood

Mormor hus

My grandfather and great grandfather built a house for my grandmother as a wedding gift. The house had, as per my grandmother’s request, a big garden with apple – and plum trees, a strawberry bed, a patch of potatoes, and, my granny’s favorite, a lush Lilac tree filled with soft lavender blossoms.

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Granny’s Garden at the peak of Summer.

The house was fenced in by shrubs and hedge, so that my granny could tan in her shorts and bra, like she was used to do on the secluded island she grew up on. The underground basement had a laundry room, a carpentry workshop, and a small toilet in which my great grandfather decorated the walls with calendar hangings from national romantic artists depicting scenes from the island life my granny came from. The basement later became the place of ghosts in our, the grandchildren’s, imagination. The attic, with its slanted roof attic window, housed the girls’ bedrooms, the girls being my mother and her two sisters. This attic later became the grandchildren’s’ haunt, a lair for spy headquarters and secret meetings. But the best part of the house was the hidden tunnels, snaking around the interior of the house. They were so narrow that even as children we had to crawl to get through them, and so deep (around 10-15 meters) that no grown-up had the will or the elasticity to crawl into the very end. My grandfather made them for storage purpose, and they were filled with delightful olden-days treasures, like antique toys, sleds, clothes, books and postcards dating back to wartime. We grandchildren built ghost lookout posts in every single one of the tunnels, without our grandfather’s permission of course, but with granny’s blessings in the form of a wink and crossed fingers behind her back.

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One of the many toys found in the “tunnels”. This particular doll is over 100 years old!

The house, my mother’s childhood home, never changed. It remained the same from my mother’s girlhood up to the arrival of the six grandchildren and beyond. It became a place for the girls to drop off their children when they needed a much deserved break. And the girls needed lots of breaks because my cousins and I spent almost every other weekend in granny’s house, and two weeks of summer holiday. In bad weather my grandfather rented a VCR player and let us grandchildren choose one movie on video cassette each (these were the glorious 90s!). There was no restriction on which films we could rent, and we watched Jaws and James Bond, Gremlins and Police Academy, and other highly inappropriate movies, while munching store-bought pastel-colored candy and drinking liters of mixed soda into the wee pre-dawn hours.

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All us grandchildren eating sweets and watching a movie at Granny’s House.

When the sun was out we loved playing horse. Well, it was mostly us three girls who enjoyed this game; the three boys did not participate. All us girls had inherited the original three girls’ love for horses and horse riding, but it was only Annie, the oldest, who were big enough to actually take riding lessons, so Cecily and I, pretended to be horses while Annie instructed us to run and run and run around grandfather’s meticulously mowed lawn. Well, let us just say, there was not much lawn left after a three days visit, but granny just winked and crossed her fingers behind her back, and we took no heed of grandfather’s angry warnings.

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My grandfather desperately trying to arrange us to pose for a photo. The only one who is really listening is my brother, here about 14 years old.

Ghosts and Witches were welcome inhabitants of granny’s house. One weekend, after watching the movie “Witches” based on the book by Roald Dahl with the same title, we went looking for hidden witches inside grandfather’s old paintings of traditional Norwegian farm life. Of course, we discovered that every painted milk maiden was a witch in disguise, and if we tapped her with our fingers she moved! Cecily, the youngest of us girls, were not a bit fond of these frightening games, and today’s date she will narrate nightmarish childhood memories of being forced to enter a haunted basement to listen to a ghost playing the piano, or look for witches in wardrobes with old smelly fur coats.

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Cecily as an adult dressed up in one of Granny’s favorite dresses from the 80s. For some reason my granny loved the 80s and never modernized her wardrobe after that beloved era.

Of course, after reading Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five we had to establish our own Spy Club. My brother, the oldest and most adored of the grandchildren, became the boss, or the Chief as we called him, I was the planner, Annie was the accountant and secretary and Cecily was the assistant. The two youngest boys were too small to be appointed any specific role, so we decided that they could be door guards (standing outside the door while we held meetings, making sure no adults were allowed to enter). The Spy Club’s main concern was environmental issues, such as car engines being left on while the designated driver was grocery shopping. We made our own tickets to put on the wind shields, warning the driver of a fine if he did not improve on his environmental protection awareness. We even made our own monthly newspaper with crossword puzzles and short stories, mostly edited by myself and printed in my mother’s office. I proudly distributed these newspapers to all my classmates in school, and even convinced some of them to sign up for subscriptions.

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Here I am at school 😀 Perhaps 11 years old.

My grandmother was a lover of all animals and wildlife. This was an issue of constant annoyance for my grandfather who hated flies in particular. My grandmother would hide his Fly smacker, and try in her sweetest voice to coax the flies to fly out the open window. Spiders were much loved by granny, she would name every single one she saw inside the house, and referred to them fondly as spinning ladies. But it was cats that she loved the most. There must have been around 10-15 homeless (both by choice and not) cats living in granny’s garden at the most. Of course they all had babies, and soon my grandfather had to put his foot down and set out to find the cats’ owners, while my granny secretly let them sleep on her sofa and eat biscuits from a silver plate. We grandchildren loved the wildlife in granny’s garden of course. Cecily and I had a particular fondness for the hedgehogs, and one night we hid under a huge blanket spying on the nocturnal animals drinking milk from a rosy saucer.

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One of the many cats who roam Granny’s Garden.

My grandfather was a huge book worm, he read every book he could find, including our pony books, fairy tale books and school ABCs, but his favorite was 1001 Arabian nights. He had a beautiful hardback copy of the book given to him by his grandfather when he was little, and from that book he read us stories of Aladdin and Alibaba and enchanted caves and robbers being chopped into pieces. This all went over our heads, and I cannot remember feeling any particular fear or dread from these fantastical but grotesque stories. Fairy tales, by H.C Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and the Norwegian folktales, were popular, but our favorite was a book about children growing up in the olden days in Norway called “The Kids on the Block”.

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My brother making a funny face to get me to smile. My grandfather at the end of the table, and my grandmother in between us.

I was particularly enchanted by the olden-days, and I would beg granny to tell me stories about her childhood on the island, and she never disappointed. I listened, completely enthralled, to wartime stories about German soldiers trying to eat paper Christmas apples, or looking for the secret radio my great grandfather hid under the floor boards, or other stories about a vindictive Sunday school God sending little girls to hell for stealing carrots or for dipping their chewing gum in the neighbor’s sugar sack.

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This is the house my granny grew up in. Built by her father.

Summers at granny’s were magical. We would run free the whole day (and night) without anyone telling us what to do (well, my grandfather tried to, but he was overruled by my granny. It ended with him going to bed at 10 pm and leaving us up to fend for ourselves). My favorite summer game was to play Christmas. Playing Christmas meant taking down all of granny’s stored-away Christmas decorations and adorning the whole house with santas and angels. Granny would play Christmas CD’s, and let us make Christmas cakes by sandwiching jam and nutella between marigold biscuits. There was something so magical about seeing all those forbidden decorations in July. When summer ended, we children had often prepared songs and plays we would perform for our parents when they came to collect us. These were most of the time authored by yours truly and was of varying quality, but all of them typed neatly on grandfather’s typewriter, to be taken out and laughed over at later teenage years.

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My brother and I enjoying a juice box on the way home from Granny.

After the summer was over and we drove away, passengered in three cars behind three sets of parents, granny would always stand in the kitchen window and wave goodbye with a sweet smile on her face, while my grandfather was nowhere to be seen. And we waved eagerly back, reassuring our parents that of course we had been good and listened to grandfather and gone to bed when told so, while we crossed our fingers behind our backs and winked happily to each other.

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Granny in her garden, relaxing after a weekend of grandchildren bonanza! 😀