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.

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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/