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.
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.