By Rick Steves and Valerie Griffith
Norway, sitting on the north of Europe, has the longest and darkest winters in Europe. It's also about the least church-going country in Europe. The Norwegian word for Christmas is actually a pre-Christian Viking drinking festival: Jul. In the 10th century King Haakon I moved the heathen custom of drinking Jul (Yule) to December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Gradually the pagan feast was Christianized. While the name Jul was kept, the holiday became all about Jesus.
Imagine the ruckus time as the old Norwegians celebrated the ebb of winter. Carnivores were in hog heaven as there was an abundance of good, fresh meat. Jul was a time when animals were slaughtered — which made more sense in that subsistence economy than feeding them through the winter.
When the beer was brewed, the animals slaughtered and the bread baked, the house was cleaned and the party began. Santa Lucia Day (December 13) kicked off a period when gnomes and trolls ran wild and there was no work allowed. Enough wood was brought in to last the entire holiday. Animals (those not slaughtered) were given a little extra hay. Even the birds were cared for as grain they liked was lashed to posts outside homes.
After a big feast, remaining food was not cleaned up. It was left out overnight for the little people. If you neglected your nisse — those mischievous elves — ill fortune would hit your family.
On Christmas day after church, Julebukk (or caroling) groups sang and entertained door to door in exchange for goodies. In some places people still use horse and sleigh and sleigh bells are often heard as they make their way to their neighbors for Christmas cakes and delicacies. In this season of games and merriment, nobody mentions children's bedtimes.
Today, the Norwegian Christmas season feels very low key. Commercialism has crept in, further discrediting it to secular Norwegians. While churches enjoy their best attendance of the year and are busy with Advent concerts through the season. While Christmas concerts end with a spirited but out-of-place-feeling Norwegian version of "Beautiful Savior," (in which the entire audience sings the last verse together), you see almost no Christian elements to the holiday decorations. I didn't see a manger scene anywhere in my travels here.
It's almost as if the dead-of-winter date chosen 17 centuries ago to celebrate the advent of the Son has reverted back to the pagan festival this Christian one was designed to replace. Norwegian Christmas is a festival of lights which seems to promise the return of the sun and longer days. The focus on light in Norway is clear. They miss it more, and they need a spirit boost during those weeks when the high noon feels like twilight and it's dark by 4:00.
In good, understated Norwegian fashion, houses are decorated only with white lights — some times real candles, more often electric lights posing as candles — in the windows. A plastic Santa or Nativity on the lawn or garish colored lights along the eves would probably put you in the neighborhood dog house. In four days I never saw a colored light...or a manger scene. It seems to make sense in a land that seems to have organized itself beyond a need for God. And the pre-disposition to embrace the festival of light aspect of Christmas fits a people more into sun worship when it comes to working up a tan in the summer than any other nation.
Santa Lucia Day, December 13
A highlight of the season is December 13th, Santa Lucia Day. The festival celebrating the "queen of lights" is celebrated in schools, day-care centers, nursing homes and hospitals, with processions led by a young Lucia in a white robe with a crown of lights on her head and a candle in her hand. Traditionally the girls bring baskets of saffron buns to hand out.
Historically Norwegians considered what they called Lussinatten the longest night of the year and no work was to be done. From that night until Christmas, spirits, gnomes and trolls roamed the earth. Lussi, a feared enchantress, punished anyone who dared work. Legend also has it that farm animals talked to each other on Lussinatten, and that they were given additional feed on this longest night of the year.
In village church concerts, the finale is not Silent Night as in the US, but Santa Lucia. The children's choir, with their leader wearing her crown of candles, processes down the aisle like a wedding in reverse and into the night, as if to spread their light through the community.
The legend of Santa Lucia: In the early hours of the morning of December 13, a young woman of rich and noble parents, dressed in a white gown, with a red sash and a crown of lingonberry twigs and blazing candles, would go from one farm to the next. She carried a torch to light her way and brought baked goods to each house. She returned home by sunrise. Every village had its own Lucia.
Santa Lucia Day celebrations were strong first in Sweden and spread from there to Norway. The origins of today's celebration can be traced to the 4th century martyrdom of a Sicilian virgin named Lucia.
In Norway and Sweden it is still a custom on December 13 for a girl in a white dress (representing the Saint), to bring a tray of saffron buns and steaming coffee while waking the family with a song. She is called the Lussibrud (Lucy bride) and her pastry (saffron buns) is Lussekatter.
Lucia symbolizes light and growth for human and beast as she emerges out of the darkness. Because her name means "light" she very early became the great patron saint for the "light of the body" — the eyes. Many of the ancient light and fire customs of the Yuletide became associated with her day. Thus we find "Lucy candles" lighted in the homes and "Lucy fires" burned in the outdoors. Into the bonfires people would throw incense, and while the flames rose, trumpets and flutes played to celebrate the changing of the suns's course. Before the Reformation, Saint Lucy's Day was one of unusual celebration and festivity because, for the people of Sweden and Norway, she was the great "light saint" who turned the tides of their long winter and brought the light of the day to renewed victory.
In ancient times the celebrations of Saint Lucy's Day announced to the demons of winter that their reign was broken, that the sun would return again and the days would become longer.
While Santa Claus comes from America (really established as a Coca Cola advertising spokesperson in the 1930s) and St Nicholas comes from Germany, the Julenisse come from the Norwegian forest — just behind the family barn. While there are entire communities of nisse who come in all shapes and sizes, the Julenisse is a kind of cross between Father Christmas and a nisse. The most characteristic features of Norway's answer to Santa Claus are his red stocking cap and long white beard. The Julenisse wears knee breeches, hand-knitted stockings, a Norwegian sweater and a homespun jacket. On top he wears a heavy fur coat — it can get cold in Norway in the winter. He is jolly and happy, but can also be stern and even a jerk. If you don't stay in good with him through bribes, he can sabotage your happiness in any number of ways.
Old timers believed the nisse was the original settler of the land. His primary duty was to protect the land and buildings. He kept the farm in good order and would be helpful as long as he got his Christmas porridge or Christmas beer and lefse on Christmas Eve. Many farms would make up a bed for the nisse on Christmas Eve and the honorary place at the table stood ready and waiting for him.
Children grow up believing in this guy. A friend or relative dressed up as Julenisse comes to the house with a sack of presents on Christmas. In "naughty or nice" Santa style, he asked the famous question, "Are there any good children here?" When the Christmas porridge is put out in the barn on Christmas Eve, it is gone the next morning.
To the pre-Christian pagans celebrating their way through the dead of the Nordic winter, evergreens — swags, wreaths, trees — promised the return of summer. Today, far and away the dominant Norwegian Christmas season icon is the evergreen tree strewn with tinsel, homemade ornaments, Norwegian flags, and candles (occassionally real, generally electric). Every mall and every town square comes with a tall twinkling tree, capped with a star.
The Christmas tree — usually a spruce or pine either bought in a parking lot depot (as in America) or chopped in the woods — must be fresh and green and fragrant to signify the idea of vitality and growth in spite of the dark winter. While greenery has long decorated homes, the tradition of a decorated Christmas tree came from Germany in the 1800s. Traditionally it's not put up and decorated until Little Christmas Eve, December 23. The northern European custom of the candlelit Christmas tree is derived from the belief that it sheltered woodland spirits when other trees lost their leaves during winter.
Locals love their trees. In fact, many visit the historic Bogstad Manor, perhaps the finest mansion in Oslo, to see the sumptuously decorated 19th century style tree year after year. The royal family has a fondness for Christmas trees. The king's subjects knew this well when, in WWII when he was in exile in Britain, they would smuggle him a good tree each Christmas — especially cut for him from his cherished homeland. The royal family is back in Oslo now. But each year the people of Oslo continue the tradition, sending a grand tree which stands on Trafalgar Square in London. Now it's to remind the English of how the Norwegians were thankful for their support during the dark years of Nazi occupation.
Norwegians enjoy holding hands around their Christmas trees and singing classic carols as they circle. You'll see well-bundled up school classes making two concentric circles, joined by a Julenisse, circling in two directions while singing.
Norwegians do a lot of baking throughout the Christmas season. Cookies, holiday cakes, gingersnaps are popular. People drink hot mulled wine of a specially brewed Christmas beer. On Christmas Eve, families gather for a festive meal that includes pickled herring salad and roast duck, goose, or pork loin.
In Norway too, Christmas comes with special meals. Families treat children to a special rice porridge. At Christmas an almond hidden in the mix. The child who discovers it wins a prize...and it's a marzipan pig — a gift reminiscent of olden times when a peasant family's wealth was tied up in its precious pig.
Juleøl or Christmas beer also goes back to medieval times when the Vikings liked to celebrate the winter solstice with a particularly stout brew.
And holiday deserts are a big part of Norway's Christmas season: the local Christmas fruitcake called Julekake and a towering marzipan kransekaka...festooned with Norwegian flags and party poppers.
Juleøl — special Christmas beer which is brewed on farms — custom dates back to the pagan feast known as Joulu or Lol when horns filled with beer during the festivities were dedicated to the Norse gods Odin, Froy and Njord.
One Norwegian Christmas custom begins in late autumn at harvest time. The finest wheat is gathered and saved until Christmas. This wheat is then attached to poles made from tree branches, making perches for the birds. A large circle of snow is cleared away beneath each perch. According to the Norwegians, this provides a place for the birds to dance, which allows them to work up their appetites between meals. Just before sunset on Christmas Eve, the head of the household checks on the wheat in the yard. If a lot of sparrows are seen dining, it is suppose to indicate a good year for growing crops.
"Wassail" comes from the Old Norse "ves heill" — to be of good health. This evolved into the tradition of visiting neighbors on Christmas Eve and drinking to their health.
In Norway on Christmas Eve, visitors should know that after the family's big dinner and the opening of presents, all the brooms in the house are hidden. The Norwegians long ago believed that witches and mischievous spirits came out on Christmas Eve and would steal their brooms for riding.
Norwegian graveyards flicker with candles as loved ones are kept in mind during the holiday season.
At 5 pm church bells peal. Fullest day of year. People in traditional finery. After service, big family dinner. Bowl of porridge with almond for kids. Bowl left for nisse. Joining hands and caroling around tree. School groups do this all over town. A knock on the door. The Julenisse with a sack full of gifts asks "Are there any good children here?" After presents, it's coffee and cakes.
White is the color of Christmas in Norway — not only the whiteness of the snow, but the white lights used for decorations and the white candles that light the tree on Christmas Eve. You won't see a colored light anywhere.
Norway's capital, while the most interesting sightseeing stop in the country, doesn't feel very much like Christmas. Its streets are decorated, with locals not ready to rely on the Julenisse out shopping. With global warming, it is typically bare and wet (the cold comes and stays after Christmas these days). But wintry wonderlands are commonly just inland a bit with higher altitudes. The ice rink in the town center is a lively spot for people watching. The local subway zips anyone interested in some skiing or sledding into the nearby hills and up to the famous ski jump. Weekends are lively with Christmas markets, otherwise precious little. There are lots of Christmas concerts.
Drøbak, a small town 20 miles south of Oslo, is famous for two things: locals sank a Nazi war ship in the narrow straight it fronts...and it's Norway's self-proclaimed capital of Christmas. Still, Drøbak feels like any idyllic town on a fjord. It just has a passion for promoting Christmas and selling the notion that it is Santa's postal code. The Julehus, a converted church, overlooks the town square. It is filled with red Christmas elves and holiday handicrafts designed by Eva Johansen and her hard-working crew. The local restaurant serves all the traditional meals with the fire over-looked by impish elves and Julenissen. Down at the marina the director of the tourist office grows a scraggly beard and wears his julenisse outfit and scatters mail everywhere. They claim to receive 1,000 pieces of mail addressed to Santa Claus each year. They actually mail back a card with a holiday greetings to each piece of mail and the particularly heart-tugging letters get a small present in the mail.
Enjoying a Santa Lucia event in a small town senior day center, I felt how Christmas in Norway is celebrated with a unique intimacy and a Scandinavian flair for community. Santa Lucia processions are led by a young Lucia wearing a crown of lights. This home has housed widows and seniors for over 200 years and today the kindergartners are bringing on the light in more ways than one. The children baked the traditional Santa Lucia saffron buns — a treat both bringing back distant childhood memories and kicking off life-long memories for these kids. It's with small rituals like this that traditions survive and stay strong from generation to generation.
Taking their cue from Santa Lucia, Norwegians — cozy in their homes — brighten their long dark winters with lots of candles, white lights, and greenery.
Valerie Griffith is the co-author of Rick Steves' Christmas.