Norway, Christmas in

Norway, Christmas in

When Christianity came to Norway, its inhabitants abandoned some old beliefs and practices and adapted others to the new religion. Over the centuries remnants of ancient pagan beliefs concerning midwinter magic entwined themselves with Norway's developing Christmas lore and customs.

Yule

Some researchers believe that the ancient Norwegians, along with the other peoples of northern and central Europe, celebrated a midwinter festival called Yule. Moreover, these writers propose that a number of midwinter customs connected with this festival lingered on for centuries after the coming of Christianity. For example, old European beliefs concerning visiting Christmas ghosts and other supernatural figures may have been rooted in ancient ideas about the return of the dead at Yule. The midwinter rides of the Wild Hunt may also have grown out of the lore surrounding Yule. Some writers trace the origin of the Yule log back to the great bonfires lit for the Yule festival. The brewing of Christmas ale may also date back to ancient times. Lastly, some writers suspect that the Scandinavian Christmas mascot, the Yule goat, first kicked up its heels during the old Yule festival.

Old Customs and Superstitions

A number of old Norwegian Christmas superstitions and customs come from the ancient belief that spirits haunt the long, dark nights of the Christmas season. According to one old folk belief, the spirits of the dead return to their families on Christmas Eve. Folk custom suggested that, upon retiring, living family members leave out a plate of food so that the spirits of the dead could also join in the Christmas feast. In past times Norwegians believed that evil spirits were particularly active on Christmas Eve. Men in rural areas banded together on that night to practice a custom known as shooting in Christmas. Together they tramped to each house in the village and saluted it with a volley of gunfire. According to old folk beliefs, the sudden, explosive noise frightened away evil spirits. Keeping a Yule log or a blessed candle burning in the hearth all night also warded away witches and other evil beings. Moreover, in past times rural Norwegians painted tar crosses over doors at Christmas time. These crosses kept evil spirits from entering.

Another old superstition warned against doing any work that involved the turning of a wheel during the days surrounding Christmas (see also Twelve Days of Christmas). For example, spinning with a spinning wheel or carrying loads in wheeled vehicles were both considered unlucky. Old folk beliefs taught that at the time of the winter solstice the circular actions involved in these tasks indicated an illfated impatience with the slow turning of the wheel of the sun. These old superstitions and customs faded away in modern times.

The Julenisse

The traditions and lore surrounding the Julenisse, or Christmas elf, can also be traced back to ancient times. Unlike many old Norwegian Christmas traditions, however, the Julenisse lives on in contemporary folklore and customs. Some folklorists suspect that the Julenisse evolved from ancient beliefs in ancestral spirits who visited their old homesteads at Christmas time. Contemporary lore teaches that the Julenisse lives in dark corners of Norwegian homes. For most of the year this magical being dozes and dreams, although when awake he keeps a watchful eye on household doings. The Julenisse becomes more active around Christmas time. Then he will use his magical powers to cause household mishaps if not appeased with a bowl of porridge. Like his Swedish cousin, the Jultomten, the Norwegian Julenisse brings the family's Christmas gifts.

Preparations

Many Norwegians incorporate Advent calendars and Advent candles into their Christmas preparations. Selecting the family Christmas tree is also an important element of Christmas preparations for many families, as is giving the home a thorough cleaning. Families often bake a wide variety of cookies and breads during the days preceding Christmas, and some even brew special Christmas beers (seealso Christmas Cake). In past times people believed that all Christmas cleaning, baking, slaughtering, and brewing should be completed by St. Thomas's Day, December 21. In the old days people also prepared for Christmas by making batches of candles. Although modern Norwegians no longer need to rely on candles for light during the long winter nights, candlemaking is still a popular preChristmas activity.

In old Norway the Peace of Christmas began on St. Thomas's Day. Towns designated special watchmen to ensure that peace and friendliness reigned during the holiday season. The Peace of Christmas also extended to animals. Hunters and fishermen removed traps and snares during the holiday season. This kindliness towards animals lives on in the custom of erecting a Christmas sheaf for birds and other small animals to feast on.

Christmas Eve

Church services are held around five p.m. on Christmas Eve. Those who attend return home to a sumptuous Christmas dinner. Popular main dishes include roast pork, sausages, and mutton. Many people also serve lutefisk (boiled codfish previously preserved in lye), a tradition surviving from past times when Norwegians abstained from eating meat on Christmas Eve. Like the Danes, Norwegian families also serve a dish of rice pudding with a single almond in it. Whoever finds the almond in their serving of pudding will have luck in the coming year. Other favorite Christmas desserts include crème caramel and cloudberry cream.

After dinner, some families take out the Bible and listen to one family member read the Gospel passages describing the birth of Jesus (see Gospel According to Luke; Gospel According to Matthew). Then the family gathers around the Christmas tree, joins hands, and sings Christmas carols. To the relief of many impatient children, opening gifts comes next. Before going to bed many families make sure to leave out a bowl of pudding for the Julenisse.

Christmas Day

Church services are also held on Christmas Day. The day's main event, however, consists of a lavish Christmas buffet. The meal may include pork ribs, meat patties, a selection of cold meats, herring, trout, salmon, codfish, cheese, fruit, cloudberry cream, bread, and cake. Adults also enjoy beer and aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor, with the meal.

Some people practice an old custom called Julbukk, or "Christmas goat," on Christmas Day. Groups of costumed children and adults walk through their neighborhood entertaining householders with songs in exchange for treats. These groups may bring a goat with them, or someone may impersonate a goat and this animal's typically unruly behavior. Sometimes these costumed goats discipline misbehaving children by butting them. If two costumed goats meet, they often entertain onlookers by engaging in a play fight (for similarcustoms, see Mumming).

Related Days

In Norway the Christmas season is peppered with saints' days and other related celebrations. Many Norwegians celebrate St. Lucy's Day on December 13. In the past, however, most Norwegians understood the Christmas season to start on December 21, St. Thomas's Day.

Norwegians also celebrate St. Stephen's Day, December 26. In the past bands of men rose before dawn and galloped from village to village singing folk songs about the saint. These robust performances awakened householders, who then refreshed Stephen's men with ale or other alcoholic beverages. Today one can still see bands of young men, often in traditional costumes, singing folk songs from door to door on St. Stephen's Day. Many Norwegians spend the day visiting with friends and family members.

Norwegians greet New Year's Eve with a fresh round of noisemaking and parties. On January 6, Epiphany, the star boys roam the streets singing Christmas carols. The Christmas season ends on St. Knut's Day, January 13.

Further Reading

Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Norway. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1970. Hubert, Maria, comp. Christmas Around the World. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Patterson, Lillie. Christmas in Britain and Scandinavia. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard Publishing Company, 1970. Sechrist, Elizabeth Hough. Christmas Everywhere. 1936. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: (Click on "Language," "English," "History, culture, geography, recreation," then scroll down to "Christmas in Norway.")
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003