I grew up in Norway in the 70s and 80s. Back then, we didn’t have any seasonal celebrations in late October or November; it was all about Christmas. And Christmas—or Yuletide, rather—was a long drawn-out ordeal: Weeks upon weeks of gradually intensifying preparation, followed by a week or more of celebration, followed by a week of getting rid of leftovers.
A lot of the traditions I grew up with have strong connections to Christianity. But the holiday is still called ‘jul‘ (pronounced exactly like Yule). The church attempted to rename the celebration ‘Kristmesse‘ but that never caught on. ‘Jul’ is easy to pronounce; ‘kristmesse‘ has 3 syllables and involves a lot of angry sharp consonants. So the old name stuck, because tongues are lazy. But the name, and the tradition of gathering together to eat a lot of food, are quite possibly the only aspects of old Norse yule tradition still alive today. The tradition of decorating a tree and walking around it probably didn’t start until the 1800s. Most of our carols are from the 1800s.
Norwegian families tend to celebrate this holiday a LOT, regardless of whether or not they self-identify as Christian. My family was atheist/agnostic going back at least 3 generations, but our yuletide traditions were elaborate and my mother in particular took them very seriously.
Yule is the time, more than any other, when we remember and honor our beloved dead. The ancestors we honor are not our distant precursors, but the ones who have passed recently: parents perhaps, or grandparents, or our grandparents’ parents or grandparents. Most family memories don’t go back any farther than that. We remember them and honor them by doing what they did, eating what they ate, singing what they sang.
It’s all about tradition. And something becomes a tradition through repetition. Traditions don’t have to be ancient to be valid. Do it once, it’s an experiment. If you like it, do it again. By the time you’ve done it three times, it’s become part of your tradition. Keep it alive if it makes sense.
This is a time of preparation—of ourselves, our homes, our worlds—to get ready for Christmas. Many Norwegian families celebrate the Sundays of advent in the home by lighting candles in the evening. The candles are left to burn for a while and then extinguished, creating a nice tiered effect. The lighting of the candles is frequently accompanied by a poem or song, which associates each candle with a different virtue. The 1st Sunday of Advent is also typically when ‘Christmas streets’ would open – city streets decorated for the season.
December 1-24: Julekalender
Like the Germans and other northern European cultures, Norwegians give their children a calendar with one window to open or one tiny gift to open every day from the 1st until the 24th of December. My mother’s mother made mine—an embroidered runner with 24 hoops, and every year until I was a teenager she would give us a bag of 24 tiny meticulously wrapped presents that first my mother and then I would tie to those hoops.
Scandinavia also have special radio or tv programs (usually made for children) airing one episode per day between December 1st and Christmas eve. This tradition started in Denmark in 1964, and is still going strong all over the region. In 1979, “Jul i Skomakergata” (“Christmas on Shoemaker Street”) became one of the most successful series that Norwegian public broadcasting (NRK) has ever sent. This julekalender tells the story of an aging shoemaker trying to keep alive his father’s traditions and livelihood in a rapidly changing world. It was designed to be old fashioned, and it’s become so old fashioned that some of the episodes feel awkward now, but I still enjoy it for what it is and was. And you can stream it for free from NRK:
December 13th: Santa Lucia
This is technically a Swedish holiday, but it’s very common in Norway also. In the Scandinavian tradition, the Catholic saint Lucia is a child-spirit of innocence and light who arrives when everything seems darkest with the promise that the sun will return. The celebration involves a procession of children dressed in all white with red ribbons as belts, carrying candles and food in the dark and singing the Lucia song. (Which happens to be sung to the tune of O Sole Mio.) The oldest and most coordinated girl wears a crown of candles on her head and is Lucia. The food consists of hot chocolate and yellow sweetbuns called lussikatter.
Julenissen singular is a being that travels all over to bring presents to everyone, and is roughly equivalent to Santa Claus. However, a julenisse is not a unique human being, but rather a specific kind of nisse (gnome) whose job it is to make sure Christmas happens every year, and the word can be plural. Per the folklore, every community has a family of julenisser (yuletide gnomes?) living close to them, usually out in the forest or something. Instead of going to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap, a Scandinavian child who believes in julenisser might go out into the forest and leave a letter for their local julenisse in a tree stump. (Nowadays, it’s far more common now to send a letter through the mail, particularly after 2016’s julekalender “Snøfall” where sending letters to Julenissen by using regular mailboxes was a central plot device.) Very much like Santa, Julenissen singular shows up overnight on the 24th and is quite secretive. He is generally an older male with a beard, and is seldom seen. However, the plural community of julenisser don’t mind being seen at all, and they tend to be active in the late afternoon early evening. Julenisser plural come in all ages, genders, and body sizes and are easy to recognize by their red clothing, knit top hats, and rosy cheeks. They tend to bring children healthy and sensible gifts, like nuts and oranges and socks. They also tend to collect money for charities, so that ALL people can have something nice for Christmas.
These are “Christmas workshops” or “nisse-workshops” for children to make arts-and-crafts yuletide decorations and homemade gifts. Schools, churches, scout groups, and other organizations tend to host these. When I was little, we’d go to my mother’s mother’s house for juleverksted and not only make decorations but also help with practical tasks like canning beets, making liver paté, and polishing all her copper, brass, and silver. While we worked, she would tell us stories about ‘the old days’ when she was little, and those afternoons are some of my sweetest Christmas memories.
Dorullsnisser: Nisse-families made from empty toilet paper rolls [yes really]
Paper chain garlands
Paper heart baskets
Julebukker and straw stars
Risengrynsgrøt aka Nissegrøt
The ceremonial eating of rice porridge is a central part of a Norwegian jul for many families. The porridge made from rice and milk is served with sugar, cinnamon, and a ‘butter eye’–and one single blanched almond is hidden somewhere in the porridge. Whomever finds the almond wins a prize—traditionally it’s supposed to be a marzipan pig, but if no one in your family likes marzipan, make it something else. Note: if you have a barn or livestock, always put out a bowl of rice porridge for the nisse! This ensures a good working relationship with the nissefolk. And there are songs about the importance of feeding your nisse julegrøt – a favorite Christmas song with Norwegian children is “På loven sitter nissen,” an entire song all about a nisse eating porridge in the barn and defending it against the rats trying to steal it. (Yes really.)
The Christmas tree is an all-important centerpiece of Norwegian and other Scandinavian Yuletide celebrations. On the evening of the 24th, after dinner, everyone present will hold hands and walk around the tree singing carols before they get to open any of the presents gathered around the trunk. However: Bringing a real tree indoors for decoration too early will make it lose its needles. At my house, decorating the tree was frequently left until the 23rd, and frequently after the adults had a few tasty adult beverages. Traditional decorations are described in the song “Du grønne glitrende tre, god dag”:
You green and glittering tree, hello
welcome to you who we are so glad to see
with yuletide-lights and Norwegian flags
and at the very top a shining star
December 23rd: Lille julaften – Little Christmas Eve
Norwegian jul starts ‘for real’ at sundown on the 23rd. Many families have a tradition for what they eat for dinner on this night, and a staggering number of people watch “Grevinnen og hovmesteren” (known in English as “Dinner for One”). Even though the skit is set on New Year’s eve, the reason why this is such a beloved a Christmas tradition in Norway can be gleaned from the repeated gag:
“Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”
“Same procedure as every year, James!”
The 23rd is the last full day of preparations. for the holiday It’s also the last full day of work before Christmas for the vast majority of employees in Norway. Whatever you have not purchased by 2pm on Christmas eve, you will not be able to purchase until the 27th. So thinking ahead is crucial. And to rouse us children to help with the preparations, my mother and her mother would tell us kids: If the house is not clean inside and out by midnight on the 23th and every room decorated at least a little bit for the holidays, the nissefolk will get you. They’ll make the milk spoil, or the roast burn, or the pipes freeze in your upstairs bathroom, or your tv won’t play the last episode of the julekalender. But if you do your part and take care of your home, they’ll make everything turn out ok. Don’t mess with the nissefolk. Clean your house and decorate.
December 24th – Julaften
Christmas eve is the big celebration. Some families go to sundown church services, which typically happen at 3 or 4pm. My family didn’t go to services, but my grandmothers always called us kids in around that time anyway. It was bad luck to be outside in the dark on Christmas eve, they said. Something about spirits in the air—I don’t remember clearly, but I’m wondering if it was asgardsreien? Regardless, the result was that the streets quieted down and the whole town shifted noticeably into a different pace.
Dinner on Christmas eve is a big affair. At our house, there was always an appetizer, a main course, and dessert. Tradition matters, and people have very strong feelings about what should be the main course. (My mother’s family always had roast quail. My father’s family always had rib roast. What to eat for Christmas dinner was the catalyst of their first major argument. Their solution: venison.) The food should be fancy and plentiful, and it’s considered bad luck to not have leftovers.
After dinner, we hold hands and walk around the Christmas tree singing carols. Which carols and how many varies from family to family. It is typical that each person present chooses a song, but some families sing fewer, and some try to sing every verse to every carol that they know. Such was the case in my family when my grandparents were still young and fit – but my parents put a stop to that when my grandparents started feeling their age and my brother and I had acquired an annoyingly large repertoire of songs due to being in choir. Now, we decide ahead of time how many songs we will sing and make sure to choose songs that are fun for my nieces and nephews. Songs that are fun for the children include the one about the nisse eating porridge in the barn, and “Oh the fox scurries across the ice, and so we may sing the song of the shoemakers. [Now start hopping on one foot, hitting the bottom of your other foot with your hand:] Oh look at the shoemakers how they walk…” Only after the singing do we get to open presents. The presents one gets on Christmas eve are from friends, family members, etc.
Remember: before going to bed, you have to remember to put our food and drink for julenissen. If you have a barn, the food gets put out there. If not, put it by the fireplace or outside the door or wherever else nisse-logic dictates.
December 25th – Første juledag
The Norwegian word and concept of Christmas day is best translated as first day of Christmas. In families that are visited by the singular, invisible julenisse, julenissen usually arrives in the middle of the night between Christmas eve and stuffs a stocking with practical gifts and tasty but reasonably healthy treats. Now that I am older, i realize that the purpose of these treats is to serve as a pre-breakfast breakfast for the children.
Because on the first day of Christmas, there is only one meal: all day breakfast. Breakfast typically starts after church (in families that go to church) or somewhere around noonish in families like mine. This breakfast consists of:
Breads, crackers, rolls
Cold cuts, cheeses, jams
Oldfashioned Norwegian preserved meats like fenalår (salt-cured and dried leg of lamb), spekekjøtt (salt-cured ham), dried sausages of various kinds
Preserved fish dishes like lox, gravlax (salmon cured with salt, sugar, and herbs), and pickled herring
Cold scrambled eggs
Dried fruits and pickled vegetables
Leftovers from Christmas eve dinner
December 26th-New Year’s: Romjul
The second day of Christmas is still a day off for most people in Norway. Movie theaters, restaurants, and bars typically reopen on the 26th in the evening; most other places still stay closed until the 27th. The 26th is also the first day of the ‘romjul’ period—a period which is still sort-of-Christmas. This is a time for eating leftovers, visiting family and friends and helping them eat their leftovers, and also going shopping. Once retail stores reopen it’s typical to have huge sales. Children also sometimes go ‘julebukk’ during this time – dressing up like little nisser to knock on doors and sing Christmas songs for cookies, nuts, fruits, and candy.
New Year’s eve is celebrated much like in the States—except with do-it-yourself fireworks set off by drunken youngsters in a display that is one part delightful, two parts terrifying. Romjul technically and historically lasts until Epiphany on January 6th, but most people go back to their regular lives after New Year’s. And by the 6th, you’re supposed to be completely done putting yule away—tree taken down, decorations put away, no more leftovers.
Because if you haven’t tidied up by then—you guessed it: the nissefolk will get ya.