Spice up your Christmas with These Norwegian Traditions

Karin Twist

As someone who’s celebrated Christmas both in the US and in Norway, I love to talk to people about the differences, and most of all how peculiar Norwegian Christmas celebrations are.

Norway was, up until a few years ago, constitutionally Lutheran, so we have all the Christian holidays off work and school. Nobody knows what Pentecost is, but we sure are happy to have that random Thursday in May or June off school and work. For Americans, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas season and all its accompanying decorations and music, but in Norway we celebrate Advent. What does this mean, practically? I’ll use my mother as an example, because she’s the master of decorating for any occasion, even the weird ones. On the first Sunday in Advent (which was the 2nd of December this year), she puts out all the Advent decorations, which are traditionally lilac or purple. She also has a Advent candelabra with four candles (one for each Sunday of Advent) and one by one they are lit, accompanied with a song:

During Advent no trees or plastic Santas are put up, and they won’t be put up until the 23rd (though putting them up earlier has become more common recently). That’s also when all the red Christmas decorations get put out, particularly shit me and my sisters made out of toilet roll cores and pine cones 20+ years ago. December 23rd is known as “the night before the night.” This is because in Norway, December 24th—Christmas Eve—is the big celebratory night. So on the 23rd, you cozy up with your family and watch the national broadcaster NRK and their special “night before the night” programming. One particularly weird tradition is watching a short comedy clip from the 1960’s about an old woman’s New Years celebration with her butler and four imaginary guests. They tried cutting it out one year in the 90s and Norwegians very nearly took to the streets. You’re probably curious, so here you go.

This video is watched by around two million Norwegians every Christmas, out of the approximately five million people in our frozen Nordic piece of the world.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, Norwegians are weird about their traditions. This has of course negative sides as well (such as blatant racism and a rise of right wing politics), and might create conflicts when someone marries and carries different traditions with them to the marriage. This is particularly true with the Christmas Eve “feast.” Norway was, up until about 60 years ago, a pretty poor country. Were it not for dinosaurs that died millions of years ago and became oil, we would probably be like Sweden now, and who wants that?

Anyway, because of said lack of cash, winter was pretty rough around those parts. So Christmas food was usually the cheaper cuts, and mostly smoked or salted to preserve it for as long as possible. And this is where family conflict comes in. Because there are very geographically specific foods, and if two people from different parts of the country get together, you might end up with a Christmas food showdown. I’m from the west of Norway, where it’s traditional to eat smoked or salted lamb ribs with potatoes and mashed rutabaga. The ribs are boiled for hours and they are hella delicious. But yeah, it ain’t fancy. My husband comes from a family that usually has deer for Christmas, in the form of a roast. Others have pork rib, boiled cod—and some crazies have Lutefisk, which you’ve probably heard of and yes: it’s nasty. Me and my husband have compromised. When we’re with his family, we have deer, with mine we have lamb ribs, and we alternate the days by year. (As mentioned, it’s the 24th, Christmas Eve, that’s the big deal. So the other dish is cast to the 25th, which is a much lesser day, Christmas-wise.)

And what do we do on Christmas Eve, then, you ask? Well, it starts in the morning when children enjoy what’s in their Christmas stockings (and when I say “children” I mean me, at least when we’re at my parents house.) We eat the goodies inside accompanied with a screening of the Cold War-era Czech movie version of Cinderella that has, you guessed it, become a tradition for Norwegians. We love it so much we devoted 7.5 million Norwegian kroner to digitally restore it. After Three Wishes for Cinderella, some go to church (some because they like it, most out of guilt), while others just lounge around until it’s time for porridge. We eat rice porridge with a scalded almond in it. Whoever gets the almond in their porridge wins a marzipan pig. You might think I’m making this stuff up, and that most Norwegians don’t do this. Well, you’re wrong.

After several hours it’s time for dinner (not too late though, probably around 5:00 or 6:00pm; we’re not French!). Everyone dresses up, and we eat our regional delicacies of choice (this year we’ll be with my family, so it’s lamb), and then dessert, which is the cooled rice porridge made into a pudding by adding whipped cream and raspberry sauce. It’s delicious! There is a scalded almond involved here too, so you have two chances to win in one day. Might be a chocolate Santa in the evening, though, instead of a marzipan pig.

After dinner, we relax and wait for Santa. Because yes, Santa comes personally to every house, but politely, through the front door. He might sound and smell like your uncle, but it’s definitely Santa! He gives out a couple presents to each person, then leaves the rest to be distributed by a designated person in the group. And that’s the rest of the evening: opening presents, eating candy and cakes, and having a jolly time. After Christmas Eve comes “Romjulen” which is the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Most people have the time off (the two days after Christmas Eve are national holidays anyway) and just hang out with family.

You could say Norwegians are obsessed with Christmas and it’s traditions, and you would be right. I, at least, can’t wait to eat some lamb ribs and rutabaga, and I hope to nearly choke on a scalded almond!