It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
That’s right it’s Christmas or, as they say here in Norway, Jul. (Yup, this is the word that inspired the English “Yuletide,” making it another pretty easy one for English speakers.)
As we were getting ready for vacation, Christmas was starting to come to Oslo, with large swathes of Karl Johans blocked off where they were going to build a Christmas market. By the time we returned, the Jul season was officially in full swing, with not only Julemarked (Christmas markets) popping up around the city, but also Julekaffe, Julebrus, and yes, even Julepølse.
So, other than eating special Christmas hot dogs, how do Norwegians celebrate the season?
Having spent (the beginning of) December in Prague we are a little spoiled when it comes to Christmas Markets. No, Prague markets don’t have the carousels of German ones, but they are everywhere, and they do come complete with plenty of mulled wine. 🙂
Being so far from the city center in an area without many places to walk to, wandering through Christmas markets is not a daily experience as it was for many people I knew in Prague. But although they aren’t all right outside our door, there are actually several Christmas markets in Oslo, of all different types.
Our first weekend back, we decided to check out the market at the Norwegian Folk Museum, which is only open for two weekends in the beginning of December. While we were there we ate some grilled mushroom sandwiches (so good!) and special Christmas bread and watched some Norwegian folk dancing by elementary-aged children (with a visit from Santa, of course).
Over the next two weekends I hope to visit a couple more—including the indoor Christmas market at Youngstorget. (December in Norway is COLD, so a market in heated lavvus sounds brilliant.)
I think I was about 8 when I first read about Sweden’s Santa Lucia “Christmas” celebration. (It’s really a solstice festival more than a Christmas one, but children’s books tend to oversimplify and at any rate, it is part of the Christmas season…) I always liked the image of the angelic little girl with candles on her head ushering in the light, even if I didn’t really understand what it is was about. But by the time we’d moved to Norway, I’d largely forgotten about it, and certainly didn’t think that what I thought was a purely Swedish festival would be celebrated here as well.
To some extent, I was right. Santa Lucia is not nearly as popular here in Norway as (I think) she is in Sweden. But about three weeks ago, questions started popping up in the international mom Facebook groups: What is my kid supposed to wear for Lucia, and where can I buy it?
Even if most adults don’t celebrate it, Lucia is big in barnehage. Not that a bunch of toddlers really get it (mine was mostly focused on the “muffins”) but they do look cute parading in, dressed in white and carrying their candles, while the Santa Lucia song plays in the background. (Perhaps in other barnehage they actually sing the song but the kids in ours are too young and haven’t learned the words to any holiday songs yet.) Once they are done with their song, the lights come on and everyone enjoys a cup of tea or coffee and some lussekatter, a saffron-infused bun made especially for December 13.
“So what’s the deal with the Christmas pig?”
Julepølse wasn’t the only thing that attracted my attention during that first grocery shopping trip back in Oslo. As L and I walked by the bakery contemplating whether to stop and get a latte, I noticed another peculiar site: the bakery’s display of marzipan pigs.
That night we were having coffee with our Mexican/Norwegian neighbors (she’s from Mexico City but has lived in Norway for many years; he’s from western Norway) when I asked about this strange sight. Despite their many years (including raising children) in Norway they weren’t exactly sure what the story was, but they did offer one little clue: the Norwegian “Santa Claus” lives in a barn.
See, in Norway, there are two versions of the jolly ole elf. (And one of them isn’t so jolly…) You see the American Santa pretty frequently—in fact, he even made an appearance at the Norwegian Folk Museum’s Christmas Market. But you also see plenty of special elves—what Norwegians call “nisse.”
Originally nisse weren’t strictly associated with Christmas—they were spirits who helped care for (and ensure the prosperity of) farms. In order to keep the rather tempermental nisse happy, the farmers would put out a bowl of porridge with butter for the nisse on Christmas Eve. In the mid-nineteenth century, he started bringing the family gifts in return, entering through the front door (not the chimney) on Christmas Eve.
These days it is the family that eats the rice porridge on Christmas Eve. Inside the porridge a single almond is hidden and if it ends up in your bowl you win—you guessed it!—a marzipan pig.
What are your favorite winter holiday traditions?