News of Norway, issue 5, 2000
Christmas is filled with traditions, rituals and customs based in part on a number of old superstitions that live on to this day. Old and young, friends and family draw close together through several weeks of festivities. We become more reflective and caring.
In ancient times, Christmas was a mid-winter sacrificial feast - a festival of lights marking the transition from the dark winter to spring and summer. Christmas was a time for celebrating the harvest, fertility, birth and death. In the 900s King Haakon I decided that the heathen custom of drinking Jul (yule) was to be moved to December 25th, in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Gradually, the pagan feast was Christianised. The name Jul was retained, but the holiday was dedicated to Jesus Christ. Christmas is thus a mixture of ancient heathen and more modern Christian traditions. Today, Christmas is the most popular celebration of the year in the Christian church and for families and friends.
Christmas in the old days
In the old days, preparations for Christmas were extensive. Everything from making Christmas presents to slaughtering the food was to be done at home. Farms were self-sufficient operations, and the animals slaughtered before Christmas were expected to last the rest of the year. On larger Norwegian farms, five to six pigs, seven to eight sheep, two cows and a couple of calves were killed. The date for the slaughtering varied, but the best time was before Christmas on a rising moon. Farmers believed that the meat was better and went further if the slaughtering was timed perfectly.
Women were responsibility for preparing the winter feast and did most of the cooking. The men did the heavy work, chopped wood, sharpened knives and did the butchering. Most of the meat was salted and cured, and some was sealed with a layer of fat. Nothing went to waste - after the butchering was done it was time to make candles and soap from the fat.
The children looked forward to the baking, just as they do today. Bread, flat bread, lefse and at least seven kinds of sweet biscuits were baked. When the beer was brewed and the butchering and baking done, the family worked together to clean the whole house. Everything needed to be clean and shiny for Christmas. Men chopped and brought inside enough wood to last the entire holiday. Oat sheaves were put out for the birds, as the families believed that, if the birds sang and chirped loudly, it would be a good year. In the barn, the animals were given a little extra hay and feed.
The barn door was marked with a cross to keep evil spirits away, and the cross was also used as a decoration on bread, as a pattern in the butter or on the ceiling over the Christmas table. Menus varied from district to district, but everywhere the table was laden with the best and finest food the household could offer. All the people living on the farm - servants, family and guests - ate Christmas dinner together. Often women left the food out until the day after Christmas in case spirits and 'little people' should visit the farm during the night. The nisse could not be forgotten, otherwise ill fortune could befall the farm.
Everyone went to a morning church service on Christmas Day, and in many places people raced each other home. While Christmas Eve was spent at home with the family, Norwegians socialized on Christmas day, visiting with friends and neighbors, near and far.
ebukk, groups of children and adults in costume with a bukk (billy goat) in the lead, were a common sight. In exchange for singing and entertaining, they would be given goodies and treats. In many districts, it was customary to race from farm to farm, with the race often including as many as 30 horses at a time. After many days of feasting, the 13th day of Christmas marked the end of the holidays. It was common to 'drink Yule' and eat up all the leftovers. Anything left in the baskets hanging on the Christmas tree was to be eaten.
The most distinguishing characteristics of the Norwegian Santa Claus, Julenissen,
are his red stocking cap and long white beard. The nisse
wears knee breeches, hand-knitted stockings, a Norwegian sweater and a homespun jacket. To keep warm, he wears a heavy fur coat, as Norway can get very cold in the winter. The nisse
is jolly and happy, but can also be stern. According to old superstition, the he was the original settler of the land, and 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.
Make no mistake, the Norwegian Julenisse is real. He comes to the house with a sack of presents on Christmas Eve. When the Christmas porridge is put out in the barn on Christmas Eve, it is gone the next morning. It is best to stay on his good side. If you forget, he can stir up a lot of trouble.
At 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve all the churches begin to ring in Christmas. The churches are never as full as on this day when young and old alike attend the Christmas Eve service dressed in their holiday finery. When the bells ring as the people filed out and the lights flickered in the dark night, the peace and joy of Christmas settled over the land. Christmas dinner awaited church-goers as they arrived back in their warm, decorated homes. Food traditions vary, but a porridge meal with an almond hidden in someone's bowl was on most menus.
Not everything has changed with time. Now, before the family sits down to dinner, a bowl of porridge with butter, sugar and cinnamon has to be put out for the nisse. Afterwards the family listens to the Christmas Gospel and then joins hands to walk around the Christmas tree, singing carols. The children anxiously await the knock on the door, announcing the arrival of Julenissen with his sack full of gifts. Before he takes the presents out of the sack he always asks 'Are there any good children here?' While shop-bought presents have gradually replaced the homemade presents that used to be common, warm thoughts and feelings accompany the treasures that are shared by families.
After the presents are opened and the excitement subsides, the family sits down for coffee and cake. A feeling of peace and tranquility gradually takes hold. Outside, the snow falls gently from the sky. Quiet and darkness envelop the snow-covered landscape and the Norwegian Christmas night.