Forget about presents, Santas and Michael Buble’s Christmas Special. My favourite things about Norwegian Christmas are the taste of roasted reindeer, the smell of myrrh incense and, most of all, the tradition of lighting candles on the family graves. There is nothing more peaceful than seeing a snow covered churchyard at night with hundreds of candles flickering by the gravestones. And as our minds tend to soften the edges of memories with time, I seem to have forgotten how freezing cold it can be.
Norwegians practically schedule their Christmas Eve around their grave visits. It needs to be carefully timed, as daylight is scarce. Even in the very south the dusk starts about 3 pm. You ideally want to come after early mass or in between the masses, to hear the church bells as you light the candles. My mother, husband, son and myself were ready with a basket of specially lidded grave candles and no less than three lighters to be sure that the procedure would go smoothly and that no fingers would be sacrificed. This year, the snow was not a problem, but rather a layer of hip-breaking ice, which neither gravel nor salt seemed to make any safer. Like my father before us, my mom and I insisted that we go to all the graves – in three different graveyards – including five generations on my father’s side all with the same name and distant great grand aunts, starting with my grandfather’s cook who became like a grandmother for us, and who nobody else light a candle for.
Things were going swift as snow and nobody had broken any limbs or split any nails, until we got to the third grave in the second graveyard, where all lighters refused to function. This is what happens when one is in double-digit sub-zero temperatures with additional North Sea wind factor. My son tried to use a nearby grave lantern to light a candle when a compassionate gentleman came by on his way from mass, offering us his left over matchboxes. (Two used boxes glued together, one for the new matches, one to put the used ones, bless the care and frugality of the old…) My son thanked him profusely. ‘Team Grave-candle’ was in the race again. Between gusts of wind my lad de-gloved to light the first match, which died immediately. Our little group squeezed closer together, one holding the candle, one the match box, one cupping the match and one ready to slam on the lid, while all tried to shade for the freezing wind. Almost success, though at the last moment, the candlewick got a gust of wind and died.
Suddenly, all my childhoods Christmases came back me. My sister and I in our choir uniforms (with awful synthetic blouses which were ice cold in the winter and didn’t breathe in the summer), stomping our patent leather shoes in the snow. My dad insisting we go to all the graves, never mind the cold. Him telling us that here lies so and so, your great grand so and so, married to so and so and son of so and so in that branch of the family. Then, after the candle was lit, we were supposed to stand in quiet respect while we remembered the ancestors we had never met or could not for the life of us recall, as all we could think of was how long it would be until the grave lighting torture was over.
Back in the last churchyard, by our family grave with all the Linaae’s in a row, we were running desperately low in matches. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s story, we saw the flame flicker and die in front of our very eyes. My son was at this point beyond saving the old matches in the lower matchbox compartment. There is only so much one can take before the fingers stop working.
With only a couple of matches left, we managed to complete our mission. The time of quiet reflection was admittedly less than brief before we all as one took off and let the candle flicker as they may. At least we had done our Norse family duty to our ancestors. May they rest in peace until next year.