What is Christmas? The birth of a man called Jesus? Santa Claus on his sleigh riding across the sky? Piles of presents and overstuffed turkey? To me, Christmas is traditions and family and this year for the first time in a decade I had the great joy of spending it with my family in Norway and showing my husband what a true Scandinavian Christmas is all about.
Only a handful of innovations from Norway have reached the world throughout history, such as the humble paper clip and the cheese slicer. Likewise, there are but few Scandinavian words that have been adopted by the Oxford Dictionary. I would guess two: Smörgåsbord and Yuletide
The former means ‘sandwich table’ and is the Scandinavian version of an all-you-can-eat buffet. The latter means Christmas time, or juletid if you want to write it correctly. If you merge the two words, you get a julebord, which is a Scandinavian Christmas feeding frenzy of herring, unleavened breads, ribs, meatballs, cakes and sweets in a holy union, washed down with dark beer and an almost blinding alcohol called Akevitt. Though this may sound like a savage tradition, speaking of the season to be jolly, there is no place more Christmasy than Norway.
Even if the bible story happened in an arid desert, Christmas to most Westerners means reindeers, sleighs and snow – and Norway has it all. I mean the real thing. Our family’s traditional Christmas dinner is in fact reindeer, when we still can get hold of it. My son and husband were playing on a traditional stand-up sleigh or spark in the new snow, and it wasn’t a single day during our visit that we did not have to shovel the driveway at least once.
But what is so special about our juletid? First there is the darkness, which makes every candle shine brighter. Then there are the freezing temperatures, which makes coming inside so much more pleasurable or koselig as we call it. Then there is the white snow, which contrasts the starry skies and lays like a protective, forgiving blanket over the landscape. But what is most unique about our juletid is how the Scandinavian celebrations merge religious and pagan rituals, and incorporate folk legends and our own mythical figures.
Take Santa Claus for instance. Instead of the tall bearded man who looks like a vision of the almighty himself, we Scandinavians have the nisse. Julenissen is a small gnome-like creature who are said to live in people’s barns and stables. While the famers are asleep, the nisse takes care of the animals. In return he gets a bowl of porridge for Christmas. Therefore, Norwegian children do not hang stockings on the mantle, expecting Santa to squeeze himself down the chimney. They live near enough to the North Pole to know that there are no Santa’s workshop up there.
Of the many traditions I have missed, my favourite is when we all hold hands and sing as we walk around the Christmas tree. Some songs are about the nisse, others describe the bible story and the last one we sing, as we all stand still, is a praise to the earth and an acknowledgment that as older generations pass on, newer will come in their place. As a final reminder of this inevitable circle of life, every Christmas, Norwegian families put candles at the graves of our ancestors. The church yards become alive with twinkling lights for all those who came before us.
And then we go back home and eat some more reindeer…