We prepared to spend a quiet Christmas all alone in Oslo. By this, I mean that we’d been warned of two things: 1) absolutely everything is closed — even the grocery stores — from about noon on Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26th). And 2) Norwegians are quite private; Christmas Eve and Day are reserved for immediate family, so don’t expect an invitation to join anyone for the holiday. No problem, we did our grocery shopping Christmas Eve morning and scheduled Facetime with friends and family for the next two days.
We’d already purchased our ridiculously fluffy tree from the lot in Vigeland’s Parken, dragging it aboard the Trikk for a ride home to the amusement of several Norwegians. And we’d trimmed it with traditional Norwegian ornaments such as red ribbons, paper stars, pigs … and mushrooms — the red-and-white-capped variety known to scientists as Amanita muscaria, a relative to the deadly mushroom called the “The Destroying Angel.” I’m not quite sure how a psychedelic and potentially lethal mushroom came to symbolize Christmas. Guess it fits in the same resurrectional category as mistletoe, or maybe it’s because it has a festive color and grows beneath pine trees. But whatever the meaning, you’ll see it in most every holiday tableau, often being cuddled by a nisse (a Christmas gnome, similar to Santa and his elves).
The pig is another custom found in Scandinavia and Germanic countries, with the tradition being that the person who finds an almond in his or her rice pudding on Christmas day gets a marzipan pig symbolizing luck throughout the year. To me it symbolizes how much I overate during the holiday. The only things missing from our tree were the candles (we opted for a less flammable string of electric lights) and the Norwegian flag, which is commonly made into garland (I couldn’t find a strand anywhere.)
By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I’d already made persimmon cake and spicy pepperkaker cookies (for the nisse, of course.) As an appetizer, I’d also grilled up some pickled beets, parsnips, and fennel with warm caraway drizzle, and I’d made my very first batch of pickled herring slathered in horseradish, mustard, and sour cream. For dinner, I whipped up our usual family tradition of Swiss fondue, with the addition of Norwegian meatballs to the assortment of dippable foods.
And of course, to toast in the holiday, Matthew mixed a great batch of Corpse Reviver II cocktails, something my family has indulged in for several years now — it takes the edge off of all the “togetherness.” Accumulating the many required ingredients was a true labor of love, as we’d had to gradually acquire each item a little at a time with every trip through Duty Free. Those of you who don’t watch “Lillehammer” won’t know that in Norway, liquor is controlled by the government and sold only through state-owned Vinmonopolets (Wine Monopolies).
For each visit through Duty Free, an individual is allowed only one liter of spirits, two bottles of wine, and a six pack of beer. If you don’t buy tobacco, you can buy two more bottles of wine or another six-pack. But at the Vinmonopolets, there are no restrictions other than timing and taxes. On weekdays, you must do your shopping before 6:00 p.m., when the liquor stores close, or you’ll have to settle for beer at the grocery until 8:00 p.m. (No alcohol sales after 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays, and none at all on Sundays.) And on top of the 25% VAT that you pay for most goods, you’ll also pay an additional tax that is calculated based on the percentage of alcohol in the drink — the higher the proof, the greater the tax. Now you understand why shopping for liquor at the Duty (Tax) Free is like experiencing a bank run in the Depression. And why home-brewing (illegally) is so popular here in Norway. And why alcoholism can be an issue.
In any case, we curled up with our hard-won cocktails, put some holiday music on the Sonos, threw some birch logs on the fire, and ushered in the evening with Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, another of our Christmas traditions.