Christmas Traditions

December 23, 2015.  From Thanksgiving until Christmas, various nasty “epizootics” (my southern grandfather’s catch-all term for colds, flus, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other winter illnesses), had gripped our household, making it impossible to tackle normal holiday chores.  Six days before Christmas, we hadn’t even put up a tree, much less sent out a card or wrapped a present.  Panic set in, as I saw my last chance at a Scandinavian celebration slipping away.

Pocket Jul
Some Julekalenderen feature pockets that hold hidden surprises. Norwegians open gifts on Christmas Eve, so the calendar only counts to December 24.

My sole holiday decorations at this point centered around an Advent Lys (advent candle) and Julekalenderen (advent calendar).  Nuthin’ gets your blood pumping with holiday terror more than two seemingly innocuous bits of décor designed solely to remind you of how little time you have left until The Big Day.  The punctuality-obsessed Norwegians seem to delight in marking time, so stores overflow with hundreds of designs for these two holiday traditions (or torture devices, depending upon your point of view).

Jul Lys
My Advent Lys is double-sided. For the terminally anxious, you can count down to D-day. For the optimistic, you can count up.

In the U.S., we tend to think of advent decorations as evergreen wreaths bristling with four red or purple candles, lit one by one each Sunday until Christmas.  While you’ll see this type in Norway, the more modern version of the Advent Lys looks a bit like a wax ruler numbered from 1-24.  The goal is to let it burn an hour or so a night, from one date to the next, until there’s nothing left but a blackened nubbin by Christmas Eve.  Which pretty much symbolizes my energy level by then.

My paper Julekalenderen. Note the open panels that reveal illustrations of Christmas goodies hiding beneath.

But if this flambeaux, which basically amounts to a burning fuse, doesn’t act like a cattle prod to goad you into a flurry of shopping, baking, and decorating, there’s always the Julekalenderen to mark the passing days.  From postcard- to poster-sized, these gorgeous paper calendars portray winter landscapes or holiday tableaus that are peppered with numbered hidden panels tucked into the scenery.  Open a door each day and behind it you’ll find images of toys, food, and other holiday expectations.  Of course, the 24th is reserved for the big reveal of the Holy Family, just in case you forgot “the reason for the season” amongst all the images of conspicuous consumption.

In 2011, at home in Chicago, I created this Julekalenderen for my niece. You hang it from the largest present, then start at the bottom, cutting off one numbered present each day in December.

The truly ambitious can purchase 3-D advent calendars, which come with pockets that allow the owner to tuck in a trinket for each day.  Some of these calendars take the form of ceramic sculptures resembling cute cabins, christmas trees, or stacks of presents with numbered drawers for holding candy or little gifts.  Others resemble garlands of stockings, mittens, or traditional Norwegian kremmerhus (paper cones).  I tried a version of this one year for my niece.  It was a Martha Stewart Living confection featuring a strand of presents that got snipped off one by one throughout the month.  As if Christmas Day isn’t pressure enough, imagine trying to find, wrap, string together, and mail out 24 thoughtful but tiny presents all before December 1st.  What was I thinking?

This year, Vidar, the wonderful gentleman who runs the yummy Club Macaroni near our jobsite, introduced me to the best version of this calendar I’ve seen yet.  His wife had filled 24 little envelopes with messages designed to remind him of the things that make him feel happy throughout the day.  December 1st was: “Seeing people smile.”  Vidar is an amazingly smiley guy himself, which is fairly unusual for the typically stoic Norwegians, so I understand why he’d be tickled to see his joy of life occasionally reflected in the faces of his stolid countrymen.  (Click on the photos below for bigger views and more side stories.)

Notice how light and airy the traditional Norwegian tree is, compared to the bushy ones back home.

Unfortunately, all of these calendars kept stealing my joy by reminding me of time’s march.  So on the Sunday evening before Christmas, Matthew and I headed out to the corner tree lot.  Last year, we’d taken the proprietor’s recommendation to buy a Norwegian fir, which lasts longest and smells strongest.  Consequently, it has therefore superseded the more traditional Norwegian balsam in popularity.  But this year, since we had so little time before the holiday, we decided to try the more old-fashioned spindly balsam.  Although it dries out quickly, it’s ethereally delicate and boasts widely-spaced rows of branches just perfect for displaying lightweight ornaments.

Note the traditional pigs, mushrooms, and real candles.  (Click on the pic for a bigger view.)

Toting the feather-light balsam home was a breeze, compared to the behemoth fir we wrestled onto the Trikk last year.  We quickly anchored it in the traditional, star-shaped, iron tree stand, then we decked it with customary Norwegian ornaments symbolizing good luck, such as the ever-popular pigs (for prosperity) and red-n-white poisonous mushrooms (maybe for longevity?)  But this year, in addition to electric lights, we clipped on 10 pinecone-shaped candle holders so that we could have a true candlelit Christmas Eve (complete with a fire extinguisher close by, in case of emergencies.)  Porcelain antlers and ornaments made of reindeer horn shaped like trees, apples, and Julbukk (Christmas goats) completed the picture.

Next, we hung traditional straw ornaments on trollhassel (curly witch hazel) branches and placed our wheat Julenek on our terrace for the birds.  Then out came the customary Norwegian Christmas nutcrackers that we’d picked up at flea markets.  Hand-carved, each resembles a Julenisse (christmas gnome, the equivalent of Santa) who sports a cap that advertises which province he hails from.  And as a final touch, we liberally scattered the usual paper cutouts of nisse and Sancta Lucia on every window ledge, then hung our stockings on the fireplace.

In truth, most Norwegians don’t practice the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace.  Having not brought our own stockings with us, we’d resorted to visiting Uff, our favorite vintage resale shop.  Here we’d purchased a used pair of the thick, patterned, woolen stockings (called strømper) that folks wear with knickers for skiing or don as part of their bunad (native costume).  I can’t tell you how many of our Norwegian neighbors rolled with laughter when they heard what we’d done with them.

Our handmade cards from Christmas last year and this year, courtesy of the “paper lab” at Norway Designs.

Another American tradition that’s only gradually gaining ground here is that of Christmas cards.  In the U.S., you can buy boxed sets or order your own personalized cards complete with family photos.  Not so in Norway. Usually you’ll only find single cards rather than boxed multiples.  So this year as with last, we headed over to Norway Designs — a fabulous shop that features Scandinavian products, including a terrific paper store where you can make your own cards.  Of course, assembling, addressing, and mailing 80 cards has taken us some time, so most of you can expect to receive your lovely handmade memento sometime around mid-March.

Anyway, on the evenings that we weren’t addressing cards, we went shopping and wrapped gifts.  Thankfully, most stores stayed open until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. (they typically close by 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.) to accommodate procrastinators like us.  The only trick was wrapping the gifts.  Here’s the rub.  As near as I can tell, Norwegians have three options:

Pictured are gifts from Hay in tell-tale pale blue paper, from Carlings in their signature “denim” envelope, and from Jack Jones in their trademark green-striped envelope.

A)  The store gives you a “gift envelope” or wraps the gift for you.  In both cases, the paper is in the store’s signature color or pattern, presumably so that the recipient knows that you’ve spent serious cash to shop at said retailer.  Kind of ruins the surprise element, though.

Oddly, the self-wrap counter at the bookstore has the widest variety of paper and ribbons. Most stores just have one or two options.

B)  You can wrap the gifts yourself right in the store at one of their wrapping tables, which comes complete with paper and tape, though scissors are rare and gift boxes are non-existent.  The only problem is that, without a box, a gift can end up looking exactly like what it is — a bicycle, toy truck, etc., badly wrapped by Edward Scissorhands.

An example of the typical tape available to those of us who like to wrap our own gifts.

C)  You can bedeck your gifts at home, where you’ll have plenty of time and room to strategically map out how you’ll wrap a present with no box.  (Or, if you’re like me, you’ve hoarded every box ever mailed to you so that you have options come Christmas time.)  Beyond the box, the biggest hurdle is finding tape.  Clear cellophane is rare and not very sticky, anyway.  More common is printed tape, which requires even greater strategizing to avoid having your gift look like Frankenstein, with randomly-patterned “Band-Aids” haphazardly criss-crossing seams.

A few of our color-coordinated Christmas wrappings this year. Yeah, I might need to see a doctor about my obsession.

In the end, since I am as critically anal about holiday wrapping as I am about Christmas cards and decorations, I opted for a themed, color-coordinated look in mod red, black, white, and butcher paper, to go with our Scandi apartment colors.  Thank goodness the holiday is almost over.  I need a nap.  Or some OCD medication.

5 thoughts on “Christmas Traditions”

  1. I love your Christmas sharing! You did fabulous…
    Where could one in the US buy a tree this shape?
    Happy holidays 2020


    1. Thank you so much; I’m glad you enjoyed my Christmas story! Regarding finding a similar Christmas tree in the US, this is a tricky question. The tree known as a “furu” in Norwegian is what Americans refer to as a Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), and they’re plentiful at most Christmas tree lots. However, be prepared to get what looks like the brush used to clean a toilet.

      The problem with trees grown in the US is that they’re trimmed, pruned, and groomed throughout their life to be extremely bushy with stiff, short branches per American tastes. While these bristling branches hold heavy ornaments better, the decorations coat the tree like armor rather than dangle like delicate earrings. Norwegians are much more “au naturel” in their landscaping preferences, allowing Christmas trees to keep their natural, open shape.

      For an easy-to-find tree in the States that is more open and ethereal like a true “furu,” I’d go for a balsam fir (Abies balsamea). Matthew and I usually either comb the tree lots for spindly specimens, or we call ahead and pre-order an “untrimmed, natural” tree. If you buy a balsam in the States, be prepared that you will need to keep it outside and in the cold until just a few days before Christmas. American central heating will dry a balsam out within a week, and it will begin losing needles and having its branches droop within a few days.

      If you want your tree to last for a few weeks — and if you live in the Midwest, or on the East Coast or in the American South — we find that an untrimmed, natural Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) handles American indoor heating better than a balsam and achieves an open shape similar to the “gran” (Norwegian spruce) that we had our first Christmas in Norway. Fraser firs are quite common and plentiful in most tree yards, although be prepared for the hefty price tag of $80+. Again, it’s safest to pre-order an untrimmed, natural one to avoid the toilet-brush shape.

      Much less commonly you can occasionally find a real Norwegian spruce (Picea albies) in some tree yards, but they, too, are often overly trimmed to look like stumpy bushes, not trees. You can also order a sapling from most tree nurseries, but it will likely be small and heavy because it will be potted in preparation for being planted in the ground.

      If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you can also ask for an untrimmed Noble fir (Abies procera Rehd.) These are gorgeous, stately trees with stiff, sturdy branches that grow in well-separated layers that allow ornaments to dangle as they should. (They remind me a little of a Chinese pagoda or a layered wedding cake.) They’re the closest to the Nordmann firs (Abies nordmanniana) that you can often get in Norwegian tree lots, and are what is most common in Germany.

      All of this is probably way more info than you need, but since I’m enduring another coronavirus lockdown in Chicago right now and feeling really homesick for Norway, I enjoyed the chance to research and reminisce about the topic. 🙂


      1. Thank you for all this helpful info!! That was so thoughtful. I plan to apply much of your info to my tree search. There is a tree farm that I might check out!

        I will let you know how it goes.

        Covid is a challenge for sure. Stay safe and healthy!!


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