December 25, 2016. I dunno what happened this year. Between our heavy work schedules, and our little trip to Switzerland, we had a hit-and-run holiday. Slam, bam, and it was over, a distant wreckage of wrappings in the rear-view mirror of my memory. I guess lots of folks feel this way, but I’m a bit peeved with myself for letting it happen. I so wanted to squeeze out every … single … last … drop … of the Norwegian Christmas experience while we’re here. Which led me to start the season by wildly careening from one event to the next, with hardly a breath to spare for “living in the moment.”
Things began with a bang one Saturday after work. Matthew and I did a drive-by of three Christmas markets in about four hours: the holiday fair at the DogA (Design and Architecture Center) for one-of-a-kind pieces handcrafted by local artists; the Norwegian Folk Museum market for more traditional foods and gifts; and the Spikersuppa Winter Festival for everything in between. We maniacally culled most of the few remaining items from our Christmas list. But after that initial burst of speed, we stalled out.
Yeah, I know, I know. Calendar-wise, this year gave us three extra days to get stuff done during the road rally that stretches between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But I guess we let this little fact lull us into a false sense of security that we had oodles of time left to take the lead. It’s not like there weren’t warning flags on the impending collision with Christmas. Suddenly, the sidewalks seemed filled with dogs dressed in Norwegian Christmas sweaters. Julbord revelers took to serenading people in the streets. And the Trikk donned its annual holiday attire — we even managed to catch a ride one day on the historic trolley, which was filled with a nisse-hatted brass band playing Christmas carols.
But somehow, even with all these reminders, we still fell behind. Sure, we hauled home a Christmas tree the following Sunday. But it sat parked on the terrace for almost three weeks, waiting to be ushered inside. No presents were wrapped and shipped out. No Christmas cards got mailed. Not a single decoration made its way out of the box and onto our walls and tables. Maybe it was the ridiculous work schedule. Or maybe it was the seasonal blues; we were bummed that my family couldn’t come for the holiday as we’d hoped. Plus, our internet had been down for weeks, which meant that we’d had no access to Christmas music or movies to rev up our mood and spur us into action.
Needless to say, three days before Christmas, we finally got our butts in gear. In one day, we decorated the tree, wrapped all the gifts, and made FedEx much richer. The next day, we stuffed, addressed, and stamped all 60 of our Christmas cards and sent them racing on their way. The third day, we put the pedal to the metal and zoomed through the meat, fish, and grocery stores to assemble all the ingredients for Christmas dinner. By that night, I felt like we were in the final lap, just in time for what’s known as “Little Christmas Eve” here in Norway.
Since Norwegians unwrap gifts and have their big supper on the 24th, the 23rd is more akin to our American Christmas Eve. Folks typically eat a light family meal, decorate the tree, prepare for the big day, and watch the TV special “Kvelden før kvelden” (“The Eve before The Eve.”) It’s a compilation of comedy sketches, cooking programs, holiday music, and “special moments” with celebrities and politicians, all woven together by TV personalities, who chat with guests and reminisce about favorite Christmas traditions. If you have the time and can bear with the occasional bits only in Norwegian, you can catch the full 2.5 hours here on NRK’s website. (Or you can just watch the fabulous first five minutes to see breathtaking views of Norway and get a taste of the show.)
I’d really been looking forward to the program, especially as I’d heard a lot about a particular comedy bit called “Dinner for One.” Matthew and I had been out walking a few months ago, and had struck up a conversation with a Norwegian couple, who’d claimed that watching the show was a national Christmas tradition. Since we’d never heard of it, they went on to describe the storyline but kept laughing so hard during their recitation that I didn’t really understand the concept. Something about an old lady, her drunk butler, a tiger rug, and the repetition of the phrase, “Same procedure as every year.”
I became even more intrigued when, while touring the Hadeland Glassverks weeks earlier, I’d seen a bunch of partyware themed with the catch phrase and key characters. Clearly, the show was a Big Deal. So I Googled it when I got home, and found out that it’s a black-and-white, 18-minute-long, one-take sketch dating back to 1963. It features only two actors, British comedians May Warden as “The Countess” and Freddie Frinton as “The Butler.” According to Wikipedia, although the clip never caught on in Britain, it’s a huge holiday tradition in Scandinavia and the Germanic countries (probably because it’s based on easy-to-understand physical comedy and features only a few oft-repeated English phrases.)
So on “Little Christmas Eve,” I took a break from pinballing around my kitchen to watch the show. Here’s the basic premise: for her 90th birthday, the Countess is hosting a celebratory dinner, attended as usual by her four male “friends” — who happen to be long dead. The poor butler is forced to play their parts by going around the table and taking on their characters. He clicks his heels and speaks in a German accent for Admiral von Schneider, then adopts the high voice and mincing manners of Mr. Pomeroy, and so on … you get the idea. Unfortunately, the Countess also expects his roleplaying to include proposing the typical toasts and imbibing for each guest as the multi-course meal unfolds. The aged and unsteady-to-begin-with butler repeatedly angles for a reprieve as he ushers out each dish and its companion liquor, asking the Countess, “Same procedure as last year?” To which she replies, “Same procedure as every year, James.”
By the end of sketch, he’s downed 16 drinks, tripped over the tiger rug multiple times, served the meal in increasingly creative ways, and snuck in a surprisingly naughty nuance that I won’t spoil for you. If you’re interested, you can watch the YouTube video here (the intro is in German, but the show’s in English. And give it a few minutes; the story’s kinda slow at first.) While the story isn’t even remotely Christmasy, I can see why folks like it. It’s positively one of the most masterful pieces of physical comedy I’ve seen. And I can understand why the drunken theme might be quite popular in cultures known for, shall we say, their love of the bottle, especially during the holidays. Anyway, I enjoyed “feeling Norwegian” for a few minutes by joining the general populace in their annual Yuletide ritual.
But back to the holiday Grand Prix. Christmas Eve dawned at around 9:20 a.m. (remember, Oslo gets only about six hours of daylight this time of year). We groggily dragged ourselves out of bed and began pushing towards the finish line: Christmas Day Dinner. As usual, we’d invited the other “orphans” on our team to celebrate with us, and for me, it’s just not Christmas without a huge, blowout meal. Which meant cooking, baking, chopping, peeling, etc. for about 12 hours straight. By the time the evening rolled around, we had barely enough energy to toss back a couple of our annual Corpse Reviver cocktails and make a few family Facetime calls before collapsing into bed.
The next morning, we paused briefly in our efforts to open stockings and refuel with a truffle omelette. I’d never made one before, but I’d found a fresh truffle at the Italian grocer nearby and decided it might make a fun stocking stuffer for Matthew. (Along with some Italian sausage. For some reason, I thought it would be hysterical to start Christmas Day with the line: “Is that a sausage in your stocking, or are you just excited to open your package?”) Anyway, when I went to check out, the sales clerk explained that the little fungus “needed its diaper changed” twice daily, meaning I had to swap out the paper towel that swaddled the mushroom inside its plastic container. Who knew truffles required such care and feeding? But the effort proved to be worth it, as the omelette turned out quite well, especially after the truffle had been given a ritual bath in cognac.
Eventually both dinnertime and our guests arrived, and we all gathered in the living room to enjoy my annual batch of Swiss fondue and some hot toddies. I’d made my first-ever cauldron of glühwein, and we toasted in another airing of “Dinner for One” for our guests, who hadn’t seen the show. Then we retired to the kitchen for the main meal and far too many desserts, ending with a traditional Norwegian Kransekaker. And before I knew it, the holiday was over. Cue crying, frownie-faced emoji. Maybe next year, I’ll try thinking of Christmas less like a Formula One race, and more like a leisurely walk in the woods.