January 11, 2017. It has long been a dream of mine to enjoy a European Christmas with my family. In fact, I often find it hard to fully revel in the privilege of living overseas when my friends and family can’t share the experience with me. Since this may be our last winter in Norway, and because the past several months have been quite rough personally, Matthew and I decided to splurge and spend all of our frequent flyer miles to bring my mom, sister, and niece to Oslo. Nothing like a family Christmas to hold the blues at bay.
Fair warning: I can totally understand if you’re bored silly by the idea of reading about someone else’s Christmas. But since this was the achievement of a lifetime goal, I’m recording all the little details here for posterity’s sake as part of my memories book. Feel free to continue following along if you’d like to see how a couple of Americans appropriated Norwegian customs into their family holiday….
To begin with, our entire apartment got a liberal coating of Christmas, Norwegian-style, to give my family a sense of how different seasonal celebrations can be in another country. Up went the following key components: a birch wreath on the front door, a Julenek (Christmas wheat sheaf for the birds) on the terrace, and a Julebukk (Christmas goat) and trollhassel (curly witch hazel branch) in the entry foyer.
Fresh holly, pine boughs, red roses, amaryllis, and other bulb flowers brought more live nature into the house, always a big theme in Norwegian holiday décor. Next we bedecked the tree itself with traditional straw ornaments, paper stars, red mushrooms, and pigs (symbols of good fortune). And then we shopped like maniacs for all the ingredients necessary to make the typical Norwegian Christmas foods that I planned to serve.
The family finally arrived the day before Christmas Eve. To get the party started, we dressed as Julenisser (Christmas elves) and met everyone at the airport. Yup, we got a lot of weird looks. But the payoff was seeing my family’s jet-lagged faces burst into laughter when they finally recognized us. And later, I got what I consider to be a supreme compliment when a Norwegian man tapped me on the shoulder to tell me, “That’s a lovely Christmas outfit you’re wearing.” I’m choosing to believe he meant that honestly and not sarcastically.
After a two-hour nap, my family felt ready to see the sights, so we did a quick run through the Jul i Vinterland Christmas Market for some shopping, sausage tastings, and a few cups of gløgg. Then we promenaded along Aker Brygge, the ritzy wharf development right along the harbor, to view the elegant Christmas lights. Dinner found us at Rorbua, where we partook of some traditional holiday foods like pinnekjøtt and ribbe. Being as they’re not big fans of pork or lamb, my family nibbled these warily. But they loved the salmon and pronounced the reindeer “surprisingly delicious,” so I consider this a victory.
As I expected after such a long flight, everyone slept quite late the next morning. Good thing, because it took about 50 minutes for me to soak, cook, and wrestle my first batch of traditional Norwegian porridge to the correct consistency: somewhere between creamy and sticky.
I finished it off by dropping a whole almond — blanched to make it virtually invisible — into the slop before ladling breakfast into bowls. According to custom, the lucky person to find the nut (my mom) got rewarded with a jolly marzipan pig, an emblem of good fortune in the coming year. Other side dishes included brunost (brown cheese) on Julekake (a kind of cinnamon raisin bread), and gravlaks (cured salmon) on knekkebrød (a cracker made from seeds and whole grains.) End result. No need for lunch.
We finished our breakfast just in time to head to the Domkirke, Oslo’s Lutheran Cathedral, for a 1:00 p.m. Mass. My mom had picked the earliest service in order to hear the boys’ choir perform, and they didn’t disappoint. We all even attempted to sing along to the familiar Christmas tunes using the Norwegian hymnal, but our poor pronunciation started everyone giggling, so we reverted to English eventually. Afterwards, we strolled along some of the streets to see more of Oslo’s Christmas displays before heading home to get dinner going.
According to family tradition, our Christmas Eve supper started with oyster stew, followed by Swiss fondue, topped off with a tipple of our usual Corpse Reviver cocktails (it’s a long story.) We followed up dinner by watching some American Christmas classics and an odd, disco-era TV special that plays every Christmas Eve here in Norway.
Not even remotely Christmasy, it’s like an LSD-fueled crossover between a ballet, the Ice Capades, a circus, and the musical “Cats.” We’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it’s called, or even what it’s really about, except that it features a sly wolf and a suspicious mother goat who’s kids seem to be getting kidnapped for cash (supposedly the story is a Grimm’s Fairy Tales knockoff.) But the costumes and makeup are fascinatingly psychedelic, and after a few Corpse Revivers, who’s able to follow the plot line anyway?
Midnight found us engaging in our usual corny traditions of reading the Christmas story and singing carols. (We’re one of those goofy families who likes to go through the entire songbook on Christmas Eve.) But this year we introduced a Norwegian custom to the mix — we had each member of the clan take a turn lighting real candles on the Christmas tree. Ideally I’d have loved to dance around the tree like Norwegians do, but I need someone to teach me the songs and steps first. Maybe someday….
Christmas morning I subjected everyone to my first attempt at making another typical Norwegian breakfast — waffles flavored with cardamon. Thankfully everyone slept in again, because it took me a half hour just to crack open all the pods and crush the seeds to a powder. We finished eating barely in time to get dressed and head off to a matinee of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Let me explain. Seeing a movie on Christmas Day is another family tradition. And, we’re all rabid SW fans, except for my niece McKenna, who somehow never got the memo and has never watched any of the films. Still, she grudgingly came along to see what the fuss was all about.
I especially wanted everyone to experience the movie at the Colosseum, the largest movie theater in northern Europe. The main salon sits underneath a huge dome, and for the pre-show spectacle, a “live” space battle between The First Order and the Rebels played across the curved ceiling. I have no idea how the theater got access to such great CG footage, but it created an immersive environment similar to a planetarium. We all geeked out over it, and if you’re interested, watch my sister’s video clip here.
The film’s Norwegian subtitles also got a “thumbs up” from the family. Except that other audience members repeatedly turned around to give us the “big eye” during tense moments because we kept inappropriately cracking up at the translation of “Full speed!” as “Full fart!” (What can we say? We’re 12-year-old adolescents at heart.) Anyway, my niece is now a SW convert, although some of her enthusiasm may have been generated by the scene where Adam Driver goes shirtless. But at least she and Ru enjoyed it enough to ham it up with some of the theater props afterwards….
That night back home, I served a late dinner of roast duck with cherry sauce, root veggies, haricots verts, and lavender crème brûlée. (French cuisine seemed a safer bet with my family than lutefisk and other typical Norwegian holiday foods.) And then we ransacked our stockings and opened gifts before heading off to bed.
The next day, we caught a train to Gothenburg — Sweden’s second largest city — so that the fams could get a chance to experience another Scandinavian country. A late start meant an early-evening arrival with only a couple of hours remaining to blitzkrieg the incredible Christmas market at Liseberg amusement park. Since our first priority is always food, we made time for a really terrific dinner at Liseberg’s Wärdshus, then caught the end of the ice show, followed by fireworks, and the Scandi design market. A short but sweet visit.
The next day, we leisurely wandered through the historic Haga neighborhood, stopping long enough to consume the world’s largest cinnamon buns during a fika (coffee break) at Café Husaren. We then worked off our carb overload by hiking up Risåsberget Hill to Skansen Kronen, an old fortress with a phenomenal view out over the city. Lunch found us at Feskekôrka (“fish church”), where kneeling in thanks for the mouthwateringly fresh seafood seemed totally understandable. And across the street, we discovered the Boulebar, dedicated to the French ball game similar to Bocce. Matthew and I have spent many fond hours tossing the boules during our travels to France, so we gave lessons on how to play … and then promptly had our asses handed to us on a plate by newbie McKenna.
The train trip back to Oslo that evening proved entertaining for everyone. Not only did we amuse (and possibly annoy) our compartment companions by being stereotypically loud Americans while playing a game of Head’s Up!, but we got a front-row seat to a Border Patrol “raid.” For the first time ever when crossing from Sweden into Norway, our car was boarded by officers, who asked to see our bags. Our souvenirs passed inspection, but a group of guys in front of us got busted for their wrapped Christmas presents — which included fireworks, bows and arrows, and a small rifle. Sorry fellas, I guess the pretty paper didn’t fool anyone.
I’m assuming the fireworks were for New Year’s Eve, as setting them off at midnight is a big Scandinavian tradition. And I’m also assuming that the men were bringing gifts of hunting equipment to family or friends in Norway, since hunting is a way of life in both countries. But both nations have incredibly strict firearm laws that require intensive permitting and the transportation of guns in a locked safe. Clearly, these men had violated the rules, so their weapons were confiscated and they were escorted off the train at the next stop. (For more information about how Sweden handles its gun control, read this interesting article by an American hunting enthusiast.)
Back in Oslo, we had one more day together before my family had to head home. And fortunately, it was a snow day. So we all boarded the T-bane (metro/subway) and headed up the mountain above Oslo for some sledding. Getting off at the end of the line revealed the kind of wintry landscape that my family had originally hoped to see in Norway — trees bowed with snow, feather-sized flakes still coming down, and knee-deep drifts to remind everyone that they weren’t far from the Arctic Circle. Enough coated the ground to allow for an impromptu snowball fight, something we don’t get to indulge in much in our home state of Kentucky.
The downhill trek from the train stop to the sled rental office can be a bit challenging, so we equipped my mom with crampons and walking sticks — and really they’re a good idea for anyone not born and raised with skis on their feet (Norwegians claim this inheritance.) My mom enjoyed the hike, but sensibly elected to wait by the fireside at Frognerseteren Restaurant while we all rented sleds next door at Skiservice Kjelkeutleie Sledges. For about $20, you get a sled and helmet, and the opportunity to take the Korketrekkeren sled run as many times as you like. (To hear about Matthew and my virgin run down the slope back in 2014, check out my post, Sledding on Christmas Day.)
About Korketrekkeren (Corkscrew.) The name’s a bit misleading. Perhaps “Monster Moguls” or “Tushi Tenderizer” might be more appropriate. While you do indeed take hairpin turns at speeds of around 25 mph (40 k/h), you’ll also encounter so many bone-jarring bumps that you’ll probably be walking like a cowboy the next day. Remaining seated throughout the entire experience is highly unlikely, however, since getting launched airborne at several points along the way is guaranteed. Not to mention that your steering skills will be put to the test trying to avoid trees, cliff edges with no guard rails, and the bodies of fellow sledders that litter the pathway. (To get a feel for the fun, watch the cute “Death Sled” video created by some visiting Brits who clearly have a flair for the dramatic.)
For the above reasons, I elected to go last in our lineup. My hope was that I could act as the cleanup crew for my family by sweeping their incapacitated carcasses out of the way before they became true roadkill. Fortunately, they all survived their first run, no blood shed, although red spatters at certain points in the snow showed that not everyone had been so lucky. And when we got to the bottom of the hill, we had to marvel at some of the survivors. One Chinese tourist had made the run wearing a tulle Dior skirt, a Louis Vuitton bag, and a pair of Prada Mary Jane’s. A true fashion risk taker.
We took the downhill plunge three times before hunger set in, so we met up with my mom for a quick meal at Kafe Seterstua, Frognerseteren’s cafeteria-style restaurant — a great place for traditional Norwegian food like meatballs, moose burgers, and reindeer kebabs.
My mom filled us in on her afternoon, which had apparently included a conversation with the Minister of Defense, who’d brought his kids for a sledding trip. That’s one of the many cool things about living in a small capital city like Oslo; you never know when you might brush shoulders with ministers of parliament, famous athletes, or even the royal family. (Matthew and I passed by King Harald and Queen Sonya not long ago on a stroll through the palace park.)
With soreness setting in, the sledders in our group headed off to SALT for the equivalent of a Scandinavian sweat-lodge experience. SALT itself is a nomadic art project currently located along the Oslo fjord until October of 2018. It’s made up of giant, A-frame structures meant to resemble fish-drying racks, common in northern Norway. Some are used for concerts and temporary exhibitions while others house four bars and three saunas, two of which can be privately booked. (The third is the huge, public Sauna Árdna — one of the largest in the world. It occupies an entire A-frame and allows up to 120 people to bask in the heat on stair-stepped risers while listening to musical performances or watching movies. We haven’t tried it yet, but we’ll keep you updated.)
We’d made an online reservation for the private Sauna Naustet, and although we arrived late, the barkeeper kindly let us stay until closing time. The heat and beer were just what we needed to ease our aching muscles. And the experience was the perfect way to end my long-dreamed-of European Christmas with my family. Another item check-marked off my bucket list. And some great memories to cherish and counterbalance the heartbreak that awaited us just around the corner.
PS: Much thanks to Ruthie and McKenna for their photos — I spent too much time cooking and not enough time “capturing the moments” on film!