Far over in Norway’s distant realm,
That land of ice and snow,
Where the winter nights are long and drear,
And the north winds fiercely blow,
From many a low-thatched cottage roof,
On Christmas eve, ’tis said,
A sheaf of grain (julenek) is hung on high,
To feed the birds o’erhead. Continue reading The Julenek (Christmas Sheaf)→
Traditional Pepperkaker Cookies. Folks often hang them in their windows.
Julebrød (Christmas Bread). It’s a kind of raisin bread.
Traditional Jul Candle. The number of branches representing the number of kids in a household.
12th-century Stave Church
December 7, 2014. We returned from the States to find that Christmas had sprung up overnight in Oslo. But not in the screamingly obnoxious American way, where every conceivable surface is plastered in a Crayola kaleidoscope of shiny ornaments, Santa Claus effigies, and tinsel. Here in Norway, they take a more subtle, elegant approach. No one clutters their yard with inflatable reindeer or animatronic tableaus depicting the North Pole. In most stores, you’d be hard pressed to find much more than a wreath or a few wrapped presents in the window. And I’ve not spotted even one colored strand of lights.
In a country with less than six hours of daylight at this time of year, white light — and lots of it — is the predominate holiday accent. Bright strands festoon most of the main shopping streets and a few window boxes, while most homes feature a white paper star in each window, or a lit candelabra. Every restaurant and store advertises their open hours by placing lanterns lit with real candles outside their front door. Candles cover every available surface inside, too, and I’m constantly surprised that the sounds of the season aren’t punctuated more by the sirens of fire engines.
Natural decor is big, with birch logs and bark being used for candle holders, carved ornaments, and wreaths. Shoppers tread over doormats made of fresh evergreen branches that release the spicy scent of pine throughout the store. The florist stalls in the city square stock enormous clumps of real mistletoe and centerpieces made of arctic lichen and heather. And my absolute favorite custom is the Julenek (Christmas sheafs) — bundles of red-ribboned wheat for the birds that you’ll see staked in many front yards. According to legend, if you sweep away a circle in the snow beneath the Julenek, the birds will dance around it at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Probably one of the best places to experience Christmas traditions is the outdoor Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Folk Museum). At any time of year, it’s a great place to see an incredible array of Norwegian folk architecture, but at Christmas, it’s more than magical. You can ride in a real sleigh, watch costumed folk musicians and dancers perform, eat buttered lefse (Norwegian potato flatbread), tour traditionally decorated, ancient log-cabin homes, attend a Christmas service in an unbelievably gorgeous medieval stave church, and shop for hand-knitted sweaters and other awesome gifts at the annual Christmas market.
My favorite purchase this year was an enormous Julebukk (Christmas Goat). A legendary beast, the Julebukk possesses a checkered past, apparently having begun life as one of the two goats who ferried the Norse god Thor across the sky. Later, after a stint as a mischief-maker who accompanied young pranksters during wassailing, the Julebukk reformed himself and began delivering Christmas gifts to children. Eventually, he was replaced by the Julenisse (Christmas elf), but you’ll still see him grace the tables of holiday gatherings.
A little more about the Julenisse. The closest thing that I can liken him (or them) to is a garden gnome. One gentleman explained to me that the nisse live in houses and barns. If you treat them well, they’ll protect your home and do your chores, but if you don’t feed them and are a lazy farmer, they’ll become hostile, pull tricks on you, and may kill your animals. Apparently, the Julenisse is a special elf (or group of elves) who wear red hats and expect to get fed on Christmas Eve in exchange for gifts.
My personal brush with the Julenisse occurred last year during my first trip to the folk museum. While waiting in line for the cash station, I was approached by what looked like a giant, red-robed Father Christmas holding a big wooden spoon. (The Julenisse is apparently a shapeshifter and can morph to look like Santa when a more universally commercial figurehead is needed.) He spoke to me in Norwegian, and the lady behind me translated, “He wants to know if you’ve been a good girl. If you have, he’ll give you porridge to eat, but if you haven’t, he’ll hit you with the wooden spoon.” I opted for the porridge, of course, but later the lady told me that as a child, she thought the sticky, rather tasteless stuff was almost a worse punishment than the beating … and on that note … Merry Christmas, kids!
December 3, 2014. Thank God, our last trip toting giant piles of crap on a plane has come to a close. In mid November, I had to head back to the U.S. to wrap up lots of final details for our move, including finishing our cats’ inoculations, finalizing our wills (cheery subject, that one), and making arrangements for our condo care while we’re gone. (Big shout out and much thanks to Scott, who is our lifesaver and property manager!) Continue reading The Move: Round II→
November 10, 2014. Nightly walks to detox after long days at work have given us a decent introduction to our neighborhood. We’ve scouted out the local watering holes — lots of quaint bars and pricey restaurants in the area — and determined that anything related to American-style burgers is the latest hot trend. Even McDonald’s boasts a “New York Burger,” whatever that is (never really thought of NY as the beef capital of the U.S., but okay ….) Continue reading My Frogner Neighborhood→
November 8, 2014. Voyeurism saved my life during my first week in Oslo. Adapting to a new job (construction), which was quite different from my previous career (museums), made each day pretty doggone draining. A real pick-me-up on the way home was staring out the windows of the Trikk (the electric tram above) and into neighboring homes to get a good look at Norwegian interior decor. Continue reading Hop on the Ikea Bussen!→